In the Studio with David Smith

In the studio with David Smith, a visual artist whose paintings depict natural forms and spaces on solid, wood panels. We met with David to tell us more about growing upon west Ireland, what inspired them to first pursue their artistic journey and their greatest influences.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

From a pretty young age I think. I’ve been drawing and playing music from a young age. It just continued to be something I did as I grew older and through my teenage years. It was inevitable that I would go to art college. But it started quite young. My father taught me guitar when I could hold it properly, and I’ve been drawing pictures of people and family members when I was young too.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I’m from County Mayo in the west of Ireland. I grew up in a small town called Castlebar and I also spent summers at my grandparent’s farm in the countryside. My father has been a musician most of his life and both my sister and myself picked up guitar from him. I was always messing with art materials from young and was most interested in art classes at school. Landscape has been there from early too. The rural Mayo landscape is quite dramatic and sparsely populated, with countless beaches, mountains, cliffs and lonely bogs and lakes for visual inspiration. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

The landscape of where I grew up was an early influence; my father being a working musician also meant that music was always in the house. I think generally having very supportive parents, like I do means so much. I was always encouraged from early so that helped. Going to art college opens your eyes to so much including new ways of making art/music/creative work, and of course the influences of your peers and teachers. I made a pact with myself that when I left art college I would never work in anything that wasn’t in the arts. I’ve held to that to this day. I’m not sure there was one pivotal moment, but perhaps many smaller moments. It’s a hard life to pursue and if you don’t have a deep love and need to do it I’m not sure how it can be done. As it stands now, I sleep and dream in images and sound and wake up wanting to make work. It fills my mind constantly. If the need to create is so all consuming, I must be on some kind of a right track.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

My painting has almost always followed the landscape to some degree. Even when I worked in a much more abstract way in college, the origin of that was in seeing and observing nature and the landscape. Thematically they do deal with environmental issues in an indirect way but also of creating a space where nature flourishes or more accurately, expresses itself. Today, looking around the world nature is very much in trouble, and these pockets of nature are under huge threat. I want the painting to express this in a quiet way. They almost always show no sign of man, but the treatment of the paint and the suggestions of decay and wear, suggest this threat. So under an almost romantic surface, there is a slightly darker heart. Having lived in Asia for many years also, I am interested in the influence of ink painting and in the principles of Chinese painting that are quite old. The most important one for me is ‘Spirit Resonance’ so work that expresses an underlying spirit, attention or connection to the nature of life and death.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

The works I make are very influenced by Zen, ink painting, photography and oddly enough, music and soundtracks. I’ve also written music in one form or another since I was a teen. Recently that has found a form in scoring short films I have made and am making. The focus of these is very much the landscape in all its sublime beauty, subtlety, horror, violence and decay. In a way I’m making music/film that digs under the painting and expresses their themes in another medium.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

The oppressive spaces and atmospheres of Asian megacities. Soundtracks, visual music, storms, pollutions effect on the sky.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

They are planned in the sense that the organisation of materials, space, subjects, sources, surfaces, light etc. is quite important for the all important ‘flow’ to happen. I want people to have a long-term engagement with the works. I want them to be extremely ‘look-able’ or to be open ended enough to encourage a wandering or drift in the mind. I almost never lock down particular locations or name them after places, because to me they exist in a ‘drifty’ state. Influenced by the past, the present, the previous painting and by 20 other things at any one point.

What events in your life have mobilize change in your practice?

Moving to Hong Kong was a big step in the direction of the work. I lived there for 11 years, and the influence of the space, the city, the history and the challenges to ‘nature’ have had a visceral effect on how I make work of all types and also what I want from it. There are certain parameters I impose in terms of scale. I rarely paint larger then 1 meter in any direction. I feel a loss of physical connection or intimacy once a work goes beyond this. If I can’t hug the painting, it’s become too big. They start to become more related to architecture when larger then this for me. This may be a result of living in tiny spaces in Hong Kong and then experience the out breath when I returned to Ireland almost 5 years ago. But the whole experience of that has very much shaped and forged my work.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

It really comes down to building a rhythm and flow state. If there has been a break in the practice for some reason, I need to build up the rhythm again, and sometimes have to discard the first few works that happen. But works speak to each other, and a painting is often a kind of answer to another painting. They tend to happen in groups or batches that flow together. In the last year or so, I’ve also made film/music pieces that respond to and extend the world of the painting. These works in turn feed into and actually inspire new directions in the paintings. Everything connects and creates a feedback loop within each aspect. A film/music work I made last year called ‘Eo Mughna’s Lament’ is currently screening at The Cannes Short Film festival and will see more exposure over the next year. It feels like the paintings speaking through another medium. 

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

Solstice Fires-Lake Shore-Night, a large painting of 2 fires burning on a lakeshore. These fire-based works are quite recent in the last year or so. They are one of the only ‘direct’ clues to the presence of man. They come from an interest in the core or elemental/visceral aspect of fire, its destructive potential and also its connection to spirituality, culture and history. In this case it echoes the bonfire’s or St John’s Eve celebrations here in the west of Ireland. These paintings are a way of connecting to here, without spelling out a specific narrative. The openness is deeply important to me, and the landscape itself actually tells the story of us.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

As the work I make is location fluid, and painted from no fixed position, I hope to have the chance soon to do some travelling and absorb locations I have never been too. Real physical engagement and walking in a new space and location are vital experiences that feed the desire to make paintings.