Artist Q & A: Vicki Smith
For the anticipated solo exhibition Ripple Effect by Toronto based artist Vicki Smith, we spoke with the artist about the significant role meditation plays in her art and life, the malleable identities of her swimmers, and the power of recalling a peaceful memory. Ripple Effect opens on Saturday November 18 at Bau-Xi Vancouver and runs through November 30, 2023.
Vicki Smith, The Sky Is Blue. Oil on canvas, Diptych. 60 x 108 inches.
1. You have been a longtime practitioner of meditation – can you talk about how this practice has affected your art? Do meditation and artmaking have an especially symbiotic relationship in your life?
Art is a meditation, for both the maker and the viewer. Ideally meditation will quiet our busy minds and allow us to focus only on the present moment. When we look at art and become so fully absorbed by the image that everything else falls away, that is meditation. While painting I can lose track of time and space and my thoughts will become so quiet that I exist only in the present moment, that is meditation. That is also a very good painting day! It doesn’t always happen that way and the struggle is real, but as with all forms of meditation, the practice is to continually return to the present moment whenever thinking gets in the way. I’ve had a formal sitting meditation practice for as long as I’ve been painting. They are one and the same now.
2. Your swimmers often have distinct faces and characteristics, yet viewers of all types consistently remark that they immediately see themselves in them. Can you comment as to how and why you think this happens?
The figures are never meant to be portraits, rather they are portals. I deliberately try to keep the figure anonymous enough that the viewer will recognize themselves. As humans we want to make sense of what we are looking at and we can only react to art from our own perspective life experience. When people see my swimmers they immediately relate to the act of swimming which then triggers a personal memory and a cascade of senses, and suddenly they are in the painting. Most people tell me about their happy dreamy memories of swimming. It's all about the viewer’s remembered experience.
Vicki Smith, May. Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches.
3. Your earlier paintings depicted swimmers in swimming pools. What made you decide to transition to lake swimming as your scene of choice, and do you feel any differently when you paint lake swimmers as opposed to pool swimmers?
The fact is I don't swim, so it's never been about the act of swimming for me. It's the elusive lightness of being that I'm searching for. Water, whether lakes or pools, has become a recognizable place for my figures to exist and a familiar place for the viewer to enter the painting and from there they can explore their own memories of floating weightless and free. The pool series from a few years ago allowed me to explore the figure from below, their heads becoming part of the broken reflective surface. They were very spiritual. The lakes on the other hand are viewed from above, which shows me the depth of the water and the layers of reflected nature on the surface. The figure is liberated between the sky and the earth. I am currently obsessed with the relationship of the figure to this wild water but painting is an ever-evolving process and change will come adding to my understanding of practical and spiritual realms.
4. To date, your works have all depicted female swimmers – can your paintings be viewed as having a thread of feminism through them that connects them?
I went to art school a long time ago when "the male gaze" was the only available view of the female figure. The art history books championed male artists and female role models were hard to find. I was quite angry at how misogynistic the art world was and I decided to quietly dedicate my career to challenging that assumed norm by being a woman painting women. It's been more than 40 years and I'm now starting to notice a quickening shift in gender recognition and equality. The inclusion feels very exciting. We can't change the past, but we can create the future.
Vicki Smith, Stillwaters. Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches.
5. The world as it is in our current time is far from peaceful in many respects - do you feel that art such as yours, having such an intimate and quiet focus, can have a significantly positive role to play in tempering the chaos?
I think that it’s equally important for artists to disturb the peace as it is to create peace. As a small gesture I hope that my work brings some solace to others. It’s a drop in the ocean, but peace and kindness have a Ripple Effect.