In the late 1990s, after his beloved wife, Marion, had a stroke, Gordon Smith began reaching out to a younger generation of artists on the West Coast. He and Marion would invite them to Sunday dinner at the West Coast Modern home that Arthur Erickson had designed for them, a house that seemed to grow out of the forest. Part of the ritual was to visit the studio in the out-building to see what Mr. Smith was working on; in summer, having a drink on the deck, and then sitting down to dinner, with Marion in a place of honour, and discussing art, life, politics, whatever.
“It was almost like family, really. I think of him as a spiritual father in a way,” says Ian Wallace, who became a regular attendee along with other artists that included Doug Coupland, Attila Richard Lukacs and Christos Dikeakos as well as collectors and philanthropists such as Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshi Karasawa. The ritual continued after Marion’s death in 2009.
“For me it was a bit of a lesson about how older people can renew their lives by refreshing friendships with the younger generations,” Mr. Wallace says. “He definitely got his second or third wind as an artist. ... In his latter years, he was working excitedly in the studio and doing the most beautiful paintings right up until the end.”
Mr. Smith was the dean of Vancouver’s artists, as Bruce Munro Wright, a former chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery board, put it. Painter, printmaker, host, educator, teacher in every way. Generous to a fault, exceedingly kind, if occasionally acerbic. The way he lived might have been the greatest lesson of all: Pay attention to the world around you, to the person in the room with you. Look them deep in the eyes and listen. Do the work. Spend hours in the studio – even if you are in your 90s, in your wheelchair, still suffering from an old war injury. Even if it’s Sunday. Or Christmas Day. And, above all, invest in the next generations.
Part of an influential group that flourished in postwar Vancouver, which included Mr. Erickson and artists Jack Shadbolt, B.C. Binning and Bill Reid, Mr. Smith outlived them all. “I stood on the shoulders of giants because these are all my friends,” he said of the group, during a 2015 interview with The Globe and Mail.
The end came peacefully on Saturday night, at home, where Mr. Smith died of natural causes. He was 100. It was the end of his life, but he lives on in the countless beginnings he helped inspire.
“Gordon deeply influenced four, if not five, generations of artists in Vancouver,” said Mr. Coupland, who also lives in West Vancouver and was a close friend.
“Gordon was basically an art school on two legs. He gave you a sense of freedom inside your head – he made you aware of what is possible,” Mr. Coupland continued.
“He found talent in every person he met and was a supporter of every creative soul he met. Who's now going to tell us we're terrific?”
Gordon Appelbe Smith was born in East Brighton, Sussex, England, on June 18, 1919. When he was a child, his father, who was an amateur watercolourist, would take him to see art at institutions such as the Tate and the British Museum. “So I was always interested in art,” Mr. Smith told The Globe in 2012.
In 1933, Mr. Smith moved to Winnipeg with his mother and brother (his parents had split up). He began studying at the Winnipeg School of Art (now the School of Art at the University of Manitoba) in 1937.
He also worked part-time at the design firm Brigdens of Winnipeg, drew illustrations for the Eaton’s mail-order catalogue and taught children’s art classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. That job in particular would help paint his path.
He served as an intelligence officer for Canada during the Second World War in Europe, beginning with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles before being transferred to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
On holiday in Vancouver in 1940, he met Marion Fleming. They married the following year before he was deployed to Europe. It was a real love match, an intellectual partnership.
“He always said that Marion was his best critic,” says Mr. Audain, who, with Ms. Karasawa, spent a great deal of time with the couple.
Mr. Smith was seriously wounded in Sicily in 1943 and recuperated in Tunisia, England and Vancouver. Back in Canada, he completed his high-school education. In 1944, he had his first solo exhibition at the VAG.
He enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), graduated in 1946 and began teaching there the same year.
“I love teaching and I’m not just making them into artists, not drawing and painting. I’m making them more aware, more creative people,” he told The Globe in 2012.
Teaching was integral to his work and life. In 1956, he joined the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, where, until his retirement in 1982, he taught future high-school art teachers, as well as people studying to be elementary teachers, who may have had little exposure to fine art.
“Most of them had very little confidence in actually teaching art,” says Paul Killeen, chair of the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists. “So I think it introduced thousands of teachers to the need to teach visual art and gave them the confidence to proceed with it.”
Mr. Smith curated the exhibition of children’s work for the VAG’s 1958 centennial exhibition 100 Years of B.C. Art. “The aim of child art education is to help the child discover the world around him and to express it in his own terms, not in the terms of the parent or the teacher,” he wrote in the publication.
After retirement from teaching, Mr. Smith spent more time making art, and that is when his work really took a leap.
“I do remember Gordon on more than one occasion saying, ‘You know, Michael, I never want to see anything I painted before I was 70,’ " Mr. Audain recalls. "I didn’t say anything; I just chuckled. But privately I thought yeah, he’s probably right.”
Mr. Smith established himself as a leading West Coast contemporary artist; a revered and respected painter whose often dense, abstracted landscapes were layered and energetic – a magnificent attack on the canvas and on the viewer’s senses.
“Every moment of his brush is an affirmation of life,” Mr. Wallace says. “So it’s not surprising that he lived to the ripe old age that he did.”
Even as Mr. Smith aged, he continued to paint for hours daily and to travel to look at art. New York and London were regular destinations as he re-upped his inspiration. He liked to say that he borrowed and stole ideas from other artists.
He was named to the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, and won the Governor-General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts. He received several honorary doctorates.
His works are in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Britain in London and the VAG.
When Canada House, which houses the Canadian High Commission in London, reopened after a major renovation in 2015, Mr. Smith was among those who attended, having made a large painting that was installed in one of the entrances. He was positioned next to it, in his wheelchair, and the Queen came over to speak with him.
Mr. Smith told The Globe that they spoke for about five minutes, about his war experience, and about the painting.
“He was delighted to have had a chat with the Queen about it,” recalls Mr. Audain, who had lunch with Mr. Smith in London afterward. “She said she was impressed that it was so big. And [Prince] Philip, seeing him in a wheelchair, demanded to know how he got up and could tackle such a big canvas.”
After retirement from UBC, Mr. Smith continued to teach, guiding students directly.
“When he worked with kids it was magic,” recalls Mr. Killeen, a former high-school principal and assistant superintendent in North Vancouver.
Mr. Smith championed, supported and, with some of his former teacher students, co-founded Artists for Kids in 1989, which raised money for art education by selling original prints. The Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation, established in 2002, runs the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art.
“When he taught,” Mr. Killeen says, “he would have slide shows and pictures of this gallery and that gallery and this artist and that artist, and I remember him saying wouldn’t it be wonderful if the kids could actually see the originals?”
At the Gordon Smith Gallery, which opened in North Vancouver in 2012, they can. “It’s not just easy art,” Mr. Smith said at the time. “It’s not just pretty paintings.”
In 2015, he announced that he would donate his personal art collection to the group trying to build a major gallery in West Vancouver, his home for decades, the model for so much of his work.
The collection of 60 or so artworks was a boon to the effort, but it is impossible to assign a number to his real legacy: the inspiration he provided to visitors to galleries all over the world, who would be wowed by his lush, often intense and dramatic works. But most significantly to the thousands of teachers he taught, and all of their students and all the people those students might have touched.
“Those seeds that he planted are going to continue to grow,” says Paul Larocque, president and CEO of Arts Umbrella, an arts education organization. “It’s really truly significant, and he will never be forgotten.”