Gordon Appelbe Smith, beloved and influential Canadian painter, printmaker, teacher, former soldier, member of the Order of Canada and namesake for a West Coast gallery dedicated to art education, has died. He was 100.
“We mourn the loss and celebrate the life of a true gentleman, artist, teacher and great Canadian,” wrote former Vancouver MLA Naomi Yamamoto on a social-media post on Sunday. Smith died Saturday of natural causes.
Born in East Brighton, England, in 1919, Smith moved to Winnipeg with his family in 1933, studied at the Winnipeg School of Art and the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University). He served as an intelligence officer for Canada during the Second World War in Europe, and was wounded in 1943.
His recuperation took him to Vancouver and he remained on the West Coast, settling in West Vancouver with his wife, Marion. She died in 2009.
He was mentored by Group of Seven co-founder Lawren Harris and became close to architect Arthur Erickson, who designed the Harris’s west coast modern home, set in the lush west coast landscape.
He had his first major solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1944.
Smith taught art at the Vancouver School of Art and UBC – and he painted. 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 Vancouver Art Gallery – whose efforts to build a new facility Smith had publicly supported. (“It’s so urgent. I like the old building very much, but it’s inadequate,” he told Vancouver City Council in 2011.)
He was named to the Order of Canada, won the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, and the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts.
As a teacher and philanthropist, Smith was always involved in art education. The Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists, which grew out of the organization Artists for Kids, and led to the construction of the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art. Opening in North Vancouver in 2012, it billed itself at the time as the only gallery in Canada dedicated to young audiences.
The opening installation featured works by Jack Shadbolt, Michael Snow, Gathie Falk, Ian Wallace and Ed Burtynsky.
“It’s not just easy art,” Smith said at the time. “It’s not just pretty paintings.”
He was also a strong supporter of efforts to establish a gallery in West Vancouver, where he had lived for decades.
“A city is known by its art, really, whether it’s Florence or New York,” Smith said in 2012. “We need a gallery desperately here.”
In 2015, he announced that he would donate his personal art collection to the effort.
“I think the collection should be kept in West Vancouver,” he told The Globe and Mail at the time. “I’m 96 for God’s sake; I’m going to die soon; I want to get rid of the bloody things.”
He loved the art he had collected, of course. But most of all, he loved to make it. Also to teach it and talk about it. He painted the forest around where he lived, the West Coast landscape, scenes he remembered from the war. He had a fascination for patterns, colour and lines; for exploring the dialogue between abstraction and figurative work.
In 2017, he had a solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery of the work he deemed his dark or black paintings, which referenced his Second World War experiences.
He was 98 at the time, and still making work. At the media preview for that show, then-VAG director Kathleen Bartels told a story about hosting Smith for a tour of his own show and another at the gallery and then sitting down to lunch at noon. Just before 1 p.m., he excused himself, Bartels recalled at the time. “I have to go home and paint,” he said.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Naomi Yamamoto is a former MLA for West Vancouver.