Gordon Appelbe Smith, CM, OBC, painter, printmaker, teacher, philanthropist (born 18 June 1919 in East Brighton, England; died 18 January 2020 in West Vancouver, BC). Gordon Smith was a key figure in Vancouver’s art scene during the latter half of the 20th century. He was best known for his monumental, modernist abstractions of the West Coast landscape, and for his long and influential career as a teacher and philanthropist. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada for making “a major contribution to the development of the fine arts in Canada.” He also received the Order of British Columbia, the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, and the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.
Gordon Smith speaks at a student event at Vancouver Island University, 29 January 2013.
Early Career and Education
Gordon Smith immigrated to Winnipeg with his mother and brother in 1933. He worked as a catalogue illustrator for Brigdens department store and studied under L.L. Fitzgerald at the Winnipeg School of Art. The first professional exhibition of his art was in 1938.
Smith enlisted with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in 1940 and was seriously wounded in Sicily during the Second World War. He joined his wife, Marion, in Vancouver in 1944 and completed his studies at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design).
Smith was mentored by Group of Seven member Lawren Harris and had his first solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1944. In 1951, he studied under Elmer Bischoff at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Having moved in his work to a modernist approach, Smith first attracted national attention for his award-winning Structure with Red Sun at the First Biennial of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery in 1955. The work is a form of romantic lyric abstraction that balances the pervasive influence of the West Coast landscape with a gestural, non-objective manner of painting. This gestural quality became particularly pronounced in his work after the mid-1980s.
Throughout his career, Smith had more than 25 solo exhibitions at Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery and participated in biennials in Brazil and Canada. He and architect Arthur Erickson, who designed Smith’s first and second homes, collaborated on the design of the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. Smith was also commissioned to provide major works to Canada House in London, England; the Chan Centre For the Performing Arts in Vancouver; Simon Fraser University in Burnaby; the West Vancouver Community Centre; and the Surrey Public Library. In 1997, the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted a 55-year retrospective of his work, which was accompanied by a major book. Smith and his work were also the subject of David James’s 2008 documentary, Gordon Smith: The Reflective Canvas.
Smith’s last exhibition of new paintings was in 2018. His work is held in the collections of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. He died in January 2020 at the age of 100.
Smith taught at the Vancouver School of Art from 1946 to 1956, and in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia (UBC), as professor of fine arts (1956–82). After his retirement from UBC, Smith was made Professor Emeritus, Fine Arts. He remained an important and vital teacher, particularly of young children.
In 1989, Smith was a founding patron of the Artists for Kids Foundation with Bill Reid and Jack Shadbolt. Smith and his wife, who were married for 70 years until her death in 2009, established the Gordon and Marion Smith Scholarship at Emily Carr University in 1995, as well as the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists in 2002. The Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art opened in North Vancouver in 2012.
See also Painting: Modern Movements.
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, Simon Fraser University (1973)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, Emily Carr University of Art and Design (1995)
- Member, Order of Canada (1996)
- Order of British Columbia (2000)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of British Columbia (2001)
- Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, Audain Foundation (2007)
- Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts (2009)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, Vancouver Island University (2013)