In his el­e­ment

No mat­ter where he lives, Michael Smither will al­ways be Taranaki’s cham­pion due to his emo­tional de­pic­tions of its land­scape.

Element - - Artisan - By Kelly Carmichael

Through­out a ca­reer as one of this coun­try’s most piv­otal painters, Michael Smither has fol­lowed a per­sonal vi­sion and pro­duced work that re­flects his own par­tic­u­lar way of look­ing at life. He is a sharp ob­server of peo­ple and places, the mucky bits and small de­tails in­cluded. His well­known early works from the late 1960s gave us su­per-re­al­ist and highly coloured kitchen sink con­fi­den­tials of do­mes­tic life. Smither took fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, fru­gal liv­ing and the joys and tri­als of par­ent­ing small chil­dren and granted hum­ble, ev­ery­day ac­tions and ob­jects cen­tre stage.

In some ways Michael Smither’s work is an echo of New Zealand’s growth as a na­tion – we see young fam­i­lies, re­gional ex­plo­ration, in­stantly recog­nis­able and of­ten empty land­scapes along­side aban­doned gold­fields, en­vi­ron­men­tal scar­ing and bur­geon­ing green is­sues. Con­ser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns have al­ways been close to the artist’s heart. Some of Smither’s most well-known and sig­nif­i­cant images ex­plore ecol­ogy and the nat­u­ral world set against a back­drop of his beloved Taranaki or the wide open spa­ces of Otago.

An on­go­ing se­ries some 40 years in the mak­ing fea­tur­ing sharply out­lined rocks and rock pools is an in­tri­cately ob­served med­i­ta­tion of Taranaki’s Stony River and char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally rocky coast­line. Smither’s in­ter­est in rocks and clear pools of water, he tells, comes from his pas­sion for div­ing and see­ing first­hand the im­pact of hu­mans on the en­vi­ron­ment. De­spite, or per­haps be­cause of, their mes­sage, the sur­face of these works is calm and lu­mi­nous, the clar­ity of the water be­ing a sym­bol of pu­rity for the artist. “Be­ing bought up a Catholic, I grew up with the idea of clean­ness and pu­rity be­ing an im­por­tant thing, The whole idea of clar­ity be­came an es­sen­tial part of these works, clar­ity meant you could see through some­thing, see what was un­der­neath it, know that there was in­tegrity; so that’s quite a spir­i­tual, philo­soph­i­cal thing.”

He’s not just a philoso­pher though, strongly be­liev­ing “an artist’s place is to take part in so­ci­ety”. Long be­fore New Ply­mouth’s award-win­ning Coastal Walk­way re­con­nected the town to its pre­vi­ously in­ac­ces­si­ble and starkly beau­ti­ful coast­line, Michael Smither was cham­pi­oning its sig­nif­i­cance in the ’60s. In the ’80s he was in­flu­en­tial in get­ting lo­cal coun­cil to change its ap­proach to sand ero­sion in the area, lead­ing a team to use nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als in a strug­gle to save beaches. Per­suad­ing New Ply­mouth City Coun­cil to forego the stark and ugly con­crete groynes that at­tempted to con­trol the ocean and re­dis­tribute sand, Smither con­structed and fine-tuned a se­ries of drift­wood struc­tures on the beach on which new sand dunes could build them­selves. Although there is no final vic­tory in a bat­tle against the mighty power of the ocean, Smither demon­strated that slabs of con­crete poured into our seas do no bet­ter job.

Smither saw the drift­wood struc­tures as an ex­ten­sion of his prac­tice, as works of art. He’s work­ing on a new project along sim­i­lar lines of which a paint­ing is the first step to try to con­vince lo­cal coun­cil to adopt the idea. This new work is a long, koru-shaped struc­ture that will at­tempt to cap­ture and bring back sand to beaches. One thing he dis­cov­ered pre­vi­ously is that “repli­cat­ing na­ture works best, echo­ing the shapes of na­ture works. And what could be more Kiwi than the koru?” The hope is that the curved shape will swirl sand around the struc­ture and back into the beaches.

Un­like many artists of his gen­er­a­tion, Michael Smither’s art has al­ways been firmly and iden­ti­fi­ably set in the New Zealand land­scape and specif­i­cally his lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. His work acts as a diary of where he has lived and a trav­el­ogue of jour­neys made. He has be­come one of a hand­ful of New Zealand artists to lav­ish such emo­tion on a place as to be­come iden­ti­fied with that re­gion. So clearly set in our own land­scape and heavy with the in­ti­macy and evoca­tive na­ture typ­i­cal of his paint­ing, Michael Smither’s po­etic re­gion­al­ism makes us con­tem­plate our own lives and sur­round­ings, much in the same way the do­mes­tic scenes did, but this time with en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns in mind.

Be­low: Kaitakis View of the White Gate, Kaitakis 1977 Bot­tom: Smither with his koru break­wa­ter de­sign Left: Michael Smither. Photo: Ted Baghurst

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