Peter originally studied painting in Birmingham and discussed how he considered himself to be primarily a painter who had been ‘side tracked’ into printmaking. I found this especially interesting as I had always thought of him as a printmaker who occasionally strayed into painting, though he pointed out that this was probably because he had only just completed his MA in Printmaking at Wimbledon when he was first teaching me. Since retiring from Kingston College he works from a studio at the St Bride Foundation in London and continues to maintain a practice exploring print and paint, as well as embracing digital technology to realise new applications of his traditional skills.
Peter’s accessible style of presentation lent an informal ambience to the group, however this did not undermine his characteristically unassuming intensity, nor betray his passion for his subject. He began by recounting the receipt of a questionnaire that asked him to explain how he felt his work promoted peacekeeping. No doubt the Edinburgh based researcher did not get the clean-cut response he had hoped for when Peter replied that he felt that was rather the wrong question to ask and that sometimes art work is simply trying to understand the world with any causal change being incidental rather than an express aim of the piece. He stated his view that one must guard against discussion becoming the focus, with the work itself reduced to performing an illustrative role to support the verbalisation of the idea.
With this perspective set as a baseline, the group was introduced to a print titled Stage Prop; a wood cut of an empty, folding chair angled to the left of the composition and with a simple yet dynamic arrangement of fairly abstract background elements and a high degree of tonal contrast. We were asked to share our understanding of the image in terms of perceived meaning. Various ideas including a stage setting (it’s to Peter’s credit that this was suggested before people knew the title!), death, loss and absence, redundancy and potential and even just the aesthetic pleasure of recording the light and shadow were put forward. We were then filled in on the events that led up to the work, which began its life as a drawing of a stage set made while waiting for a performance to start. Peter agreed that he had found the physical shadow play on the set stimulating but also reflected on additional influences that can spark an interest in subjects. In this case, a series of performances by a contemporary with whom he had recently worked in which this particular kind of folding chair had featured.
It was true to my memory of his teaching style that Peter could not resist placing his work in this wider context and he also spoke knowledgeably on the tradition of the empty chair as a visual device. Van Gogh's chair, he explained, was rooted in inspiration from English wood engravings and that Sir Luke Fildes illustration of an empty chair for a Charles Dickens story had influenced the painter as much as had his contemporaries. He also recounted that he found many poems about empty chairs, also symbolising loss and recognised that he hadn't necessarily done anything particularly new. This is in part why, one assumes, he is keen to state that he has learnt over the years that it is best to keep quiet and let the 'truth' that exists in the work be the truth that resonates in different ways with whatever individuals bring in their own perspective of it. It was, however with an air of satisfaction, yet not a hint of pride, that he shared an excerpt from a review that identified an ‘anxious anticipation' in the image, confirming in his opinion some success in achieving his intentions. It is always gratifying when strangers respond to your work positively (without the assumed obligation of friends and family) and Peter told us he finds it especially encouraging when this includes sales of his work!
Following further research into the piece while writing this account, I also discovered that Stage Prop was exhibited in the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers, and it was no surprise to learn that it was awarded a 75th Anniversary prize, A fact that Peter was no doubt too humble to press upon us!
Moving on from Stage Prop, we were invited to look at just a few of the many accumulated Moleskin sketchbooks that contain the daily drawing practice Peter engages in and (to paraphrase Henry Moore) keeps him so ‘visually fit’. One particular collection, which he accepts has become somewhat obsessive, records his habit of drawing his own shadow every (sunny!) day at North Sheen station en route to the studio. He now has over 100 of these drawings constructed by sketching the outline in a couple of minutes whilst waiting for the train before adding the tone over the course of the journey.
Many of these can be seen in the video to the right in which they are set to music; a brief taster of a new interest in digitally processing images.
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Despite these intentions to bring meaning to our work, Peter also acknowledged the occasional and somewhat inevitable retrospective realisation of your purpose when making work that you might not have been aware of at the time. He accepted this to be true to a degree in the case of Stage Prop but also in his recent exploration of the 'Brushes' programme on the iPad, which he explained he is especially fond of as it does not try to emulate a physical material (such as charcoal), contenting itself with being a purely digital application.
As well as drawing (painting?) in this programme, he has produced a series of animated ‘replays’ of these pieces set to music by Bluebird Kid Clarke, a local band, one member of which we were pleased to welcome along tonight. Peter was also recently asked to contribute an article about drawing on the iPod to Printmaking Today, in which he discussed the relationship between the etching plate and the printing press being mirrored in that between the iPod and the inkjet printer. He explained that in his opinion, these prints are not 'reproductions' any more than a traditional etching is. Though there is apparently a degree of mistrust around the ‘craft’ involved in digital processes, Peter’s reflections led me to consider that printmaking is by nature a process designed for sharing and repetition and the digital developments do seem entirely in line with the history of the process in relation to industry. I’m quite sure that Warhol for example, would have been very comfortable using an iPod or iPhone to capture events and portray the celebrities around him in a stream of never ending Tweets and Selfies.
Returning again to intended meaning, we discussed the influence of the selected music on how the work is read and understood by the viewer, especially in the case of the shadow drawings. Though some care is taken in these pieces to match the visuals to the soundtrack, there is much that is left to be incidental. Humans habitually make connections even when these are coincidental or imagined but I wonder if that then becomes as much a part of the work as any original intention, simply because the artist has accepted those possibilities in ‘marrying’ the two components, however randomly.
Despite these playful excursions and happy accidents, Peter’s work is intensely purposeful and it occurs to me that his portfolio is an almost perfect example of a body of work positioned at the centre of the Venn diagram around which so many CRITdiscussions have fractiously circled; the tug of war between art and craft. If ever there was an example of a practitioner to whom this debate does simply not apply it is Peter S. Smith, who has apparently achieved an enviable balance between the two, calmly and intentionally applying a refined craftsman’s skill to the process of artistic expression in a quiet yet persistent voice. That he is willing to let go of his personal perceptions and allow the work freedom to represent an audiences’ own interpretation with the simple faith that it will speak its own truth puts me in mind of the Buddhist mantra that ‘you only lose what you cling to’ and it is not without recognition of an almost Zen like calm in the work that I make this comparison. Though I know that this is not the religious background from which Peter approaches his work I wonder if there is still some connection here; or maybe I am simply making a connection where none exists. Either way, it is with deep respect and much gratitude that I thank Peter on behalf of CRITgroup for travelling from London to share his work with us this evening. I especially hope that in this case he feels the destination justified the journey!