DAVID SMITH – The Sugar Cube Interview
First things first, how did you get started as an artist?
I have always been interested in art. As a child I drew all the time – especially nature scenes and never finished comic stories. By the time I was 10, Oskar Kokoschka, Van Gogh, and Paulo Uccello paintings shared my bedroom wall with the pictures of trains and racing cars. So it was no surprise I ended up going to art school and little surprise that I got interested in the work of my namesake the American sculptor, which, after a year of general foundation, led to my choice to major in sculpture for 4 years.
In those days art schools offered no help or direction on how to get work as an artist, so as my responsibilities increased I had to find regular paid work. Although I used some of my art skills in my career (including graphic design, advertising, interiors and furnishing, websites, etc) my own practice got largely neglected. It is only in the recent years I have been able to fully reengage with my work full-time.
Any advice you could pass on to aspiring arts of any age?
Run away when you hear the words “My advice to you is…”
How would you sum up your style of work in 120 characters?
Minimalist, abstract, conceptual drawings inspired by the ever-changing processes of Nature and the interaction of humans with the landscape. (That’s 120 letters, 123 characters)
The Sugar Cube Gallery is pretty small but is it the smallest gallery you’ve ever exhibited your work in?
As an artist is there a time of year you like best?
Autumn is probably my favourite season – “mists and mellow fruitfulness” and all that fits with my romantic and melancholic character. Along with Spring it is also the best time in my studio which gets too hot in Summer and too cold in Winter!
What is your favourite medium and why?
I think this is an unfair question! At the moment I would describe nearly all my work as “drawing” – even though I may use a brush and paint for some of it. I say “drawing” because the marks I make have a linear basis and even when I use blocks of colour, texture or tone it is the delineating edge that is most important to me. However, I was fortunate to have had a great general art education and having specialised in sculpture and printmaking I have a grounding in a huge range of techniques and media so if an idea required a bit of welding or screenprinting I’m sure it would soon come back to me.
If you really forced me to choose I would have to say that unipin fine line pigment pens are my weapon of choice – especially 0.2 size. I buy them in bulk and am rarely without at least one on my person or within reach. Why? I guess I started using them as my go-to drawing implement as a way to banish fear. When I re-engaged with my practice I found that I was liable to be timid with a pencil. With a pen you can’t rub it out so it’s easier to be bold and get it right first time. They are designed as technical pens to deliver a uniform width and density of line – I love stretching the envelope and getting them to make marks they shouldn’t on paper that wasn’t designed for them to be used on.
Which artist alive or dead would you most like to meet and why?
I think it would have to be Richard Serra. For a start he is alive which is a distinct advantage when it comes to meaningful communication! He is a master at involving the viewer in space: you don’t just look at his work, you interact with the spaces it creates and it seems to open up spaces within you. I am invariably physically moved by his work – not only his vast, minimalist sculptures but also his beautiful, stark drawings.
His work gives me hope. In an art scene where there are a lot of “naked emperors”, Serra’s work has integrity and honesty. Although he has an austere image, I think he would have a lot of interesting tales to tell about other great artists he has been associated with (Philip Glass used to be his assistant for example and he helped Robert Smithson create “Spiral Jetty”). I would like to catch some of the courage that Serra has shown over the years as an iconoclast and a man who is unfailingly true to himself.
Do you always have a sketchbook with you when you’re on the move?
Nearly always and I have a drawing app in my phone if I get caught without one and need to scribble an idea.
How do you unwind after a long day in the studio?
I’m not sure the concept of unwinding at the end of the day quite fits with the artistic process. The act of making work is an unwinding in itself. Yes it can be tiring and challenging but it’s not taking me away from my own life, which doing a regular job for someone else often involves. And artists can cheat: we can go for a walk for inspiration or to work out an idea or connect us to a process or we can pop and see another artist for a chat or help when we need a break.
The part of an artist’s job that is tough is the marketing, pitching for shows, entering competitions, art fairs, open studios – and the antidote to that is time in the studio! But I suspect you want to know if I have any other interests! I enjoy going to the theatre and watching films and I am a beekeeper. I also have a great need to listen to music, but that is almost at the heart of the creative process for me so it is as likely to set me working as to make me unwind.
Where do you like working best – in a studio or out and about?
For me the process of making work is continual. I am always taking in visual information, processing it, recording it, thinking about it, wondering how to make an idea work. Usually the final physical artwork is created in the studio but in most cases that act of making is a minor part of an often protracted period of planning and plotting. If it goes right the studio bit is pure joy but the excitement of an idea building may turn up at the beach or the middle of town. I can’t say which is the better.
And finally, if you were allowed to keep (but not sell!) one work of art from any gallery or collection worldwide, which would it be?
Well the first thing to say is that we only buy work from living artists (the dead ones don’t need the money!) so I’m not sure if the same rule would apply to a gift of a great artwork. I love the idea of spending a lot of time with artworks: we have pieces which I look at every single day and get enormous enjoyment from and I often make specific visits to particular works in galleries and spend a bit of time with them. A good piece of art should be capable of delivering lasting pleasure over a long period. But I have a problem with exclusive possession of great art. Owning art, in my opinion, gives great benefit to the owners and enhances the home but truly great art should be available for a large number of people to see. I live in a small house so a grand painting would not fit, though I could probably fit a pretty substantial sculpture in the garden.
When it comes down to it I would love to have another (perhaps slightly larger) etching by Ian Chamberlain, or another Carry Ackroyd, or a Dominique Cameron drawing or something from a whole host of excellent British and European artists working today in preference to depriving masses of folk the opportunity of enjoying a great masterpiece. At a pinch you might get me to accept a Richard Serra print or multiple (Double Rift V if it wasn’t so big!) as others would be available for public viewing. But if you are asking me to choose my favourite artwork of all time I would probably plump for Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, which despite it’s Christian theme is none the less a very great, rewarding and enjoyable painting.
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