Last year a group of us met to celebrate a significant anniversary since we started at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. I’m saying ‘significant’ rather than the years because it’s too scary! However we had a lovely weekend and thank you to Walter Simms for organising. One of the great things about any reunion is the re-connecting with people, known at a different time in life and one person I was really pleased to catch up with was artist Joe Smernicki. Joe studied Drawing and Painting at DoJCAD and was awarded a Scholarship to Hospitalfield House, Arbroath where you may remember I spent a weekend recently. After a Post-Grad year and Post Grad Teacher Training, Joe taught Art & Design in schools in Dundee and Angus, latterly as Head of Expressive Arts in Arbroath Academy. Since retiring ten years ago Joe is painting full time so I was keen to know a little bit about his practice and started by asking him about memories of his time at art college and did he feel the teaching and his time there has had a lasting influence on his artistic practice?
- Getting to Art College for me, like many people, was an absolute dream come true. I had no family background in art, indeed no family history of going on to higher education, so it was a real delight and achievement for me. I think the course then was a good balance of traditional teaching, under some significant Scottish artists (Morrocco, McClure, Morrison, Knox, Buchan) and the freedom to experiment and develop at our own pace. I think perhaps art students now are pressured too soon into being complete artists before they have done a thorough grounding. I do think my practice reflects my training in that I will always take time to let ideas develop without pressure of having to exhibit or sell. I will only ever release a work to a gallery if I have enjoyed the challenges of the process and feel it is thoroughly resolved.
You spent many years as a secondary school art teacher – in fact I came as a supply teacher to your school on one occasion. How important has teaching been to your practice?
- Yes, 35 years in the classroom in various schools around Tayside. I don’t think teaching affected my art practice in any direct way. I did have to be fairly disciplined to ensure that teaching did not consume me, which it can do, and always find time to paint. In that way I think the two things balanced and complimented each other. I did enjoy the reaction when pupils discovered I was a ‘real’ artist and they could Google my name and look at my work. In their book this was fame!
What are your favourite materials and techniques and how has that developed or changed over time?
- Over the years I have worked almost exclusively in oils with occasional forays into acrylics. Oil paint just has the potential for such a wide range of techniques and rendering. For many years I worked with thin oil paint, using Liquin medium, and applied with square one stroke brushes. This gave me a very sharp, crisp and almost ‘block like’ effect and a smooth picture surface. For about the past 2 or 3 years however I have been seeking to use thicker paint (Liquin Impasto medium) and an over all looser style, sometimes applying the paint with a palette knife. This results in a much rougher and textured picture surface which I think will better reflect the feel of the subject matter. I also use watercolour and gouache paint but this almost exclusively for small sketches and visualisations for larger works. I have however, for the first time, exhibited some of these small works and they seem to be popular so that may be an area for future exploration.
It is always interesting to hear about the working spaces and practices of artists so can you describe your studio? Do you like to work listening to music or an audiobook or do you prefer silence?
- For the last 6 years I have worked from a studio in my garden. It is small but space was very limited and I had it built to the space available. I really enjoy being able to step out of my house and into the studio, even when I might not aim to be productive it is relaxing and with all my materials and work in progress around me it really does feel like living the life of an artist. Previously I rented a joiner’s workshop close by but a change of lease brought this to an end and my hand was forced a little but it was always going to be an ongoing expense so it made a lot of sense to create my own space. As background to painting I have a wide range of things I listen to. This could be radio, on line, podcasts, dramas or many different genres of music. Very seldom do I paint in silence. I do particularly like audiobooks though often I might paint for several hours then realise I have lost the story completely, the back button gets a lot of use.
Your painting that I own is of an area near Montrose in Angus and landscape is still your main inspiration but how important is the drawing that underpins your paintings?
When I am on location drawing I am not thinking of nor seeing a finished painting, I find that almost impossible to do. In fact if I were not to paint then I would still derive great satisfaction from drawing places that I have visited many times. In this respect drawing and general sketchbook work is an activity and discipline in its own right. However on a slightly deeper and perhaps subconscious level when I draw on location I think I am taking in much more than the ‘view’ in front of me. I might see and remember a group of buildings as an arrangement of geometric shapes. A group of trees might be remembered as an area of texture or fields might register as a linear pattern. I like to think someone looking at a painting of mine would bring something of their own interpretation to it, I don’t want to tell the viewer exactly what they must see.
How much does the specific countryside of Angus around where you live, the ability to move from rolling fields to sea shore, influence your work?
- I would say that the countryside around Montrose and further afield into North Angus and Aberdeenshire is everywhere in my work. There is almost always a wide horizon in my drawings and this comes through to my paintings. I would seldom work within an enclosed area such as a forest or a highly built up area.My knowledge of my area goes deep and this is important to me in getting a feeling in my paintings. They may not always be highly representational but I hope they evoke the essence of a place. I have visited the coast of Maine, USA and the west coast of France quite regularly and although they both have subjects that I love to draw, I have never carried this through into paintings. I simply don’t have the spirit of the place within me as I do around my own area.
I imagine you are quite disciplined about drawing and painting. Do you have a daily or regular habit of using a sketchbook and is a sketchbook how you collect visual information for your paintings?
- Generally I am quite disciplined about my work, otherwise I suspect I could easily and happily fill my days thinking, planning and imagining what I will do without actually getting round to anything productive. However I keep the door open for those times (and this happened recently) when my work will take an unplanned turn all of it’s own and go in an unexpected direction. This is valuable to me as I know that when I return to my core work some of the experimentation and exploration will come in to play. I always have a sketchbook alongside me whether on location drawing or in the studio to do small visualisations or compositional drawings. Increasingly I also use an iPad and have that alongside me. Simply seeing a thumbnail photograph of a painting gives a whole view and tonal or colour values can be adjusted very easily. Art apps also allow overdrawing or painting to see the effects of any changes I might consider.
You have exhibited widely, what plans do you have for the coming months?
- I plan to cut back exhibiting in the year ahead so that I can free myself up a little from commitments and deadlines. Partly this is to allow me to build up a body of new work and to allow the work to take it’s own direction if necessary. I would still like to keep a presence with a small number of galleries who have been supportive of me over the years (Tolquhon, Heinzel, Atholl) and for the first time will show at the Bute Gallery.
Thank you Joe; it sounds as if you are going to be busy and I look forward to seeing what you produce. It’s interesting what you say about having to ‘feel’ the place and I love the vibrant colour of these recent pieces so thanks for sharing them with me. If you would like to see more of Joe’s work have a look at his website here and of course you can see his work in the different galleries he mentions. Click on the images to view the drawings and paintings in a larger format. Easter weekend looks as if it is going to be good so enjoy this Conversation and I’ll be back soon.