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Daniel E. Smith: Of Light and Solitude


By Carolyn Males

Daniel E. Smith paints solitude. Lush marsh scenes bathed in yellow light. Portraits of buildings in the process of construction or decay. Abstracts that are all about color and mood.

No birds disrupt the serenity of his Lowcountry panoramas. No people distract from the line and form of the buildings. Instead, the artist creates a space for private moments between viewer and scene.

Perhaps this tranquility is a legacy of Smith’s 23-year immersion in monastic life or perhaps a counterpoint to his full-house childhood in upstate New York where he, as the third child of 10 in an Irish Catholic family, packed into a Cape Cod with parents and siblings.

The first time I saw a Daniel E. Smith work was when I was walking down a hallway of an art museum and came across a small gem of a painting that stopped me in my tracks. There on the gallery wall sat a 12×12 inch, oil-and-encaustic canvas of a bold red, white, and green structure punctuated by dynamic arcs of black and red lines. Those linear strokes, I would learn, were scaffolding on the very building I was then standing in –– Savannah’s iconic Jepson Center. Smith, who had watched it rise from his apartment window, had captured the Moshe Safdie-designed landmark mid-construction in 2004 before it was encased in white limestone.

My next encounter with Smith’s work was in a restaurant on Hilton Head’s south end before the dinner crowds arrived. There in Redfish’s main dining area sat four large paintings, all depicting the same room with a window at different times of day. Moving down the line of canvases, experiencing the shifting light and changing colors as the sun made its passage through the sky in each piece, felt like a spiritual or religious experience.

Smith would later tell me that he’d based “The Hours” series on a monastic prayer-and-meditation cycle, depicting the aisle of a church from pre-dawn to a candle-lit dusk.

Back in 1999, his oil and encaustic canvases rendered with palette knife caught the eye of gallerist Judy Costello, who began showing his work. This month she’ll be showcasing Smith’s latest abstracts, Lowcountry landscapes, and architectural paintings at her J Costello Gallery.

Now 15 years after that portrait of the Jepson had first captivated me, I had the opportunity to talk to Daniel Smith and discover the man behind these mesmerizing images.

[Q] What I find intriguing is that you grew up in a family of 12, yet your paintings, whether they’re architectural or landscape, reflect a very solitary experience.

[Daniel Smith] It’s the idea of creating little private universes. They’re places to escape to, to be in by yourself. My sister MaryAnne and I would build palaces out of blocks or Lincoln Logs. Or we’d scavenge the woods, find scrap lumber and build little forts. Sometimes we’d grab small pieces of wood and moss, find two roots coming out of a tree and design little gardens and towers. It was basically just imagining other places driven by wanting our own space in the world.

[Q] What made you embark on a monastic path after graduating from college?

[DS] I went to Iona College, which is a Catholic college, and majored in English with an art and classics minor. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I was encouraged to look at religious life and think about teaching. The religious order I chose did a lot of inner-city work, and I was assigned to teach a range of subjects in both suburban and inner-city schools in New York and Boston. But when I was up in Rochester, I was asked to help with the art department which at that time only had eight students. By the third year, we had 100.

[Q] After more than two decades of regimented monastic life, what sparked your leap into the uncertainties of the art world?

[DS] I’d been taking art classes while I was teaching so I’d know more about it. When I came down to SCAD in 1996 to take a master’s in painting, the deal was that I was going to return to the monastery and teach college-level art courses. But then they decided that I’d be the head of theology for a grade school instead. That didn’t make sense to me. They weren’t going to use me for my best skills.

[Q] Your work goes from abstracts to the soft fluid lines of the marsh to the geometric shapes of architecture. In the latter there are no quaint cottages or finished structures, and many sit in a state of decay.

[DS] The beginnings of a building look very similar to the ruins of a building. So I like to play with the idea that these images can be a beginning or end. Spaces express a psychology. When we make a space, we’re choosing everything that we see. It’s taking some concept in your head and making it a reality. Why am I interested in it and why do I want others to see in it? So I leave out any details I think are just distractions.

I like looking at the bones, massing of them, their relationship to the rest of the environment. I used to paint the abandoned gas stations and the half-finished foundations that I ‘d see driving through Bluffton 20 years ago.

I found this one ugly abandoned building right on the marsh, but in a way it was also beautiful. I like that tension. But to get people to see that, I can’t paint its dingy cement block and corrugated metal. I have to give it a color that says “I can be beautiful.”

[Q] Your work doesn’t include people, and your marsh scenes don’t have the ubiquitous egret in the grass.

[DS] To me objects that move and change things interrupt the viewer’s ability to be at peace in that place. If I’m going to be in this space, I don’t want to worry about that bird, or that woman in the hat, or that man with a fishing pole. It’s for the viewer alone. And they may not be seeing what I’m thinking of, but that’s not important to me. It’s just that they have a place to do that.

It’s all probably related to that crowded childhood …

[Q]And your abstracts?

[DS] All my paintings start out as abstracts. I want to break-in the canvas, so I begin with an idea of mood or something. Then I’ll put in a color and see where the paint takes me. There’s usually a point where I say, “I really like this as an abstract.” Or I remember this spot in the marsh, so I’ll send these shapes into landscape. Or this reminds me of that cellar I saw up the road and I think I’ll move it in that direction. But even if I’m purposely starting out to make a smaller landscape, I’ll do something wild on the canvas and then think, “oh that works. Let’s go there.”