Lionel Smit, Figuratively Speaking
South African artist Lionel Smit is world-renowned for his incredible, colorful facial sculptures and portraiture. He spoke to Upscale Living magazine about his love for his trade and the freedom to create whatever it is he wants to form.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am an artist based in Cape Town, working in various mediums like sculpture, painting, drawing, print making and video.
When and how did your journey as an artist begin?
My father is a sculptor, so I grew up in the surroundings of art making and I was constantly involved in my father’s studio from a very young age.
Needless to say, this environment rubbed off onto me and inspired me to be an artist. I went to a secondary school of arts, where I started focusing primarily on painting and print making. After school, I took over one of my father’s studios and started working, which then led to me arranging my own exhibitions.
You do sculptures and portraiture. Talk us through the different techniques you apply as well as the materials you use.
After I left school, I focused solely on painting for ten years, developing my style in mostly figurative work. Ten years on, I revisited the idea of sculpture and re-appropriated my iconography that I had created in painting into sculpture and other mediums. I mainly work from models and photographs. I paint oil on canvas, oil on linen and enjoy sculpting in clay. When I started working in a monumental size, I enjoyed the abstract quality that developed on the canvas at this scale. I looked at the abstract expressionists for inspiration.
Why did you select faces as a subject matter?
I have always been interested in the human form, most probably greatly influenced by my father, as he works figuratively. I decided to focus on the portrait, as I was interested in the emotional quality of my subjects and felt the core of the emotion was found in the face.
What made you choose wax for your bronzes when there are other materials to work with?
I usually sculpt in clay and plaster, then have my pieces cast in the ancient lost wax process into bronze. The bronze creates an eternal quality in the work and of mixing the old and the new. So, for instance, creating something contemporary using an old process. I have also been interested in the Benin heads from Africa, which were also cast into bronze.
What / who do you draw inspiration from?
I think my inspiration is channeled from my surroundings. Specifically, making works of the Cape Malay women which explores the idea of hybrid identity. This has its roots in colonization and resulted in a mixture of African, Malaysian and European cultures and genes. The Cape Malay woman has become synonymous with my work.
What are / have been your biggest challenges in your career?
One of the biggest challenges in reaching a certain level of success as an artist, is needing a lot of people to help you to achieve this. The greatest challenge becomes time to create work.
Important lessons along the way?
Not one artist’s journey is the same, artists that seek advice will usually find out that there is no recipe to making it; but the key is to create work.
The favorite part of your job?
Coming into the studio every day, making artworks and being in this creative environment.
What is the best thing about being an artist?
Freedom. To be free to create whatever you want to create.
You have exhibited your work in Miami, Sydney, London, Hong Kong, Helsinki, Massachusetts, New York, Taiwan, India and Monaco. What were those experiences like, getting international recognition?
People do not realize what challenges there are for a South African artist exhibiting abroad. It is something you have to set out to do. Success in one country does not guarantee success in another. When that eventually pays off, it becomes very satisfying and one feels a great sense of achievement.
Is there anywhere else in the world you would like to exhibit?
I would still really like to exhibit in Germany, I feel there is quite a strong connection between my work and the audience there. I have received several requests to show there and it is something I would like to explore.
Describe yourself in three words.
That is a difficult question.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy going to wine farms in our area, since we live in the very beautiful Cape Winelands. I also enjoy spending family time with my wife and children.
If you hadn’t become an artist, what would you have become?
A rock star or film maker.
Do you have exciting plans happenings on the horizon?
At the moment, I am busy constructing a new studio building. It is a very exciting project I have been working on for several years now. We will move into the new space very soon.