An alchemy of metal and paint

MAY 2012 – Father and son, sculptor Anton Smit and artist Lionel Smit, take time off after the 2012 Summer Charity Auction, hosted in Cape Town, to share personal insights into their work.

There’s a decidedly upbeat note in Lionel Smit’s industrial-scale studio in Strand the morning after the 2012 Summer Charity Auction. Lionel and his father, the sculptor, Anton Smit, are mulling over the evening’s highlights over a second pot of Java blend. Both their works realised knockout prices at the candlelit auction, hosted by Opulent Living Magazine and The Carla Antoni Collection in the sculptural new Bantry Bay home of master architect Stefan Antoni and his family.

The double-volume warehouse walls of Lionel’s studio are adorned with several of his vast, instantly recognisable portraits in various states of completion, and a scattered assembly of bronze sculptures on plinths punctuates the bleached factory interior with flights of bold expressivity. Everything seems to have grown larger in here – more epic and spacious. The painting studio leads upstairs to a gallery space and flows across a courtyard to a second warehouse in which Lionel makes his sculptural pieces. There’s an immediate sense of expansiveness here, a shift in scale and spatiality that is common to the works of father and son, both of whom occupy large studio spaces and make work that is tall, wide and awe-inspiring in scale.

As the camera team sets up to tape the interview and photo shoot for a behind-the scenes video for the Opulent Living website, the banter flows freely between the artists. “My father always used to say: the bigger your space is, the bigger your paintings will start becoming,” jokes Anton, looking around his son’s studio. Lionel‘s close-up portraits take up entire walls and amplify the emotional language at play in a series of strikingly distinctive, mostly female faces. The eyes of his sitters often seem dreamily focused on some object beyond their immediate field of vision, lost in a quiet reverie of thought, memory, longing… But perhaps even stronger than the psychological magnetism of the portrait is the bold expressivity of his brushstrokes. Deriving inspiration from the American action painters of the 1940s, Lionel throws himself into the physical act of painting, so dripping paint and fevered patches of deep charcoal shading take on the alluring looseness of a study or sketch. Earthy skin tones combine with deep Delft blues and swathes of absorbing grey, which are broken by lashings of vital red, spatters of turquoise, or patches of deep rose pink that escape the limits of the face itself. His paintings share their monumental scale and presence with Anton’s sculptures, which have been exhibited and collected both locally and abroad for about two decades. Great bronze figures that stretch upwards towards the heavens, Anton’s creations have a powerful spiritual or mythological dimension, seeming to have emerged from the otherworldliness of dream or legend.

Has this shared sense of epic scale emerged from some aspect of their familial line or ancestral history? Anton’s response is decisive: “It comes from nowhere,” he says. “When we go back along the family tree, we only find farmers and policemen. Lionel and I are the first recorded artists in our family history.” And the two men break into laughter. “It’s just me,” explains Anton. “I was born a little crazy, I guess. I just said, ‘no normal life for me. I have to do something extraordinary.‘ It is such a God-given opportunity to be alive. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to go for it – I’m going to go big or go home.‘” “And we’re not going home,” declares Lionel, playfully punching the shoulder of his father and mentor, offering us a glimpse of the leonine spirit that earned him his name.

Anton first discovered art at the age of 16 in a book about Michelangelo that he happened to stumble upon on his father’s bookshelf. When he discovered that Michelangelo was actually a human being and not “an angel who came down from heaven and made these things out of marble”, he decided that he wanted to be an artist too. “My dad said: ‘Go and see a psychiatrist. Stop this nonsense now.‘” When his father realised that this wasn’t just a phase and that his blue-eyed boy wasn’t going to become a policeman like he was, he responded in rage. ”I had a little studio in the garage and my father actually broke my first sculptures,“ recalls Anton. ”He’d come in and smash everything. So I realised it was serious and I moved out soon afterwards.“ He started teaching himself about art by reading books in the local library and slept on a mattress under the table in the pottery where he worked. “I think I sold my first sculpture for R50 and then just kept on going and going,“ he says. ”I was absolutely determined.“ Slowly but surely, he built himself into a sculptor of local and international standing, and in 2003, he launched the Anton Smit Sculpture Park, a three-hectare property on a plateau overlooking the Bronkhorstspruit Dam in Gauteng. Against a backdrop of natural quartzite formations, the rolling lawns and succulent gardens are the ideal environment in which to appreciate his monumental sculptural installations.

“Not being able to go to art school or get any formal training was difficult for me. It was a bit of struggle to get the technique and everything right,” confesses Anton, reflecting on his past. “But the first thing Lionel made was right. So, in some way, the genes must have mutated and become real in him.” He tells the story of how, when Lionel was a boy of about 15, he sent him off with a lump of clay and instructions to make a heart of out of hands. ”Lionel went off to his bedroom and locked the door, and he came back a couple of hours later with a perfect heart made out of two hands folded into one another, and he said: ‘Is this what you mean?’ Imagine my surprise when he came back with that.” Lionel studied art at Pretoria’s Pro Arte art school, but says most of his learning came from being around his dad’s studio while he was growing up. “My dad never came to me and said: ’Right, now I’m going to teach you about Picasso’,“ he says. “The atmosphere was just all over. Our house was always very vibrant – there was never a dull moment. At any given moment, there was always an artist living with us. “One day there was this weird guy in our garden and, when I mentioned it to my dad, he told me that the authorities at Weskoppies [the psychiatric hospital] had told him that this guy was talking to the plants and stuff. So my dad just said: ‘Okay, then he can talk to the plants in my garden instead,’ and he bailed him out and brought him home to get him off the drugs and get his head straight.” “Ja, so Lionel got exposed to all that,” says Anton, chuckling. “He was educated in a very spongey way.” “But the best thing were the art students. There were often students from the art school doing apprenticeships and things, so I would become friends with them and sit in on their life drawing sessions with them.” “To this day, he is still friends with Jan Otto du Plessis of Bronze Age, who have just moved to the new Woodstock Foundry… Jan Otto was like my son,” adds Anton.

But having a father who is such a well-loved artist hasn’t always been simple for Lionel. “When I was starting out, a part of me was trying to run away from being ‘the sculptor, Anton Smit’s son’. I will always be connected to my father, but I really wanted to be my own person,” he says quietly. “That might be part of why I started going into painting more. It intrigued me and it was something that I could discover on my own, something that wasn’t part of my father’s world.” But he is quick to acknowledge that his father’s support has been a huge help in opening the right doors that have led to the excellent reception his work is receiving from local and European galleries and buyers. Although the two never work together, respecting each other’s creative space, Anton and Lionel have exhibited together, and it was at their landmark joint show, Relate, at Grande Provence in 2009, that Anton introduced Lionel to Lawrence Graff, owner of Delaire Graff Estate and one of the world’s most respected and successful diamond dealers and jewellers.

One of the biggest art collectors in the world, Graff invited Lionel to contribute one of his paintings to be auctioned at Christie’s in London during London Frieze week in October 2009. The auction was presented by members of the FACET Foundation charity as well as supermodel Naomi Campbell and actor Matt Damon, and other artists included Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Lionel attended with his wife Vasti (also a painter) and says the event stands out as the highlight of his career so far. “There we were sitting in a Christie’s auction in London amongst the who’s who of the art world. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a movie,” he says. His painting, African Girl, an oil on canvas that is taller than he is, adorned the cover of the auction catalogue and sold for a sweet £26 000. “But you need to be very patient to be an artist,” he says, bringing things back down to earth again, and you get the sense that he is quite a grounded, clear-thinking person. “I’ve been painting for 12 years and it has taken me all that time to get to this point. You’ve got to keep on keeping on. And that’s the hard thing to do.” At this point, Anton takes his cue: “Lionel paved his own road. I always told him: ‘Don’t worry about anything else – just make great art.’ And that’s what he did. And he’s become very successful because of that. I always knew he could do it.” And then, after a reflective pause: “I suppose the pendulum swung the other way with me. Because I wish my father was a bit more involved or in any way interested in what I do, I sometimes try to influence Lionel too much. I’m secretly very interested in what he is doing.” In truth, he can hardly contain his almost boyish excitement at the way things are unfolding for his son. And considering his own remarkable journey, who can blame him? Anton is such a turbo-charged, once-off visionary kind of individual, it’s not at all hard to believe that he gets up at 4am every morning to start dreaming up his next creation, and that he zooms around his vast studio on a scooter, moving between the 20 employees who work with him to realise his monumental sculptures. Art seems to pump in his very veins and it’s been the vehicle through which has realised his boyhood dreams. Luckily, he has been blessed with a son who understands, through personal immersion in the alchemy of metal and paint, what that really means to him.

As for Lionel, he is quick to acknowledge the doors that have opened for him as well as the support and advice his father has given him over the years. “Things just happen around my father,“ he says, “but I think the biggest gift he has ever given me is freedom.”

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