John Firth Smith

It’s a long drive west from Sydney. The architecture along the Blue Mountains ridge seems designed to obscure their majesty, there’s no visual pleasure on the route to the outskirts of Bathurst. Of course the distance from the distractions of urban life has enticed many artists to Hill End, most notably Donald Friend and Tas Drysdale, in the 1940s and ’50s. But John Firth-Smith?

Firth-Smith is an abstract painter of expansive meditations in space, shapes reminiscent of boats and shorelines and objects on and around the littoral zone, remembering the edges of waves, their height, wide expanses of canvas: images and abstraction from the sea and sailing; line, edge, curve, balance. They suggest emotion and play with theory. His ambiguous imagery renders a stretch of paint as rope, as foam, as the reflection of the moon; and as a play of texture or an idea about shape, on layered ground.

With critical notice since 1961, commercial success, exhibitions nationally and internationally, he has won many prizes, he’s in every major national collection. And to interview him Artist Profile is travelling to Hill End.

On through marginal sheep country. There are no revelatory broad vistas between these steep-sided little valleys. The scarred landscape, the very history of the area, is mining, mineshafts, intimacy. I wonder what Firth-Smith’s expansive energy will reveal of Hill End. An artist who contemplates the delicate monotone of water and air, whose gestures across circles suggest balancing in a moving boat; whose fluid, intersecting squares and layers of space convey momentum, using abstraction to meditate about shapes and forms moving through space. Why has Firth-Smith established a studio so far from the sea?

After parking on a wide lawn among big garden beds, John and photographer Stephen Oxenbury welcome me, and I find a comfy chair while Stephen photographs for Artist Profile. The living quarters John has added to an original cottage provide a restful open area, with the happy clutter of an artist’s life: paintings, sculptures, curiosities. An artist’s space is about what catches the eye.

There is always the boy in the man. In John Firth-Smith, one senses the lively boy surrounded by a loving, encouraging family. He was two when his mining engineer father joined the army, and John’s mother took their three children from Melbourne to her family on New Zealand’s Waitemata Harbour, where John had a magical early childhood. Having his ideas seriously considered by all his adults, materials to make things, exploring the foreshore and the water, the sense of self-in-space-in-motion with the wind and water in a sailing boat, meant no fracture from the move. Travel and change are stability for Firth-Smith.
Monographs and catalogue notes discuss his engagement with the sea and material to do with boats. When the family was reunited in Sydney, John was encouraged by both parents to explore local paddocks and the river. He enthusiastically describes the Australian Museum, walking among the skeletons, the variety of insects, artefacts. His father’s job was assaying abandoned mines around the Warragamba Dam site.

“There’s a little ghost town, Yerranderie. There’s nothing there, but you get permission and get a key to the gate. It was before the dam was built, I went there with him, I must have been eight or nine. My father had to go down these mineshafts and sort of chip off bits of rock. It was silver, lead and zinc there, it wasn’t gold.” On the surface, in the light, his father taught him what the textures and colours of the samples meant. It must have been a wonderful time.

Then, his father died after a motor accident. Firth-Smith’s resourceful mother established a guest house, patronised by graziers on city visits, sending John to board at The King’s School. When she remarried and moved back to Malaya, Firth-Smith spent the long school holidays in that interesting country, shorter ones on the properties of some of her grazier guests. Thus the connection with country is from his youth.

At King’s he was happy with rowing and woodwork; there is still indignation that he was disciplined for floating a boat he made in woodwork on the school pool. Before completing his Leaving Certificate, he ran away from King’s and hitched north with a fellow pupil, taking odd jobs. On return after months without contact he was welcomed home, went jackerooing, and after completing school at a Sydney business college, enrolled in art school.

A welcoming host, he is immensely energetic, discussing people, the art world, his travels, the cottage, the area’s history, the village and local people; describing the early miners’ treks across mountains and hills.

The commitment and the process sustaining his painting are evident in the sketchbooks he shows us: there are 16 in 2016, with pencilled observations and paint on and around photographs, cuttings, diagrammatic notes. He thinks constantly on paper. His working practices derive from the four-hours-watch and four-hours-sleep on a ship; he works on into the night, or wakes and works.

Firth-Smith had critical success quite early. His first show in Sydney at the Terry Clune gallery was with Ian van Wieringen in 1962, while they were students. He talks about envying friends able to make work easily. I see him sailing on the tide, he sees himself as struggling against it, and I think “This is a man who demands of himself”. He pushes his talent, he wants to go beyond the image.

He rearranged the studio overnight, and as we go across John explains its construction, that of the other two sheds, the garden. He delights in buds on a flame tree, then we are in ordered, crowded chaos. John keeps talking, moving. We wander around the space; stacked with doors, windows, timber, his collection of banjos. He first resists having the banjos photographed; later he plays a silvery tune to me. The banjos, their taut strings, their hollowness, have echoed in the abstract paintings, as have nautical instruments, old trophies. Here is the current work, beside a table high with the objects from which it is derived.

His paintings have often given formal expression to the sense, of water, wind, wet, of taut rope, and swinging rope, the circle of a compass or a bollard. In interviews he has emphasised his work derives from close examination; when he explored Sydney Harbour from Lavender Bay before gentrification; of workshops, tools, oil slicks. He’s used things that already have abstract form: New York street vents, coins, buttons, posts. I think of Firth-Smith as a painter who seeks pattern and wants to appropriate imagery to exploit it as abstract form. So I am surprised by the force of emotion I feel from the figurative work on the studio wall.

One set of paintings is consistent in colour and tone. Taking up a small broken rake-head from the pile, Firth-Smith explains that these paintings come from objects found under and on the ground on the property, which once housed a forge and horse stables. In the early days village blacksmiths made chains, hooks and every metal device needed to mine or work the land. But their purpose is not the point. They have changed, they can’t be used, they have rusted, deteriorated and are broken; the surfaces are mysterious and they crumble, revealing layers of decay. They convey an idea of their original use, but now they are something else.

The ground on which he’s painting the objects is pink. He explains he doesn’t want a lot of colour, he wants the skin colour – “it’s a very hard colour to get”. Usually his painting, he says, is about building up colour, layers. This is the transparent pink of white skin, of John’s skin, stained in some of the paintings with pinks and browns of different tones.

Sometimes the brush seems to have been pressed into the ground, lightly drawn down and pressed again: these ephemeral gestures emphasise the idea of decaying meaning. The effect has extra force because Firth-Smith’s wonderful draughtsmanship informs his imagery. How do I put it? The rusty brown objects, the shears, the rake-heads, the scythe that seems to weep for its lost sharpness, are at once absolutely recognisable but at the same time imaginary. Some paintings have, beside the broken corroded images, an impression of the hinge or the hammer head, left in the ground. Hooks, slightly blurred but precise, almost translucent hammers and bolts, ask questions about change over time.

I am thinking of the history of his work. Firth-Smith found his feet in geometric, formal paintings, which became more lyrical over the years. More recently he has shown direct images, hung beside abstracted versions of themselves. A rope or a knot has flattened, lost volume, lost detail, become a set of curves and circles; pattern in play. Flags and poles, already geometric, merged with the sea itself. Sails became areas of space. And the reverse: an almost solid mirage, the night wind still, a skeletal pier or barge floating across the canvas. Trophies, memorabilia of momentary achievement, defined but indefinite.

The things on the table were buried, but emerged from the earth. He says heavier matter floats up in Hill End – after rain, sometimes gold emerges on the surface. Each rusted item carries its own meaning, evidence of its own decay, it is transmuted. In the paintings, brown on pink, the juxtaposition: a horseshoe beside a hinge and bit, a trap with a long bolt, a spike with a D-bolt shackle, make abstract patterns, adding to the sense of displacement and the shift in use and meaning.

Five tall, narrow paintings of brooms hang together. Stronger more geometric areas of paint emphasise the truthfully represented, but floating, objects. The brooms were used rather than recovered, cast aside, not buried. One, the newest-looking broom, is yellower than the others, there’s a black section above the bristles, which are bound with lines of warmer yellow and blue-green.

I wonder how they will hang with the formally abstracted paintings, into which he has introduced the yellows and some black marks. He is still working on these formal abstract pictures: I don’t ask. This is the frustration and privilege of visits before a body of work is finished. His 2017 shows, at King Street Gallery, Sydney in March and with Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne in May, will be most intriguing.

Gesturing to the pile of worn-out mysterious resurrected things, he emphasises his intentions. He says, “This is not about nostalgia.” The pictures are about the randomness of decay, the disconnection between present bits and pieces on the table and their original function. Talking about the impossibility for an artist of reproducing certain images, he finds a photograph of car doors at a panel beater’s shop.

“That looks like a headland, clouds, horizon, beach or something, and that’s it, so when things get damaged, and some guy comes along and fills up the hole with a whole lot of bog or whatever they call it, in a panel beating shop, and then sprays it grey, when it is a beautiful Prussian blue Rolls-Royce or something, and suddenly there is this pink sort of blob where he’s filled up the dent, he’s not trying to make an arty shape, he’s filling up the dent, but that shape is better than any shape any artist could make, because he is not trying to be the artist, he is just filling up a bloody dent.”

The process of erosion reveals more about the thing than its original form. “Some artists start trying to design things, instead of just allowing it to happen, like the rust … You have to remain that sort of innocent person filling up the dent. In other words you are filling up your own dent.” He tells us that after so many years he has evolved his own sensibility, his process is different from that of other artists.

“I don’t paint still-lives, I don’t get a vase and put flowers in it and paint it,” and he gestures as if he were in front of an easel, beside a table with his subject set up.

He picks up what once was an axe head, and holds it out and asks me to look at the layers, the texture, the way it has changed. I am sitting, he is a tall man and he has to lean down, he is serious and concerned that I understand. And I have an image; of his father, bending down to the little boy, explaining the texture, the colour, the meaning of the shards he’d chipped off the wall of the mine.

I am replete with images, ideas, information. It’s been a most interesting time in the care of a fascinating man. As we leave, John takes us to an area of mine shafts, and he leads me to one of incalculable depth. He is making a point about the place, the hardships of the miners. I think to myself that mining, shafts, the colour and texture of things that emerge from the ground, recall the time with his father. There is always the boy in the man.

Courtesy the artist and King Street Gallery on William, Sydney.

John Firth Smith is represented by  King Street Gallery on William, Sydney and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne.