~Dragon Slayer, Soldier, Champion of Fair Maidens
I used to paint a lot when I was younger, always in three colours and three colours alone – black, red and white. At some point in my life, however, the feel of a brush in my hand had become almost alien. Uncomfortable. Heavy. For some reason unknown to me, the brush had become my kryptonite, and the act of painting took more from me than it ever gave. That’s when I found the pen.
I figure writing is just a means of painting with words. Allow me then, to paint a picture for you, in a method that won’t destroy me.
It’s early morning, and outside, the sky is dark. There’s a man standing in the room wearing a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt, and he’s bent over a wooden easel holding up a near-complete painting. The air conditioner is off, the room is hot. He’s got a tattoo of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man emblazoned into his upper arm.
“There’s nothing like the smell of linseed oil at 2am,” he says.
During the day, the view through his window is that of the neighbor’s grey wall, so he tends to stare up at the sky a lot, hoping for an appearance or some sort of sign. He talks about an ‘epileptic eclipse’ – and I don’t know what that is, but it sounds genuinely fuckin’ terrifying. For a few seconds, I find myself wondering how a flickering moon may induce fits of wild seizures in the epileptic. I wonder, longer still, about how pissed off all the werewolves out there might be.
Paintings and sketches and works-in-progress litter the small studio in the back of his Empangeni home. On the workbench to his left are three empty Black Label beer bottles. You can still smell the foam. Stuck up on the pale-orange walls behind him are varied sketches of the human anatomy, the fundamentals, how our bones are connected, how our muscles move and stretch and coil. I’m reminded of a story I once heard about Michelangelo – how in his youth he would exhume dead bodies to examine how all the parts fit together. How to capture the energy of the human body and place it into the lifeless, like painting with lightning.
Creating art that lives.
The man’s name is Donovan Smith, full time husband, full time father of two young boys, full time human. After hour artist.
After a long day at work, he adjourns to this little room to sit down and sketch, to calm his mind, seeking asylum. Then he hears the voices. His wife and sons calling him back to reality.
“First,” says Smith, 41. He becomes animated when talking about his work. With a glint in his eye, he speaks about the process he uses to create his fanciful images.
“First, there is the abstract, your rough sketch. Then comes the extract, the more refined drawing. Then the exact, that’s when you complete your painting. If you are patient and you listen, the painting will eventually speak to you, demanding a little shadow here and colour over there. This is the energy from your original sketch translating itself into visual form.”
Donovan works long hours during the day, in the newspaper industry, and only gets around to his raison d’être, painting, in the early hours of the morning. “There’s nothing like the smell of linseed oil at 2am,” he’s said, and I wonder what else drives him…
“What is your midnight oil made of?” I ask.
“It’s making those strokes or lines,” he says, “which make the fantastical seem real – even if it’s only for a moment. To look at something you have created, to take what’s in the eye of the mind and make visible in colour, and to be in that place where you can engage the most beautiful women or take out an entire army of savages.”
Fantastical. Beautiful Women. Army of Savages.
Donovan paints fantasy scenes, myths and legends.
“A lot of painters portray the human condition in their work,” he remarks. “It’s not necessarily a message I wish to convey in mine. I am living in that same condition, if anything, I want to escape it.”
I ask him, as a younger man, what attracted him so to the fantastic? And are the figures in his work a metaphor for something else? What is his relationship with the characters he creates?
“My earliest influences were definitely the posters from the band Iron Maiden. I had over thirty at one stage and could stare at them for hours. That was in my teens, before that I was always in the open – by water streams and trees. I often wondered where the water started and where it would end. That was a dreamy time for me, always wondering and investigating. Growing up, I discovered legends and myths. I suppose, at some point, these floated on down those childhood water-streams toward me.’
‘I feel close to my subjects, having spent so much time studying anatomy, it’s as if I can feel every joint and fibre inside of them. On the one hand I feel like I am their God, because, well, I created them, but then on occasion it feels like they looking at me… Demanding I come hither and explore with them.”
“You’re a self-taught artist,” I say. “you’ve been your own mentor for over twenty years. Is there a specific area of your craft you’d like to improve upon? And how do you think being self-taught has helped you develop your own style, where do you draw your inspiration from?”
“I read somewhere that a good soldier is a good rifleman first. So I figured, if that be the case, a good painter should be a good draughtsman first. At least with sketching, this is the basis of all art. Luckily, I have never been to art school. They may have bent my hand to a different style, I have heard such complaints from other artists, but I think it depends on the teacher.’
‘Most definitely, I owe my deepest inspiration to the female figure, whose form and grace is but always a challenge to draw and paint. As good as I sometimes feel that I am, I suffer bouts of frustration working with colour at times, so that is an area that I am constantly trying to improve.’
‘I would love to paint more classical figures, too, but the images always present themselves in their own unique way, and end up in a fantasy realm. I end up walking this journey with the figures I paint. Sometimes I even talk to them.”
“What if they ever spoke back?”
“If they ever spoke back? I would have to poke myself with a sharpened pallet knife to make sure it’s real.”
“As a predominantly fantasy artist, surely you’re a fantasy reader. Read any good fantasy lately? What’s on your nightstand right now?”
“Surprisingly, I haven’t read much fantasy. This may be because I am
a very visual person. I will, however, read tons of 2000AD comic books – but you don’t seem to get those in my corner of the country anymore. Slain was my favorite.”
I asked Donovan to do a couple of rough sketches for me. It took him ten minutes to do all of them. I asked him to draw a house, a tree and self-portrait. This is basically a variation on the House-Tree-Person personality test designed by John Buck, based on the good enough scale of intellectual functioning. It’s designed to measure aspects of a person’s personality, and can also be used to assess brain damage and general mental functioning, but that’s not what we’ll be doing with it. The assumption is that when the subject is drawing they are projecting their inner world onto the page, and we can then investigate the subject’s inner world through the drawings. We already know, all creative people are fucking crazy. We’re going to try to have some fun with it.
- The House
“In the house, the size of the house represents family life: a small house is supposed to signify rejection of family life, while a large house means the person may be overwhelmed by his family. Your house is rather on the large side. You’re married with two kids; do you think this interview is going to get you into trouble?”
“Naaaaah,” he says. “My wife is use to my antics by now, but yes sometimes being a family man can be overwhelming. You have responsibility, and sometimes you just want to escape, but I think it’s a good thing in my case, because my sons are picking up a lot of what I’m doing and in return, I feel that I get to show them how to enter another world which otherwise might have died within me.”
“The walls of the house represent the ego: weak lines represent fragility in the ego, while strong lines mean the need to fortify boundaries. Your house has a bit of both. Your inclusion of windows, doors and a driveway indicate openness to interacting with other people, while the inclusion of bushes, shades, shutters, bars and curtains would have indicated a hesitation to open yourself up to others. You run a pretty open house, though – is that how you are as both a person and an artist? What are we really looking at when we look at your paintings?”
“Yeah,” says Donovan. “Wanda, my wife, says I have a tendency to attract the strangest kinds of people. I am known be open and I suppose I like inviting people to another side of life. An escape route, if only in your mind. Like the works of a visual shaman.”
I drift off, thinking about peyote for a while, and for some reason, Kevin Costner. Then I shake it off, making a mental note to watch the shit out of Dances with wolves as soon as I can.
“Uuuuuuhm,” I say. “When we look at the amount of detail put into the roof – the more detail, the more the person tends to concentrate on fantasies, while an incomplete roof means evading formidable ideas. It’s pretty clear that you veer more toward the fantasy. What are you afraid of in day-to-day life? What are you escaping from when you shut the studio door at 2am and pick up a paintbrush?”
“Well, as we all know, the world is pretty screwed up right now. Social pressures, the reality of being self-eclipsed in a world of chaos – and I say self-eclipsed because there are times when you bring things unto yourself, by your own thought patterns. I suppose, escaping into the studio for a while allows me to rethink my attitude towards whatever it is I may be battling with at the time.”
- The Tree
“This is some fucking tree. It’s the greatest tree I’ve ever seen,” I say. “I think it would have given the likes of Freud a goddamn stroke. Good job!”
“The size of the trunk represents the ego: the larger the trunk, the larger the ego. A trunk which is split in half, say, by lightning, indicates a split personality. Congratulations, you’re not completely crazy. Knots or twists in the wood, like gnarled limbs, indicate some part of the ego is twisted around some issue though. I began writing as a means of addressing my own issues; do you do the same with your work?”
“Yes, definitely,” he says. “As much as I’m escaping, I’m also thinking, trying to make sense of the issues that persecute the mind. So it all gets tied up somewhere, in that place. I believe we are all like trees, with different roots going down into the same ground. Sometimes those roots get really fucked up. Some people just can’t enjoy the fruit or the shade; it’s not enough for them.”
“Your branches suggest you have no problem with connecting with other people, while dead branches represent desolation. Drawing leaves represents successfully connecting with others, while no leaves is supposed to mean emptiness. Artists and creative thinkers in general tend to lead a bit of a secluded life, thinking unwholesome thoughts about death and the futility of existence. When you were a young boy you found a small, melted plastic skull in a burnt field, and since then everything changed. What would you be doing today if you hadn’t found that skull? Painting rainbows and butterflies?”
“Shit,” he says, disgusted. “Hell,” apoplectic. “Butterflies… No ways. I believe somehow I would have still ended up the way I am. What’s that saying – Wisdom is found by her children? If I could translate this in artist terms, I guess I would have to say something like, the artist is found by his subject, and from then on he is a slave to it in all its facets. What does not belong will be broken off by force.”
“In your tree, one of your branches is a woman. What’s her name? Who is she? Tell us her story.”
“I actually have several of these that I drew some time back. I have recently revisited these sketches, must have been fresh in my mind. I was stoned in a forest on a rainy day and couldn’t help but notice, what looked like people in the trees. Last month I was reading up on Greek mythology, and discovered their beliefs in various tree nymphs. I got around to asking myself, just what the hell had I seen? I’d like to go back there some time. I’m not going to say where. Don’t want to start a Woodstock rock festival. As for the tree-lady’s name, it’s probably my wife’s name, Wanda. Some pronounce it ‘Wonder.’ I always wondered who I’d spend the rest of my life with, then I met wonder herself.”
- The Self-Portrait
“Your self-portrait has a figure of, I’m assuming, you, looking down upon the head of yourself. Is that you watching over yourself, or somebody else?”
“Yip,” replies Donovan. “Looking down on my awkward self, shifting through the masses.”
“The figure to the right suggests anti-social and hostile tendencies. Have a tough day at work when you drew these, or is this an indication that you may be angry with yourself for some reason?”
“Yeah, was on deadline and people kept phoning for updates that I’d already emailed them, so I was a bit irritated. Same old shit, just a different smell. From a different animal.”
“Amen to that. Just the depth that varies really. Some days you smell it, some days you taste it. So! In an ideal fantasy world, as portrayed in your work, what would you be and what would you be doing? A dragon-slaying knight? A maiden-rescuing berserker? A wise old wizard? Perhaps… the Dark Lord?”
“Most certainly, I would be the warrior saving the damsel in distress. Maybe take her to my kingdom.”
I’m convinced. This interview is going to get Donovan Smith into trouble. So I decide to close it off with a couple of completely random questions, off the top of my head.
“If you could punch any celebrity right in the fuckin’ face, who would it be?”
“Daaaamn, there’s so many. Not sure. Kind of like asking which beer I want. I want all the beer.”
“What’s on the top of your “bucket list” right now?”
“Doing many sketches of people coming out of trees. I want to make a coffee table art book on that ,with paintings. The book will be called – DENDROID DRYAD. Next, those Mummies in the Tarim Bassin in Mongolia. I feel related to those people, all of them tall. I am seven foot. Mind blowing shit. White mummies in the middlle of Mongolia.”
“If a film was made about your life, who would play you?”
“French actor, Jean Reno. I would not let anyone else do it. He would do the Job perfectly.”
“Reno was the fuckin’ bomb in The Professional yo.”
“If you could pick only three things to take with you to a desert island, what would they be?”
“SAS survival guide, a good knife and a book on how to assist with child birth. I intend to impregnate any females that might be left on the island.”
“Jesus, there’s no saving this interview now.”
“If you could only paint in one colour for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
“Grey. At least I could imagine colour on top of that.”
“Describe ‘Grey’ to a person who was born blind.”
“It is neither the hot nor the cold of your body temperature. It is neutral, but can be influenced.”
Finally, I ask Donovan Smith the same question I ask all new people I meet;
“They say every single person can be placed into one of three categories. The Lover, the Traveller or the Soldier. Which are you?”
“The Soldier,” he says. “Soldiers travel, soldiers are lovers and both require discipline.”
“Lastly, you’re now welcoming students to come to your studio for weekly lessons on oil painting and sketching techniques. What’s on offer? And where can appreciators of your work view some more, or buy paintings, or how can they get hold of you?”
“Well, I just want to help like minded souls, to develop, without bending their hand. Even though I myself am still a novice, I could shave off a lot of frustration if they have just started out with oils. I encourage people not to use an eraser at all, never. Use the mistake lines as guidelines.’
‘I am in the process of scanning all my drawings and paintings, so once that’s finished I will be uploading it onto a website that I’m still building. As I’m trying to build up stock, none of the big paintings are for sale right now, unless I get a really good offer.”
Interview by Jason Mykl Snyman for EXPOUND Magazine, with immeasurable thanks to Kyle Cowan for lending a bit of that keen journalistic swagger