Mimi: This is my interview with Aaron Smith and he is a fantastic painter. So Aaron you studied at” The Art College Center of Design”
Mimi: So how long after you got your education did you start teaching? And what is your position?
Aaron: I graduated from Art Center in 1989 which makes me an old person but whatever, and then it is in Pasadena and I stayed there for a year and then I went to New York for a couple of years. This is how I add up my time since I have no sense of numbers. I went to New York for a couple of years and then I started teaching kids drawing and painting.
Mimi: Like what age?
Aaron: I taught three and a half year olds through adults. Kind of all in the same class which was a bit of craziness. They could barely sit in a stool, the little ones, but they were a joy... really fun. Two years after those, maybe six years after school I started teaching. Maybe a little bit longer.
Mimi: What is your title?
Aaron: I am an associate professor - I have been there sixteen years.
Mimi: OH wow!
Aaron: It’s crazy how those things add up. They add up fast. So, I teach painting, drawing, theory and I teach some early term drawing classes and some upper term painting classes.
Mimi: Do you get inspired by your students?
Aaron: Oh yeah, If I wasn’t inspired by my students, I don’t think I would do it, cause it’s hard. Teaching is hard. I think there are a lot of artists that think of teaching as subsidizing what they do and it is, kind of the steady income, sort of a base income. As an exhibiting artist, that gives me a sense of security but I think there are good painters that are bad teachers. Hopefully it helps to have a point of view to bring to your students, but teaching is a whole other thing.
Mimi: It takes a lot of patience but also a lot of creative energy right?
Aaron: Teaching art is different from a lot of things- not standing and pontificating and just giving out information. There are always new artists in my rooms bringing what they do to the table. I spend more time reacting and responding then just disseminating information. That’s really the inspiring thing.
Mimi: And I suppose each student is an unknown quantity, so you don’t know what is going to happen.
Aaron: Oh yeah, I think that is the real joy of it for me. If I could guess- if I wasn’t surprised, I think it would be hard to do it for as long as I have... and having taught for a long time I have been able to teach a variety of things and sort of hone that, each class and write new classes... but even a class I have been teaching for a long time, it is always different, so dependent on the students... and they are great, the students at the Art Center. It is a tough school to get into.
Mimi: So, do you work on that process on choosing which students get in?
Aaron: Well, I’m actually the associate chair of my department. Actually I teach predominately through the illustration department cause that is where the drawing and painting is, but I also teach through the fine art department as well. I look at all the portfolios as they come in, so I kind of get the whole picture. I get to say yes or no when they enter and then introduce them to the school.
Mimi: Do you have an intuitive sense when you see them or see them on Skype or look at their interview
Aaron: Well you know what, we have so many students, it’s the largest department in the school, so we read essays. I would love to interview them, and it would be much easier to tell.
Mimi: That would be more telling.
Aaron: They have to work really hard on their portfolios and they have to be... It is a pretty competitive school to get into, so hopefully that weeds out a lot but my chair and I we view them and then they show up to my early term drawing class and I get to see how we did. We do pretty well I think.
Mimi: Now I want to start talking about your work. Does painting satisfy you or frustrate you?
Aaron: Probably both. You know finally it satisfies me more than disappoints or frustrates me but I am not really one to feel like I want to master anything, I think that is a fallacy. I think a lot of my students think they are going to come to school and master a technique and be just "good to go".
Mimi: And that is going to be it.
Aaron: That is not the way it goes. I am learning every day in the studio, but I think I’ve learned to have a sense of grace about it after a while that I’m going to have good days and have bad days. I’m more involved in the process than I used to be so I don’t beat myself up for having a bad painting day. Painting is hard, it’s really hard and even though I have done it for a long time it doesn’t get easier. It gets... I’m more used to it.
Mimi: How do you know when one of your paintings is done?
Aaron: It doesn’t need me anymore. It is almost as if, as artists, we always talk about getting out of your own way and allowing the process to go its course. I think there is a little voice inside that says “time to let this one go”. I think I can count on that a little bit more than I used to and that is why painting is a little bit more enjoyable that it used to be.
Mimi: Well that is good, so you are used to the process and you are comfortable with the process.
Aaron: Yes, and I’m really comfortable with leaving... not really but I’m more used to leaving the studio having had a bad day. There is always tomorrow.
Mimi: Don’t you find sometimes when you leave a piece of work and you come back the next day it looks different? Are you happier with it than you were the day before?
Aaron: Sometimes it looks better, sometimes it looks worse, but usually there is an insight as to what to do next. A little time away makes it easier.
Mimi: I think so too. Are you attracted to specific colors and which colors do you dislike?
Aaron: I don’t think I dislike any color. My color sense has evolved a lot. It use to be much more traditional; darker.
Mimi: I know, you have a wild color sense!
Aaron: Yes it is a little bit wild at this point. I don’t think I like one color any more than another. I think I really like certain combinations of colors, or maybe I like discovering them. There are certain eras of paintings that I am into right now.. the Fauvs of course and the Post Impressionists. I really love the Swiss modernism of Ferdinand Hodler. Amiet who was his protégé, used really brilliant color, really clear, very decisive color that was really fresh.
Mimi: Do you plan out a painting? Do you draw it out on the canvas before you start? Do you think about it for awhile or do you just go?
Aaron: I kind of just go at this point. The body of work for the last few years I have been inspired by Victorian and Edwardian photography so I have a source material and I just establish the scale of it and then I draw with the brush at this point. it used to be, I would do an under-drawing and an under-painting a grisaille and paint into it. My work looks completely different than it used to. Now it is very direct. I lay out a full palette and I Just sort of go.. so that is scary.
Mimi: kind of exciting. Do you use a palette knife a lot?
Aaron: Not a lot. I think a lot of people think I do cause of the work, it is really thick. Occasionally, but there is more brush than palette knife.
Mimi: I was going to say about your work, the way you paint is like a dance on canvas, it has a musical quality and I wondered if you always applied paint in this way or is this evolution of work?
Aaron: Yes, it is defiantly an evolution of work.I used to build up my surfaces with glazes, really painstakingly and I knew when it was done and it looked really realistic... and then there was a moment where I really had a crisis over it because I was looking at different kinds of work than I was painting... and I thought what is that all about? I basically told my gallery here in L. A. that I needed some time in the studio and I took three years and just painted, which is a little scary when you are represented. Galleries don’t like that so much but they were great, they were patient. I just painted. I didn’t know how long it would take to get to a place where I wanted to re emerge a little bit and I came to it after about three years and luckily people have responded. Different people have responded. I think that I have exactly one collector that has my old work and my new work. Everyone else...
Mimi: Oh interesting, so it is a completely different collection of people except for that one particular person.
Aaron: I think people don’t like change so much.
Mimi: I think that’s true. I think they can depend on a certain look visually or whatever it is and that needs to remain steady or it takes them out of their comfort zone.
Aaron: Well my work was pretty realistic. That’s a very specific collector base. People who own realistic paintings tend to really value that and that I think is the primary reason they are attracted to a painting. Those folks are not happy with me.
Mimi: A completely different thing now.
Aaron: Yeah, what are you going to do?
Mimi: So if you could paint anyone dead or alive and do a portrait or your version of a portrait, who do you think that would be?
Aaron: Well, I’ve painted a few dead people. Actually in the last couple of years, they are all dead because they all are Edwardian, Victorian folks. Most of them have been anonymous but I painted Prince Eddy who was really Prince Albert. He was supposed to be the king of England before George the Fifth. He was the older brother... For a minute they thought he was Jack The Ripper. I painted his portrait and I painted his brother George and his cousin Czar Nicolas the second and they looked kind of like twins. I am a twin and so I think I kind of responded to that. So, I painted them and I think there are a few others. I did a series on Walt Whitman, I think I’d like to paint him at some point, and there are a few out there.
Mimi: So what attracts you in particular to a subject?
Aaron: Well, the new work is about masculinity and kind of the armour of that. I think I want to deconstruct or unpack this idea of what is to be human. If you are a figure painter that is your primary concern and in the last work I have been thinking about masculinity and it’s kind of construction and how much of a man’s identity is inherited. Do you know what I mean? From the greater culture, how much is innate and how much is self-directed; manufactured. I think there are a lot of uniforms, beards.
Mimi: Yes, talk to me about the beards
Aaron: I’ve sported a beard for a long time, but I’ve seen it come up in the culture for the last decade or so. There are a lot of sub cultures that have adopted the beard, kind of a badge of honor or something. There is hipster culture, freak folk culture, beard and moustache culture specifically... bear culture. All these sub cultures that have adopted the beard as kind of a signifier of whatever it is they are about. ...so I think that is interesting to me. I’ve always loved the nineteenth century. Everything starts with art history for me. I love the painting of that moment and of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and I think there is a mystique of the artists of that time. Vuillard and Bonnard, Van Gogh, they had a certain look. I sort of have a fixation on that.
Mimi: What is the upkeep of that moustache?
Aaron: It’s waxed
Mimi: So? Every morning?
Aaron: Yes, every morning
Mimi: Then how often do you trim?
Aaron: It depends, sometimes, you know... It is always a project. I’m either letting it grow or I’m cleaning it up.
Mimi: So, it goes into different transitions.
Aaron: A little bit.
Mimi: You change it up a little bit.
Aaron: A little bit. I mean its funny, women have so many options and men culturally don’t have so many options for presentation and I think that is why men have taken on the beard. The beard and the mustache are something specifically male.
Mimi: It suits you.
Aaron: I guess, it’s me.
Mimi: How long have you had it?
Aaron: I had a beard in art school. I have always had some form of facial hair. In the early nineties I didn’t but then I had it again for fifteen years. It has been funny to watch the beard come.
Aaron: Bloom ………exactly ! There are beard contests and competitions.
Mimi: It is true there are so many styles you could don.
Aaron: Oh yeah. Well in the beard competitions people are making them look like steamships!
Mimi: I actually haven’t seen that.
Aaron: There are different categories. There is free style and there is Van Dyke...
Mimi: So, have you done one of these competitions?
Aaron: No, my beard is not worthy of it. Their beards are gigantic or their moustaches are out to here, you know...too much work. I just paint them.
Mimi: So, how many hours a day do you work on a painting? Do you stay all day or do you do a few hours at a time?
Aaron: It depends.
Mimi: And the paintings are oil?
Aaron: They are oil on panel. I teach, I’m a full time teacher. My studio is between the house and the school, so I can sometimes double up on a day and teach and paint the same day. So, I will work from three hours to sometimes thirteen hours, it depends. There are times that I am really pushing for a show. Usually it is a dead line that will make me work for that long but I try to be in the studio about five days a week, from three to eight hours maybe.
Mimi: So after school you will go and paint?
Aaron: Yes, sometimes and before because sometimes I will teach at two, I’ll get up and do the morning.
Mimi: So. It depends on the schedule?
Mimi: And then do you eat in between?
Aaron: I am always eating, there is a kitchen in the studio and I share it with other artists so, there is snacking in-between.. just to get away from the thing and not look at it for a minute.
Mimi: Do you drink tea or coffee?
Mimi: So, lots of coffee?
Aaron: You know it is a ritual. The second I walk in the door, I make coffee.
Mimi: So, you prefer to be up rather than down when you are working?
Aaron: Yes, I’m a more stimulant person.
Mimi: So, tell me about the weather in L.A. Does that affect you because, I live of course in Seattle where I’m inside more than outside and that is motivating to me to work but does the sun distract you?
Aaron: No, I’m not a sun fan, so actually there are times in the summer where the studio is the best place because it is a little hot and the studio has a big brick wall and high ceilings. It used to be an old grocery store, probably in the nineteenth century. Do you see a theme coming? Anyway, it is actually cooler in there.
Mimi: So, it is refreshing to be in there.
Aaron: I enjoy the sun but I am not a sun worshiper. In fact I like the Bay area. I just came from San Francisco.
Mimi: That is kind of a nice combination of weather.
Aaron: It’s perfect, I grew up in it.
Mimi: Oh, that’s where you’re from?
Aaron: I’m also English, so a little dreary is good, a little, just a little.
Mimi: Not much of that in L.A.
Aaron: No, not much of that here.
Mimi: So now I want to talk about food a little bit. Tell me what your favorite kind of food is?
Aaron: You know. I like a lot of different kinds of food.
Mimi: But if you could have one style of food, what do you think it might be?
Aaron: Well you know its bad.. Uou hit a certain age and there are certain foods... I used to love pasta, and pizza would be my favorite.
Mimi: The heavy duty things.
Aaron: There is a moment where you can’t do that, so what I’m sort of opting for.... I’m enjoying healthier eating now. So a little bit Mediterranean... There is a place called Tender Greens that we will probably go to today and it is very like lean meat and a salad.
Mimi: My favorite.
Aaron: Fresh, clean food.
Mimi: Clean flavors.
Aaron: Yes, there is some Indian food that I like but it is the kind of food that I beg off of mostly because it’s a little bit heavier.
Mimi: It’s pretty substantial, Indian food is pretty heavy duty but very delicious.
Aaron: Yes, although I am a cake fan, so I save my heaviness for that.
Mimi: What flavor?
Aaron: Anything, birthday cake, fluffy cake, anything. It’s all.. good. I have a sweet tooth for sure! Everyone who knows me, knows that. That has been the hardest thing to give up, are sweets... so everything in moderation.
Mimi: I know, my favorite food is chocolate.
Aaron: I know chocolate cake is probably my favorite.
Mimi: Well today we will have a little desert.
Aaron: There we go! We will do that.
Mimi: Will just split one.
Aaron: Yes, exactly!
Mimi: Well, first of all, tell me what is happening in the future, what ‘s upcoming with your work?
Aaron: Well, my work... I have been painting dead people for a while. I think male figures will still be my thing. Tribalism has been a background concern in my work. I think some see Gauguin’s color in my work. He’s in the back of my head. I’m sort of obsessed with collecting artifacts from Papua New Guinea and so I have been studying a lot of tribal culture and I have tribal tattoos... so it is in the air. So I think I am going to start combining the Victorian /Edwardian dandy with... I’m kind of pushing a hybrid with sort of a tribal sensibility.
Mimi: That will be a nice combination.
Aaron: Yes, and maybe even sculpting with plaster and paint. The paintings are kind of sculptural ...and bringing them into the real world. I am also going to start painting my friends. My work has attracted a lot of people that sort of look like the subjects and I think I want to play with the contemporary dandyism: people who sort of identify with the look that I’ve been representing and painting. So, live humans...
Mimi: How long does it take you to do a painting?
Aaron: It depends. It used to be when I worked in my old method, I kind of knew. It was very labor intensive... "so I have another week on something". Now a small painting could be done in one sitting or two, sometimes not.
Aaron: And then other times I am with them for weeks. Most paintings are in the works for maybe a month.
Mimi: Do you work on more than one at a time, because they are oil of course and they have to dry?
Aaron: Yes. I want the marks to be really direct, so I really have to wait for them to dry to do the next layer. So that is why, maybe if you compress the time it may be a couple of days to work on a piece, but I will really live with them and stare at them, re-work them
Mimi: That seems short to me! To look at how much detail, how interesting, that is why I said they look like a dance, they are like a piece of choreography.
Aaron: I think that is the thing that became central to my new process - was I want to show the process. I want to evidence it in the painting and I want you to see the gesture as it is layed on. And believe me, there are a lot of bad moves underneath but I really want to save the ones and not have them be overworked -so occasionally I paint something and then take a heavy palette knife and scrape it off and do it again as I go. There is a little bit less of that, it’s a little bit more direct painting, but it varies. Long story short, it really varies. Sometimes some paintings seem to paint themselves and others...
Mimi: But nothing takes years.
Aaron: Nothing takes years.
Mimi: So do you have a vision of what you want before you start, and then you work towards that vision, or are everything a surprise as you go?
Aaron: Because I have a specific model or a specific reference to start with, that is as much as I know and then most of the rest are surprises. I think I want to build in surprises. I like being on the tightrope.
Mimi: I suppose otherwise you would get bored, wouldn’t you if it was a known quantity. So that may be part of the reason you went into the transition of the work you are doing now.
Aaron: There are times when that sort of magic happens where you lose time and you lift the brush and you think, "wow! That just happened" and then there are other times when you have to keep futzing around.
Mimi: It is like that unknown map.
Aaron: It is, but I like that it may be just around the corner- but I don’t want to know.
Mimi: So do you, will you go to bed belaboring that painting and say “how am I going to resolve something “ do you think about that or no?
Aaron: I think about it, but there are plenty of distractions to take me away. Occasionally something will kind of... but I’m not so tortured. I’m not tortured twenty-four hours a day when something isn’t working.
Mimi: You don’t seem like a tortured artist.
Aaron: No, I mean I have had my dark moments but for me I think that the more things that are resolved in my life the more I can concentrate on my life.
Mimi: I mean you seem like a focused artist to me, very focused.
Aaron: I love getting lost in the painting, and then there is the rest of my life to absorb and maybe subconsciously feed the work, but I find I like the process. I didn’t for years - I was a painter that didn’t like painting or I thought I did but I suffered through it so much and now there is some joy in the process even if it doesn’t work all the time. I can still celebrate that I have spent a certain amount of hours in the day kind of lost in that world.
Mimi: So you must be on a really good tack right now. The work, you’re connecting to the work and doing it in an enjoyable way. What else could you ask for?
Aaron: It has taken many years and I don’t have anxiety about its reaction any more like I used to. It is a very vulnerable thing to be an artist, to make work and present it and hope somebody likes it.. and what does it mean if they walk past it? ... and all that stuff. I think I know more of how I feel about it and I enjoy the fact that people have different feelings. They bring themselves to reacting to art work and I’m a fan of painting more than anything. In order to be a generous artist you have to let the stuff do its thing. If you make the work and put is out in the world... and then get back to making more.
Mimi: It’s born and then you see what happens, the reaction.
Mimi: So here is a question for you - are you ready? If you were on a boat in the Bahamas and a crew member was fishing, suddenly the boat is full of fish covered with sleeves of clean dry canvas and the ship had every kind of art supply available on deck. So, how would you decorate these fish and how would you show them off on the ship?
Aaron: Oh wow, so poetic, did you write that? How would I decorate the ship? Well there would be a lot of color for sure.
Mimi: And those fish are wearing canvas.
Aaron: You... I am so fixated on faces... I would probably try and use the whole surface of the fish. One of the interesting things I am trying to reckon with is in New Guinea everything is decorated and everything has a purpose.
Mimi: Lots of texture, right?
Aaron: Lots of texture. ...and there are a lot of images that mean several things at the same time. Picasso collected Oceanic art and African art. ...and the spirit is contained in the piece and it is really about a relationship with nature and it always seems like it is about duality... but different planes about nature and man... about the spirit world and the afterlife and the present time and I think they show that simultaneously in anamorphic ways. I think that is what Picasso responded to by showing more than one side of the figure. A fish is a funny thing; a flat thing, and I think it looks different from different angles. I’d probably try to exploit that and I would probably make them into faces, really colorful ones. That’s a great question.
Mimi: That’s good. That was a nice answer. I think that’s it. So Aaron, thank you so much for the interview.
Aaron: It has been a pleasure.
Mimi: It has been a pleasure talking to you.
Aaron: Thank you so much.
I like to use my grandmother’s recipe for the steak marinade which is
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup vermouth
1 teaspoon of sugar
¼ cup olive oil
Put steak in a zip lock bag and marinate over night
Select a good gorgonzola cheese and crumble
A fresh bunch of Romaine and or spinach and arugula
Fresh peppers, cucumbers and spring onion
Grill steak, let it rest and slice
Dressing is up to you, I like vinaigrette with balsamic vinegar