Gordon Appelbe Smith
June 18, 1919 – January 18, 2020

Photo: Martin Tessler

It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Gordon Smith, one of Canada’s most beloved artists and philanthropists. Smith was a longtime friend and great supporter of the British Columbia Art Teachers Association. A key figure in Canadian art, Smith lived his life with a generosity and grace that was a gift to the world. 

Gordon Appelbe Smith was born in East Brighton, England in 1919 and came to Winnipeg, Canada in 1933. He enrolled at the Winnipeg School of Art and had his first professional exhibition in 1938. In 1941, prior to going overseas with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Smith married Marion Fleming which began a remarkable partnership of nearly 70 years. Together they founded the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists which continues to support art education for young students.

A legendary teacher of art and art education, Smith joined the Faculty of Education at UBC in 1956. He remained there until his retirement in 1982, when he received the title of Professor Emeritus and turned his focus to painting full-time. 

Ian Thom probably knew Smith’s work better than anyone. He’s the author of Gordon Smith: The Act of Painting and the former historical curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

He said Smith’s passing is a “very sad day for Canada and B.C.

“Gordon’s death is a blow to the thousands who knew and admired him and is especially so for those who were lucky enough to count him (as) a friend,” Thom said Monday by email.

Thom said as an artist, Smith’s relationship to nature remained central as he explored abstraction in his paintings and drawings.

“He was, by example and deed, one of the most ardent supporters of art and art education in B.C.,” Thom said.

In addition to Smith’s career teaching at the University of B.C. and the countless workshops, lectures and presentations he gave, he supported art galleries and arts organizations such as Artists for Kids and Arts Umbrella.

“He was also a keen supporter of the work of other artists — whether visiting their exhibitions, buying their work, sometimes giving them financial aid or simply encouraging them,” Thom said.

Thom believes that that the totality of Smith’s “achievement is remarkable and will be … lasting in importance to the province and country.

“He was a major painter, a major printmaker, a legendary teacher, an important visual arts supporter and philanthropist, and a truly wonderful man of enormous grace and kindness,” Thom said.

Artist and friend Ian Wallace said after Smith retired from teaching he established friendships with younger artists and people who helped keep his artistic vision “very fresh and alive.”

“As an artist, his brush was alive to the very end,” Wallace said. “There was always something completely moving and inspiring about every move that he made, every gesture of the brush. That’s what comes across in his work and still inspires younger artists today.”

Wallace, who is on the board of the couple’s foundation, said Smith had a lifelong interest in passing on the creative tradition to younger artists. Wallace said he recently discovered a chapter on children’s art written by Smith in a Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) publication marking the province’s centenary in 1958.

“He contributed a visionary chapter on the importance of children’s art in that catalogue,” he said. “Creativity and art and all the meanings it can give to people to enrich their lives was a gift and he wanted to pass that gift on.”

Smith’s exceptional artistic career included two major retrospectives at the Vancouver Art Gallery, over 25 solo exhibitions at Equinox Gallery, participation in biennial exhibitions in Canada and Brazil, as well as significant commissions including the design of the Canadian Pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka (in collaboration with Arthur Erickson), and major works for public buildings in Washington, DC and London, UK.

Smith’s many major awards include the Order of Canada (1996), the Order of British Columbia (2000), the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2009) and the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts (2007). His work has been collected in public and private collections around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). 

Gordon Smith, an exceptional artist and uniquely generous human being, will be greatly missed by all who had the privilege to know him.