Artist in Residence
by Erin Baldwin
Danny Smith by Jeremy Lewis
Van Gogh may be the namesake of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit but there’s another artist leaving his stroke at One Yonge Street: Toronto-based artist Danny Smith. Known for his portraits and collages of cultural icons, Smith’s artwork has been featured in over 100 spaces around the world, including Budweiser Stage, Page One Café and The Art of Banksy exhibit. Smith is the exhibit’s artist-in-residence and spends his days painting in a small, makeshift studio across from the exhibit’s gift shop. Recently, smART Magazine editor Michael Zarathus-Cook sat down with Smith to discuss the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, his day-to-day routine, and what it means to create art in the midst of a global pandemic.
Let’s start with how you became the artist-in-residence at the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit and what this means in the middle of a pandemic when the arts world is facing unprecedented hurdles.
I've been lucky enough to be included in the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition because, maybe two years ago, there was a Banksy exhibition called The Art of Banksy in Toronto. I'm an actor – my main job is acting. Someone who works in casting knew I was a painter and submitted my work for that Banksy show. Unbelievably, they said yes and accepted me. It was a dream come true because I love Banksy. I used to live in L.A. for eight years – I did street art down there – and I would climb on rooftops on Melrose and Sunset and take pictures of “Banksy’s” and myself with “Banksy’s” in the background. It was an absolute thrill to be included in that Banksy show. It was amazing. I had a piece of art in that show and, when you entered, you saw my piece first. That piece then went on tour with the show around the world. A couple of years later, the producers of Show One and Starvox reached out to me again to be a part of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit. It has been the best art job of my life, hands-down.
Why is that?
My job as artist-in-residence is to be at the exhibition all-day painting live, making collages live, and stencils and acrylic portraits live at the show. When you exit the exhibit, you enter the gift shop and I'm right there. I'm covered in paint, loving life. I'm like a little kid in a sandbox playing all-day and making stuff, and people can then buy it in the gift shop. It's a great gig. I've met thousands of people and it's been great for my social media, especially during this time of the pandemic. I live alone so my whole home has become my art studio. I was making hundreds of pieces of art anyways and then this job came along. It was perfect as an outlet for me to release some art, show some art and just feel validated as an artist – feel like a functioning human in this quiet time of unemployment. I feel super lucky to be working. If you had told me when I was a kid that I would be painting live at a Van Gogh show, my head would’ve exploded with joy. I feel really, really, lucky. It’s been a 10/10 experience and I couldn’t be happier.
On the topic of gratitude, it's certainly been a very quiet time in the arts, and I feel you in terms of what makes this position special.
The producers put a sign up that acknowledges that. It's a grateful thank-you to our guests and the people who come see the show. It says that during this time of COVID-19, there’s huge unemployment and just thank-you so much for coming to the show to help support these guys.
You’re a jack-of-all trades: an actor, a director, a musician along with an acrylic and collage artist. How do these various creative processes interact to inspire your artwork?
I don't know if one inspires the other. I don't know if my acting has inspired my painting or vice versa. But I know for sure that, in everything I've ever put out there, whether it's acting, music, a painting or a scene, I'm trying to put out a vibe of playfulness and love of life. Kind of a “go get ‘em, life is hard but you gotta go kick-ass” attitude. I’ve really infused that in every single thing I’ve done for decades. That’s my message to myself and to others. When I’m on set, I’m doing a scene that someone else has written and, maybe the character doesn’t have that point-of-view, but the research and energy I put into that role still has that credo of “put everything you have” into this. Have fun. For me, it all feels like one giant symphony. It’s not separate songs like I act, and then the next day I’m doing an art-show, and the next day I’m recording a song on my laptop. It all feels like it’s one diary entry or something, if that makes sense.
That makes perfect sense. You’re being pushed by the same energy so however you express it is almost irrelevant. I really like that analogy or explanation. Let’s say the character you’re playing isn’t a very optimistic person, you can still arrive at that particular role in an energetic and optimistic way.
Even being on set before they say action. Be like, I’m on set, holy sh*t, this is my dream. I get to play all-day. I’m so lucky this is what I’m doing on this Wednesday. Even right now, I’m doing an interview and I’m stoked. I’m still a really enthusiastic kid so thank you so much for having me.
It’s my pleasure, absolutely. What is a day-in-the-life like as the artist-in-residence of the exhibit? Take us through the day and what it’s like to create in the midst of a busy exhibit.
Painting live is a tricky thing because there are lots of people. I don't mind people watching me, but there are lots
of people. Everybody wants to talk and that's a wonderful thing – if I were a guest, I'd probably want to ask 100 questions too. But it is impossible to focus. If I'm locked in doing a portrait and I just want that white dot on the eye to be in the right place, otherwise they look like their eyes are off, but people are talking, I’m just like, one second, give me one second.
It’s really hard to complete a lot of work when I’m there, but I do work. Basically, I arrive, I see what pieces have sold when I was gone, I replace those on the wall with new pieces and then – it depends. I go through phases. I like to paint with acrylics for a week or so then, just to shake up my brain, I’ll go just to collages and start cutting up old things. For the collages, the source material is authentic stuff from my own life and collections: my teenage years, my old posters and skateboarding and surfing magazines. The pieces are very personal to me because it's all my own collection of ephemera. Then the next week, I’ll just do abstracts. I paint all day, talk to people, and maybe sneak into the show now and then and catch a few minutes of it. I come home at the day and continue. My entire home, I can’t see the floors – they’re covered in finished pieces. I go till five in the morning, literally, and then I roll in the next day at Van Gogh and do it again. I’m not getting burnt out. I’m so into this.
Your work, particularly the collages, feature references to pop culture and the contemporary moment. Have you noticed any changes in your art this past year during a time of cultural and political crisis? What are you painting and how does that relate to the year that has been 2020?
Before the Van Gogh show came to me, I didn't know what I wanted to express in my art regarding COVID-19 because, as I said earlier, my art comes from a place of playfulness and fun. This topic is so heavy – I wasn't ready yet to make it playful and fun. It’s a serious topic and I didn’t want to make light of it or make it goofy. It was a challenge. I did a couple of pieces like Mona Lisa with a mask and gloves, but I haven't really gone political in my art. Maybe I'm nervous because I don't want to get too serious in my art. Maybe I want my art to be a respite from everything else. I don't know.
Well, I think the answer you gave articulates your current mindset. I think people tend to forget that it is an option that you have in life, in general and also in this moment. You can just do something else aside from what the moment is demanding.
Yes, but as an artist I feel like I should make a statement. I'm just sort of growing into that idea. Before, a lot of it was fun – cool compositions and “hey, that looks dope”. But if I'm an artist, a true artist, which I am, I should take the opportunity to use the platform to make some statements or comment on moments that are inescapable to all of us like COVID-19. Every human on earth is thinking about it. I shouldn’t shy away from that. I should take the opportunity to address it.
That’s one of the crazy things about this moment: if you bring this up in 40 years, everybody that’s alive today will have long responses. On the topic of COVID-19 though, did you have any sort of reticence about meeting thousands of people a day in the middle of a pandemic? Did you have any concerns about being in the public eye?
For me, I feel super comfortable. I've invited lots of friends and family to the show and I’ve said yes, it's COVID-19 safe. They’ve done a great job – Starvox and Show One – of making sure everyone wears their masks. There’s social distancing that is enforced but it doesn’t feel like it’s enforced. There are these beautiful light rings on the ground and people can kind of walk from one to the other. I've never felt nervous about it. Nobody has gotten sick who works there out of hundreds of people over three-four months. I feel very comfortable there.