Why Clive Smith Chose Birds Nests

An interview with artist Clive Smith by Sophie Mancini. 

Eric, 2003
Eric, 2003

One of my first conscious memories of male genitalia occurred in an art gallery—and I don’t mean a cylinder rendered in white marble on some Greco-Roman discus thrower. I mean splayed out, life-sized, full-frontal nudity hanging before my ten-year-old eyes on a ten-foot tall canvas. The subject was old. His skin hung in fleshy folds. He sat on a steel plank, junk flattened by gravity.

A knife balanced on the edge of a table, blade precariously hanging over, daring to be tipped—another piece I can recall. Though a completely different subject than the first, I can still feel the curiosity, the unease, the discomfort that both images—all images—in that gallery seemed to evoke in my fourth grade mind.

Meet Clive Smith, NYC based British born-artist, represented by Marlborough Gallery. Ten years have passed since I gaped at those earlier paintings of his and since then, his work has travelled a wide trajectory of theme, exhibited across the globe, from Shanghai to Madrid, Monte Carlo to Athens.

ian mckellan
Ian McKellen, 2001-2002

Let’s start from the beginning. Raised in England, Smith received his diploma in General Design in St. Albans, Hertfordshire in 1985. He then received his Bachelor of Arts at Kingston Polytechnic. At 21 he moved to New York. He began to study painting and drawing at the Arts Students League. A few years later he was awarded the BP Portrait Award First Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Two years later they commissioned him to paint a portrait of Sir Ian McKellen. Or Gandalf, someone whispered to me as I stared up the wizard, shorthaired with top buttons undone, hanging on a gallery wall.

I interviewed Smith on his loves, likes, and how his latest work ended up right here—in Baltimore, around 3,600 miles from where he first began.

Sophie Mancini: Where are you from? Where did you grow up?

Clive Smith: St. Albans, an old English town that’s a 20-minute train ride north of London.

SM: What’s your academic/professional background?

CS: I graduated high school at 16 and did a 2 year foundation course in Design, after that I did a BA degree in Fashion Design in the UK and I immediately got a job to work in NY. Once I started working I realized the part of fashion I really liked was the sketching part and not the clothing so after a few years I started to take life drawing classes at The Art Students League in NY on Saturdays and then once I received my Green Card I left work and studied painting for about 6 months with a teacher I really liked at the League. I had saved enough money to not work for a couple of years and after talking with my teacher I felt It would be better for me to spend the money on paying and working from my own models and so our living room became my studio until my work paid for a separate studio.

SM: What’s your favorite piece of work that you have created?

CS: I think my favorite is always the piece I am working on at the moment because I am dissatisfied with the last piece and this time I will get it right.

SM: What are you working on at the moment?

CS: I just had a show working with bird nests titled, “Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush”. I first started looking at bird nests and became fascinated with the abstract shapes found in the structure and form of each nest and further saw there was a simpatico between the build of my paint and the physical structure of the bird nests. I have been using the found nests to imagine what it felt like to build them through my brushstrokes and use the structures as source material to direct and inspire my painting.

Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush #3
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush #6
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush #6

I began to look at the history of avian art and was drawn to Ornithological artists such as Audubon and stumbled across the book “Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio”, by Genevieve Jones and her family. The story behind the printing of the book reads like a great novel involving the entire family. The son would gather the nests, the daughter would illustrate them until she died of Typhoid fever (half way through the book) and the Mother continued the illustrations after her daughter’s death with the father publishing the work. In the biography it mentions the daughter, Genevieve (a woman of a nervous disposition!), was also a ceramic artist. I began drawing parallels between human crafts and the architecture of bird nests and this lead me to investigate ceramic painting and Transferware from the same period. .

The Goldfinch and the Black Wallpaper

Each highly individual nest sits on a distinctly different plate pattern that I have altered to disrupt with human hands intervening with birds. We are and have always been fascinated with the natural world whether for greater knowledge or as an object of beauty to admire and possess. I plan on working with these ideas through stories from past ornithological pursuits and including my own gathering of nests for my art and our disruption of birds’ migration patterns as well as deaths from the contemporary and technological world and it’s evolution.

SM: How has your practice changed over time?

CS: The biggest change has been from working with the figure to now only working with objects.

 SM: What are you doing when you’re not creating? What (other) hobbies/interests do you have?

CS: Walking/playing and taking care of 2 dogs, trying to see friends, trying to read actual books and not get caught reading Buzzfeed and Facebook!

 SM: What’s your favorite art work?

CS: I really think that is ever evolving, depending on what is interesting me at the time. I just saw a show at Gagosian called “In the studio… Paintings” and they had one of my favorite Lucien Freud paintings called “Two Japanese wrestlers by a sink”. I then walked around the corner to be confronted by a 1968 Richard Diebenkorn called “Studio wall”— that is the painting I would’ve taken home that day.

 SM: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you.

CS: In the past when my work was more literal I could but now it is an accumulation of real life/questioning/reading/investigating/thinking and allowing the work to form in an organic way in the studio whilst I paint.

SM: What do you like/dislike about the art world?

CS: What I like as an artist is getting up each day and working in my studio and having an amazing artist friend community in and out of my studio building to talk to and be inspired by. The art world in the sense of showing and selling my work is tough, you have to narrow your vision and try to blank out the noise and find a path that works to my benefit and beliefs and know whatever I think will happen probably won’t and adapt and try to work with people who want to help and share my vision.

SM: What do you dislike about your work?

CS: I have in the past over built/finished my work and in the process lose some of the early gestural brush marks but I hope I am keeping more of those in the nest series.

SM: What do you like about your work?

CS: Seeing the gestural brush strokes in these newer works.

 SM: What makes you angry?

CS: A very long list!

SM: Name something you love, and why.

CS: David Lantelme, my life partner for incredible daily support as an artist/person… Not an easy job.

SM: Name something you don’t love, and why.

CS: Time… Not enough!

SM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

CS: Probably to get over something or someone…

 SM: What wouldn’t you do without?

CS: Motor skills…

Smith talks about his work at the 2015 Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair; the Baltimore Museum of Art’s event for established and emerging artists to showcase their contemporary art and printmaking techniques.

2015 Baltimore Print Fair

SM: Why did you decide to do this?

CS: Working on paper is a way to explore ideas on a smaller scale.

Beak%2c Claw%2c Hand%2c Brush #10
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush Study #10. “This image is based on a plate showing a family logging a forrest, clearing the land to build their home or farm, which takes away the natural habitat for birds to nest.” – CS

SM: How did you come up with the idea for this work?

CS: They are the same ideas as the oil paintings but at or close to the physical size of the plates and nests I work from. At this scale I feel they look closer to 19th century ornithological illustrations where the original ideas come from, as opposed to the oil paintings, which are a much larger scale and as a result feel more open and painterly.

Beak%2c Claw%2c Hand%2c Brush #8
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush, #8
Beak%2c Claw%2c Hand%2c Brush #11
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush, Study #11. “This is based on a Clarice Cliff patterned plate on the lower half but now on the lower right side a hunter or bird collector crawls out of the floral pattern to shoot the birds above.” – CM

SM: How did you make it?

CS: Acrylic and watercolor paint on paper, working from actual nests I have collected sitting on actual plates that I then change to have the narrative I wish to convey.

Beak%2c Claw%2c Hand%2c Brush #9
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush Study #9. “This one is based on a Souvenir plate but each segment now is replaced by a bird that has become extinct and the date the last sighting was confirmed.” – CS

SM: And finally, why do you do what you do?

CS: Because it’s a language I understand. It just makes sense to me.

beak 8
Beak, Claw, Hand, Brush #7


March 28 – March 29, 2015

The Baltimore Museum of Art

10 Art Museum Dr, Baltimore, Maryland 21218

Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer studying in Baltimore. She enjoys riding ATVs, reading minimalist literature, and eating kimchi.


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