Keith C Smith – My Second Mentor

Karen Hersey introduced me to her mentor Keith C Smith. Even though Keith lived on Vancouver Island and I lived in Calgary, Alberta our connection was immediate.  Our relationship began with hand written letters at a time before email and social media.  His letters were written in his sprawling artistic scrawl, with funny anecdotes, complete with doodles.  He wrote about his thoughts on the writings of Thoreau, on the Canadian landscape, his hero in art Carl Rungius, his shared love of Bryan Adams’ music.  He also wrote of treasured memories from trips he took with his wife Arlene and their 3 children.  He talked about his career as a sign painter prior to becoming a professional artist. Those letters are a treasure to me. When I sit and read his words in his hand writing it is just like being able to talk to him, even though he passed away more than 2 decades ago.

In his first letter to me he wrote: “You have certainly come a long way in your new found career.  How fortunate you are to have fallen into something as wonderful as this.  Especially to find it as easy as you obviously do.”  Yes indeed how fortunate for me to have fallen into this career and to have Keith fall into my life at that time!  I would send him photos of my paintings and he would write back with a critique.  He would tell me all the things I did correctly in the paintings and then he would give me a long list of things I could do to improve them. Reading his words takes me back to 1996 when he wrote “I bet you are thinking what on earth does it take to please this guy?  Well I am going to see to it that you improve to the point that even you will not believe what you have done!”.  Thanks to Keith, he was right!  What more could a person ask for in a mentor? 

It was a beautiful spring in June of 1996 when Mom and I got in the car and drove from our acreage in Alberta to Vancouver Island to finally meet Keith.  For the logical, rational person, the timing could not have been worse as we were in the midst of a personal family crisis and could not afford to take a trip of this magnitude.  Yet, there are moments in life when you have to go with your instincts and put all rationality aside. Both Mom and I knew this was one of those instances.  We had to go!  Not only was this a wonderful opportunity for my career but as we began making plans, everything fell into place and went perfectly. We rented a small cottage on French Creek Marina but since the cottage was not wheelchair accessible the owners upgraded us to a beautiful 2 bedroom suite with a full kitchen, living room and balcony overlooking the marina.  Everyday Mom and I sat on the balcony and watched the fishing boats coming and going, we watched the tide ebb and flow and with it, our personal stresses began to ease.  Not only was it a special week because of the art and being with Keith but, there were precious moments for Mom and I.  Just the two of us, eating Haagen Daas ice cream out of the container, 2 spoons, one for Mom and one for me. We cooked together, we laughed together. Nearing the end of Mom’s life, as we reflected back on the good times we shared, this trip to Qualicum kept coming up in our thoughts. Our week there was a trip to be remembered and certainly one of those times in life when we did not allow our rational thinking mind to allow us to pass up an incredible opportunity. 

Our paint day with Keith at Cathedral Grove, BC, June 1996

While Mom and I were thrilled with the beauty of the area, the purpose and focus of the trip was art!  Keith was teaching a week long workshop where we painted on location each day at a different place.  It was inspiring to have the opportunity to paint outdoors with a group of artists, especially when we were painting incredible scenery such as the old growth forest at Cathedral Grove (if you’ve never been there you must go).  One of my fellow painters, Walter, decided that I always managed to find the very best place to paint. He proceeded to make sure he sat next to me at each new location. I did not, in fact, pick the best locations.  I simply got out of the car and began painting whatever scene was in front of me.  My wheelchair did not give me the opportunity to go looking for the best and most wonderful scenes.  Keith commented on this in one of his letters saying “During my workshop you would be placed perhaps not exactly in the best place to paint a scene.  Yet you made no fuss and simply got at it.  Now I find that a genuine sign of someone who will realize a solid future in painting.”  I was just happy to be in a beautiful place, with great people and a paintbrush in my hand!

Photo of me painting with Walter and Keith at Rathtrevor Beach, Vancouver Island, June 1996

 Photo by Keith of me painting at Rathtrevor Beach, Vancouver Island, June 1996.

For me the real magic happened when I was able to spend time with Keith, one on one, in his studio.  He taught me how to paint rocks and trees.  When he picked up his brush, paint would fly and within a half hour there would be a completed painting.  So that is how it is done!  Decades later I am still trying to handle my brush with as much grace, style and flair that he did. There is hope that when I am in my seventies I will have the fluidity, dexterity and proficiency that Keith had with his oils. 

Keith’s way of teaching was a bit controversial.  Karen taught me that one artist should never touch another artist’s canvas.  However, Keith sometimes had a difficult time explaining what he meant so he would take my paintbrush and show me by painting on my canvas.  For me it was a thrill to watch the way he moved that brush.  I was there, after all, to learn from a Master! 

I had taken some of my paintings for Keith to critique.  One painting was a mountain view with a lake and a pile of driftwood in the foreground.  Keith thought it was a good painting and that it needed just a ‘few’ minor changes.  With one stroke here and another stroke there, before we knew it, Keith had repainted the ENTIRE painting.  The only brush strokes of mine that were left on the canvas was my signature!  How ironic that I own an original Keith painting signed by Caprice!  This painting now hangs proudly in my library writing room.  It is a piece of my artistic history and of Keith’s.  A moment shared between him and I.  Every time I look at this painting these memories make me smile. 

Photo of the Keith-Caprice Combo painting

One day while we were painting on location, Keith told my Mom “I love the way she paints.  She paints like a man!”.  He loved how I painted boldly and without fear. He had so much confidence in me and was proud of the work I was doing at the time.  Keith wrote to me and said “Just try and maintain that fresh bold technique that you have.  That is the honest magic in your work.  It is powerful, colorful, along with a spontaneous quality.  These are all desirable attributes in good art.”

I was happy that Keith was able to see me on TV when I appeared on the Variety Club’s “Show of Hearts” Telethon in February of 2000.  I had donated a painting to help children with special needs and they sold prints of the painting.  When Keith was ill, I sent him one of the prints.  I phoned him soon after and he spent the entire conversation critiquing the print and how I could have made the painting just a bit better!  That was the last conversation I had with Keith and it was so typical of him to have talked about art the whole time.  I only wish he could see what I am doing now.  I think he would be proud of me. 

Prior to becoming ill, Keith was in his seventies and was in his creative prime, extremely prolific and still so full of life.  He left us way too soon! I wonder what other great paintings he would have produced if he was still alive?  I am lucky to have had the opportunity to know him especially so early in my career.  Keith was a larger than life type of person – full of passion, a great sense of humour and a true artist. 

Photo of Keith in his studio. 

Two years after Keith passed away, Mom and I went to visit Keith’s wife Arlene on the Island.   Arlene was gracious enough to allow me to spend time in Keith’s studio by myself.  I took a box of Kleenex with me, fully prepared to be sad and emotional but the tears never came.  Instead, as I sat there surrounded by all of Keith’s last paintings, I had the strongest sense that Keith was right there with me.  As long as Keith paintings are in existence, Keith will always be around, his energy is right there.  The experience made me look at all paintings, particularly my own, in a completely different way.  It was profound to realize exactly how much of myself I put into the paintings that I produce.  Somehow there is also a little bit of Keith and Karen and all the other artists that have influenced me, in every one of my paintings. And I too, will live on in each of my student’s paintings. No wonder some paintings are able to stir people’s souls.  Now I understand!  Thank you Keith.

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