Being Duncan Smith - an interview

Duncan Smith is one of those rare people who manages to significantly improve one's day just by being there. Interesting (yet unassuming) and interested, he is kind, hospitable and at times very funny. Over the years he has been - and in some cases still is - a teacher, principal, educational consultant and Art tutor. But over all, under all and around all he is an artist.

As long as he can remember Duncan says he has been interested in painting. In fact he was five years old when he painted his first deliberate portrait -- an enlargement of a picture of one of his early heroes, Robin Hood. He still has that painting. "Even at that early age, I was fascinated by the way Robin's fingers bent around his arrow and bowstring, and I strove to emphasis the sinews straining in his arm as he pulled it hard back in readiness to fire the arrow."

During those early years Duncan continued to experiment, his awareness of body proportions and of tones and the way colours blend growing all the while. "Both of my parents modelled the skills of 'noticing'. They taught me not just to look about, but to actually see the details of the world around me -- like noticing the colour graduations that occur as hills layer into the distance, or discerning specific light effects within drips of water as they dribble along skin.

"Ever since I was little, rendering the illusion of three dimensions convincingly onto a flat surface has continued to interest me."

Aside from his parents' influence Duncan had little formal training. "I've never taken any formal Art classes. I wasn't able to take Art as a subject at school until 6th Form and then later when I got to Teachers' College it was considered fashionable to leave students to experiment without interference." So he learned by doing.

Do artists have particular (innate) abilities in various areas of perception, or can anyone be an artist with the right training? "Anyone can develop proficient drawing and painting skills by deliberately learning techniques and exploring a range of styles. Yet some seem to be born with a more immediate form of artistic talent and passion. Just as certain people are able to use words to express ideas easily and effectively, so some people seem gifted at combining colour, shape, texture and line into a coherent and visually expressive form of communication."


hilst Duncan has enjoyed some financial return from selling paintings and tutoring in Art over the years, he does not see his art as just another job. "I do not do it for the financial reward. I do it because I simply enjoy creating!" And so he identifies himself as a painter and sculptor rather than as a professional artist.

"Professional artists tend to produce work for a market -- they have to please other people -- whereas painters and sculptors can paint and sculpt whatever we like. Our satisfaction comes from pursuing the inner prompt to explore and portray things that are personally, socially or universally significant. I'm more drawn to expressing ideas and concepts that are important to me than to fulfilling particular commissions where the client dictates the subject matter or the techniques I should use."

So what is it that prompts Duncan to paint and sculpt? Is he wanting to communicate something to others? Or express something to God, or about God?

"One of my personal art-related quests is to give visible and emotive forms to a range of what I consider to be worthwhile spiritual realities that underlay life. These may be things that go unnoticed, are under-defined, overlooked, undervalued or simply those things that inhabit the invisible realms -- all these can become useful and treasured once they are contemplated.

"I seek to select and render painted forms that will literally bring to the surface of our consciousness aspects of hidden value. I find that visible portrayals of the essential spiritual realities tend to promote a sense of celebration or healing."

As with many artists, Duncan has about him something of the poet/prophet/philosopher.

"Particular themes re-occur in my work. Images and styles of execution are chosen for their suitability and potency in regard to each theme. With the theme of grief, for example: I start with the belief that in order to live light-heartedly it is useful to consciously recognise, acknowledge and process incidental causes of grief on a regular basis. Otherwise disappointments and losses may cloud day-to-day living.

"So, many of my supra-photorealistic figure and portrait paintings admit sadness, or a sense of needing to let go things previously held important. Yet, the same painting will include features of hope and aspects designed to eventually sway viewers towards a mood of quiet contentment; even to leave them experiencing a hint of joy, or healing, in the memory-echoes of what has been seen."


nd God? How does the fact that he is a follower of Christ affect Duncan's art?

"Art flows from how you see things. And the way one sees those things that are basic to faith and meaning usually flows from our childhood. Having been born into a family-friendship with God and Jesus, I've always regarded Jesus as a major hero/older brother who has been very much at home with us in our home and is equally present in the mundane and ordinary as he is in the special worship-centred affairs.

"While still understanding and respecting the huge realities of God being 'beyond' -- as the Lord of the Universe and the Lord of our lives -- 'the Christ' has become more familiar to me as Emmanuel (God with us) and as the intimately inhabiting Spirit within. I believe that worship is transportable, it is an 'inlook', an outlook and a caring, truth-sensitive attitude that's able to permeate each day, all daylong. Prayer is like an ongoing conversation, an alertness to God's forever-presence, without the need for 'Dear God . . . Amen.'

"A major signature of my creativity is the free-and-easy yet persistent celebrating of life's numerous 'God-given treats', using paint and sculpting materials. I have underlying guidelines that influence my choices in art (and in everything else). I endeavour to involve Emmanuel in all of my daily living and in every choice I make (including my creativity, passions and create-activity!) and to be in a continuously prayerful attitude: being 'alert to life', honouring love, and determining to promote wisdom. (This differs from the in-and-out method that usually defines prayer.) I also strive to 'do what you do do well (boy!)' and in all, to enjoy!

"Three other broadly Christlike aspirations that I have found to contain priceless treasure are: appreciating the nature of, and usefulness in applying, unconditional love principles in every situation; grieving well; and practising being content, in both times of need and times of plenty.

"Some people need many elements of their day to go well before they see the day as successful. In contrast, for me, to wake in the morning (to be alive, yet again!) in itself makes the day already successful. Anything and everything else thereafter is extra, bonus, over-the-top, gift, privilege and opportunity stuff -- like the numerous down-to-earth opportunities to practise giving, receiving and sharing love, with our friends, enemies or those who just don't care!

"Occurrences of pain and betrayal, loss and suffering have been significant in my life. So it's with eyes wide-open to the tragic that I still choose to remain grateful for being included in creation at all! In this attitude of gratitude I consider life abundantly full and meaningful."


uncan believes that as life and art are intertwined, so are their subject matter. "My art tends to be thoughtful, rather than incidental entertainment, and so it encompasses a wide spectrum of 'life in all its fullness' -- including the sensuous, spiritual, sexual, inspirational, textural, natural, physical and relational.

But does the fact Duncan is a Christian mean that there are certain things he would choose not to depict in his art? "No, I see every aspect of life as being available to draw on for inspiration. Though so far I have tended to employ symbols and elements that I feel are 'celebrational', or that might prompt the viewer to usefully contemplate issues of faith, reality and life.

"Some artists are inclined to portray aspects of the outer world such as physical landscapes or portraits of particular people. Others prefer to examine things psychological or emotional. Often, this results in abstracted art -- in the attempt to engender a feeling or impression from within.

"I've found that learning an array of techniques which incorporate a wide range of materials enables greater choice when seeking to express ideas. So instead of presenting one signature style, my artwork is extremely diverse. Technically, I continually oscillate between supra photo-realism and completely abstract, textural pieces. Whatever the style, each piece is permeated with the use of symbolic metaphor."

Duncan is quite comfortable painting nudes, something which some Christians struggle with.

"A few people who see life divided into sacred and secular -- 'purely spirit' and 'fallen' -- have at times expressed concern at the fact that I am comfortable to include in some of my paintings people without clothes. Though others have shared feelings of affinity, an emotional uplifting -- even on occasions emotional healing -- from pondering over various paintings of mine (some of which have include naked people)."


oes Duncan hope for a particular response to his work from viewers, or is the act of creating -- and having 'what he saw' out there - enough reward in itself?

"Viewers often give a similar response to particular works. Yet other creations produce a variety of personalised meanings or emotional release. From time to time some artwork has been borrowed for reflective worship in church and Spiritual Direction weekend contexts.

"But when I am creating the work I am not simply concentrating on what it may mean or suggest to others. I also wish to produce a well-considered and executed, authentic work of art."

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