You’re strolling down a busy sidewalk, absorbed in your thoughts. Suddenly someone walking the other way glances in your direction, you glance back, and your reverie is broken. Two souls meet, briefly, then the moment passes, and without breaking stride you each walk on.
‘My work is about that moment,’ says painter Mavis Smith—’hinting at a narrative, yet remaining intentionally elusive.’ Smith is part storyteller, part portraitist, and part stage director; her images are like single frames of a movie with no beginning and no end, as mysterious figures gaze out at the world with enigmatic calm, surrounded by swimming pools, moody interiors, and distant skies. Often working in the ancient craft of egg tempera, which was used by artists as diverse as Botticelli, Vermeer, and Andrew Wyeth, she slowly builds up layer upon layer of translucent color. The resulting images seem to radiate light from within, making the people who inhabit her luminous world both arresting and slightly surreal. ‘Mystery combined with elegance is one of my goals,’ she says.
Bucks County resident Mavis Smith studied at the Pratt Institute in the 1970s, and has exhibited her work in Holland and Switzerland as well as Santa Fe, New York City, and at several venues in Bucks County. She is also a prolific illustrator and author of children’s books, having authored 10 and illustrated at least 75. Organized by the Michener Art Museum, this exhibition sampled a range of Smith’s work, including both paintings and works on paper as well as figurative images, still lifes, and her most recent images of twisted and convoluted tree branches.
One of the things I strive to express in my work is a sense of interrupted space and time. We come into contact with dozens of people on a daily basis, catch their eyes for a brief moment and move on, never knowing the intricate accumulation of experience that forms their reality. My work is about that moment—hinting at a narrative, yet remaining intentionally elusive. I am probably as much influenced by film directors—Kubrick or Hitchcock, for example—as by other painters.
A lot of my paintings are done in egg tempera. Working on a true gesso panel, I alternate brush strokes of thicker paint with washes of pure translucent color. I build up hundreds of layers like this, until the end result has a luminous, ethereal quality. Although labor intensive, it is a technique that I think enhances the slightly surreal sensibility of my work. As for imagery, I rarely have a fully formed concept in mind when I begin a painting. Instead, I start out with a face or pose that intrigues me; then once I am caught up in the physical execution of the piece, other elements of the composition suggest themselves.
Mavis Smith, 2010