Bits 'n' Pieces: Artist transforms neighbors into larger-than-life works

By Ashley Swanson, Columbian features news coordinator

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Though the tools were familiar — charcoal, erasers, paper — the scale of artist Michael Smith's portraits also required the use his entire body. Often hopping up and down a ladder to reach parts of the 6-foot-tall portraits, "I was using a chunk of charcoal the size of my fist," he said. Smith viewed it as a "kinetic form of drawing."

"I'm drawn to faces that are very interesting for me." A resident of the Hough neighborhood for the past 12 years, Smith wanted to honor his neighbors. "I was looking for people that we see every day in the downtown area, who are working on sustainability and improving the livability of our community."

Smith's work was part of a larger series of smaller portraits and paintings depicting the faces of downtown. It was the opportunity to take over the space of Vancouver Organization of Contemporary Art, 906 Harney St., that allowed Smith to literally expand his ideas. "I really appreciate the people that trusted me with their likenesses, it is striking to see yourself over 6 feet tall," said Smith, especially because not all his subjects were comfortable with being redrawn as towering giants. Though they were much happier with Smith's 2-foot portraits.

"The smaller portraits were powerful; I wanted to see what it would feel like if you monumentalize the pieces, how the viewing would change and how I would interact with them. You're sucked into (the portraits), they encompass your whole perspective," he said.

'A wonderful experience'

Smith began the series of eight large-scale portraits in November, hosting open studio days so the public could watch his work in progress. "This has been just a wonderful experience, I cannot thank the VOCA organization enough for what they've done, turning over their gallery space to a studio," Smith said, "Their walls were absolutely perfect." Smith hopes to one day transform this body of work into a complete show or perhaps published.

"Not only has this space, but this whole project has freed up a lot of my artistic thinking, freed up my thought process to be 'Let's try this and see what happens.' It's really critical for artists to do (that kind of exploration)."

Michael Smith will be hosting one more open studio from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at VOCA before the portrait series is taken down.

"I have fallen in love with the portrait as a subject," Smith said, but, "I still wouldn't call myself a portrait artist. I want my pieces to transcend that label, and who knows what direction they'll end up taking."


Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.