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Lionel Smit’s leap of faith

In the Lionel Smit Studio, we find light and space in abundance – and an artist revelling in the opportunity to give his imagination and talents free rein.

Lionel Smit Studio
Artist Lionel Smit in his studio.

It’s a classic Cape winter’s day as I pull off the R44 and into the parking lot of the Lionel Smit Studio on the outskirts of Somerset West. The northwester is howling, rain lashes the windscreen and dark grey clouds swirl ominously about the summit of the not-so-clear Helderberg.

And yet, as I step inside the voluminous gallery of the Lionel Smit Studio, it’s as bright as a spring morning. Light filters in from every angle, highlighting the bright splashes of colourful canvas and sculpture that adorn the walls. From behind a glass doorway, Lionel waves in greeting as he deals with his two ebullient dogs spending the day at the office.

This striking gallery and studio space in the historic Paardevlei precinct is the work of Stellenbosch-based Stuart Hermansen, a friend of Lionel’s and a respected heritage architect in the Winelands. Based on the concept of creating a contemporary skuur (barn), the studio, which opened in late 2018, comprises two offset parallel sheds. Comparable to the likes of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, the space is awash with light, from the oversized windows and doors to the apex of the roof that allows daylight to flood in. As we sip coffee surrounded by his diverse portfolio of art and sculpture, Lionel looks around and says with a smile, “It was a major leap of faith but it’s worked out so well.”

That is, of course, something of an understatement when it comes to his career as a whole, for Lionel Smit is today nothing short of a household name in the world of contemporary art. His father, Anton Smit, is an acclaimed sculptor in his own right and Lionel’s childhood offered no end of early inspiration. As a student he enrolled in Pretoria’s Pro Arte School of Arts and at 16 he set out on his own journey of creativity, initially in his father’s unoccupied studio space.

Lionel Smit Studio
Works by the artist on exhibit at MOCA Miami.

A move to Cape Town in 2009 was the turning point in his career, though, and his unique expressions of local faces immediately grabbed the art world’s attention. In 2013, his painting Kholiswa was exhibited at London’s National Portrait Gallery and won the Viewer’s Choice Award; collectors from across the globe came calling. In the years since, he’s hosted solo exhibitions at leading galleries on four continents and his work is held in both public and private collections.

In that sense the Lionel Smit Studio today functions as both a production space and a historical record. “The studio is something of a museum, a showcase of my work,” says Lionel, “but it’s also allowed me to do more, to do bigger shows, because I have the space and capacity to do that now.”

Indeed, as we chat, a clutch of canvases lean akimbo against the walls as his staff prepare to ship works abroad for his upcoming solo exhibition at the Uitstalling Art Gallery in Genk, Belgium.

Lionel Smit Studio
Lionel Smit’s unique expression of the human form, centred on the universality of the human face, has made him a household name from New York to Hong Kong.

It’s a space that’s both beautiful and highly productive. To one side the sculpting studio features large double doors that allow larger works to be removed, while upstairs a separate, meticulously dust-free paper studio is set aside for printmaking. One wall is filled with older works, alongside pieces by artists who have inspired him. A Skotnes catches my eye as we walk past, while above us the oversized cork lamps are the work of award-winning designer Laurie Wiid. Wherever my gaze falls, it finds a space brimming with creativity.

“It’s my studio, which happens to have all these different elements to it,” explains Lionel. “We want to be a destination in the Helderberg, one that can become a space to inspire people with the arts.”

The mezzanine level houses administrative and production staff, while across the gallery a painting studio is strewn with canvases and easels, brushes and paint tubes. Through a towering glass door, rainwater pouring from the roof is channelled into natural ponds book-ended by Lionel’s sculptures.

“THE STUDIO IS SOMETHING OF A MUSEUM, A SHOW- CASE OF MY WORK, BUT IT’S ALSO ALLOWED ME TO DO BIGGER SHOWS BECAUSE I HAVE THE SPACE AND CAPACITY NOW.”

As an artist he is known for both painting and sculpture, though the long months of lockdown last year saw him spending more time with a paintbrush in hand than clay.

“I want to be an artist working across different mediums but there’s always a special love for painting,” says Lionel, his gaze drifting across a wall of completed works. “I love the immediacy of painting and drawing. You pick up a brush or pencil and it’s there. With sculpture it goes to mould making, moulds go to the foundry for casting, then there’s discussion about patinas and mounting. So the time between sculpting and seeing the end product can be months. It’s a very different process.” We’re chatting in his painting studio and it’s hard to ignore the vast canvas that dominates one wall. The opening of the studio space has let Lionel’s expansive vision run wild, creating ever-larger works.

“It’s something that I naturally wanted to do, to paint bigger and bigger and bigger. I found myself in a large space and had the ability to paint larger works,” he explains. “I also find it easier to work in a larger format, to be more abstract yet also make the work feel more natural.”

Lionel Smit Studio
The artist studio just outside Somerset West by heritage architect Stuart Hermansen.

One of these works is the largest piece he’s attempted to date, a vast 18-square-metre canvas in its early stages of creation. “I asked my canvas-maker in Johannesburg to make me the biggest canvas he could,” laughs Lionel, who says the inspiration for the piece is Pablo Picasso’s iconic Guernica, a mural-sized work in oils painted in 1937 and inspired by a bombing in the Spanish Civil War. “I know now what I want to paint on it. I just need to figure it out.”

Hundreds of hours spent alone in the studio during the lockdowns of 2020 have also left their own indelible mark on the artist – and his work. “My work has definitely changed. I’m returning to my old roots with a lot of classical painting, that ideal of realness, but combining it with abstract elements,” he says. “Those two poles are becoming more intense.”

Lionel Smit Studio
The Lionel Smit Studio is open to the public Mondays to Fridays, 09:00 until 16:00.

A smaller sculptural work in progress shows this combination of approaches: on a sculpted human head the artwork around the eyes is intricate and finely detailed, contrasting with a neck leaning to the abstract in both form and texture. And the human visage remains the central theme of Lionel’s art. Uniquely, many of his muses channel the multicultural heritage of South Africa, with Cape Malay women a recurring theme in his work.

“I find the mixture of people fascinating,” he reflects. “It’s an amalgamation of heritage, and the idea that a face represents a human being in our world rather than focusing on a particular race. It represents us as humankind. Those emotional connections that come through are so important. It’s why the face is so important: when you look at it there’s an immediate connection. I love that interaction.”

The universality of the human face is undoubtedly what has garnered Lionel acclaim both at home and abroad. And after 18 months in which we have covered our faces with masks, out of fear, that immediate human connection is all the more welcome.

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