– Story by Chelsea Forman Photography by Don Denton
Vancouver Island’s Blu Smith, one of Canada’s most prestigious abstract artists, is garnering international recognition for his innovative abstract landscapes.
But Blu’s signature style as an artist didn’t begin where it is today. And as he points out, artists go through many style stages — often reflecting their life paths — and each phase is imperative to the continued growth and evolution of their work.
In 1989, Blu moved to the island from his hometown of Vernon. He completed the four-year fine arts program at the University of Victoria and worked at a sign shop. After graduation, Blu remained at the sign shop for several years, continuing to pursue his career in painting on the side.
“I would show my art anywhere I could — from furniture stores to hair salons — just trying to get my work out there,” he recalls.
During his time working at the sign shop, Blu was immersed in a pop art phase of his career, and he credits this for cultivating an adoration of large-format art.
“Back in university — like most young artists — I was experimenting and trying out different techniques and styles to figure out what was going to fit for me,” he says. “I was doing a lot of pop art, which really stemmed from my work in the sign business. I was implementing lettering, and working in large format — one component that I still use today.”
Blu became involved with several local galleries in Victoria and from there, his work began to slowly trickle out across western Canada, eastern Canada, into the United States and eventually overseas.
Before the advent of social media, he says, it took an all-consuming effort for an artist to gain recognition. But the various platforms available these days have helped elevate his career.
“With social media, the potential now is unlimited — you’re instantly worldwide with the reach that you get. It has been an instrumental part of my business over the past few years. It really allows an artist to take control of his or her career a lot more,” he says, adding, “The old model was more challenging because you would get into galleries who would be responsible for marketing you and [therefore] allowing you to be in the studio and paint. It’s far more of a partnership now.”
Blu’s style progressed from pop art into realistic paintings, and by the late ‘90s, he once again witnessed a shift in his work.
“I was running into a stumbling block where I found my work was really stagnating. I was doing a lot of realistic paintings and was struggling to find the creativity in that. It was more of a technical skill than a creative approach,” he says.
“I decided to branch out and experiment doing non-representational abstract pieces — just throwing the paint around on the canvas and seeing what happened. It was only supposed to be about a week‚ but that didn’t really happen. The abstract work really took off and I found what I was looking for. The floodgates opened.”
Blu didn’t look back for the next 15 years. His reputation as an abstract artist spanned globally. It wasn’t until 2013 that Blu’s career took the next subtle and unexpected shift.
“We moved to North Saanich, onto a mostly tree-covered property. In our previous home, we would get the sunrise. In our new home, we would get light flooding through the trees — and it really affected me. I started to incorporate what I saw every day outside my studio into my abstracts. It began to develop into a really interesting journey with these abstract landscapes. I found it unique and fresh.”
While Blu continues to produce pure abstract art, his abstract landscapes have gained renown for both their beauty and stylistic rarity. His work can be found in Victoria at the West End Gallery.
“It was imperative for me to go through the phase of pure abstraction. It was such a learning phase for me on how to handle paint and what boundaries I could push. I was able to take everything I had learned over the previous 15 years as an abstract artist and meld them with West Coast landscapes,” he says. “If I had never done that phase, my paintings wouldn’t be where they are today.”
All the various phases that artists move through equip them with tools or new skills to take forward on their artistic journeys. For Blu Smith, the evolution of his career has been unpredictable, with an ongoing inspiration to explore the limits of his own creativity and push forward through new phases. And as life unfolds with unexpected shifts, so too does the story Blu tells through his art.