Since the early ‘80s, artist Ashley Smith has lived and worked from a crumbling, windswept headland on the North Canterbury coast. He bought the land after discovering, during the course of a a six year global odyssey, that his juices liked being near the sea and were most stimulated by his home region's crazy weather patterns (although its recent seismic action which gutted his nearest city, Christchurch, he could do without!).
The big meander introduced him to art techniques and design approaches far removed from those of his early art school, ad. agency training and also introduced him, in the 602 Club, Madison Wisconsin, to his future wife, Gretchen . In the subsequent years while they assembled a house, studio and family on the afore mentioned crumbling, windswept headland and Gretchen worked at the local school, Ashley called on some of his earlier design and illustration skills to bolster the income from his sporadic but generally well received exhibitions.
The big odyssey, previously mentioned - and subsequent travels, have seen Ashley working for publishers and art studios in Sydney, London and Chicago (as well as back home), studying batik in Indonesia and being a member of the Stuttgart Art Society.
Arriving back in Christchurch in the mid-‘70s got him tangled up in television and theatre work and saw him engaged in a serious stint of painting.
Prime Minister Muldoon lends a hand...
The artifice and characters which politics seems to attract had already emerged as fertile ground for cartooning and painting. One particular work, ‘Man of Mite' ( which showed the prime-minister grooming himself with Marmite, NZ's iconic breakfast spread) so incensed a viewer that he snatched it from the gallery window, broke it over his knee and caused a court case which inspired a local paper to give Ashley weekly cartooning and illustration work for the next decade or so. This was the tenuous financial life-line which let the Smiths escape into the boonies. In those distant pre-email days,the art - in hard copy - would be delivered by the truckie bringing the region's wool clip to market or the guy collecting the town's milk. Ashley also illustrated the political column of a business magazine for 20 years from about that time.
"If you can't think straight, think sideways!"
For better or worse Ashley's energies are always being dispersed over a wide array of projects. His first one-man show way back in 1976 featured only two sculptures - but now things are getting serious! He's discovered lost wax bronze-casting, been part of several retreats in the Wairarapa and Nelson and is getting encouraging sales. For his last show Ashley even sculpted a mousy old kauri fence-post into a mousy old kauri sculpture! It seems that breaking out of the confines of two dimensions is an underlying urge and a level of animation and film-making is also emerging.
In an attempt to lessen the confusion inherent in juggling a range of projects - so melted wax and wood-chips don't compete with the water-colours for bench space, Ashley has tried to geographically isolate them by adapting farm outbuildings on his location to be additional studio space. It's kind of working, although you can always be sure that the measuring tape or extension cord will be in the building that you're not.
Ashley vs. Ashley...
Over the decades Ashley has designed a huge raft of stuff - for clients and himself: from set-designs to logos, from his own buildings to clothing and furniture. But the one thing he has never resolved the true form of... is his own day. As a struggling freelancer with a young family he was reluctant to turn down a commission and although he's now far more discriminating, a level of that ethos seems to have bedded in. Consequently his own glorious free-ranging projects were sometimes scrabbling to achieve supremacy. At the outset, to avoid any creatively rich but commercially harebrained schemes dragging down the family finances, Ashley borrowed from Ronald Reagan.
The American Defense Dept. lends a hand...
In much the same way as Ronald was creating the Starwars shield to protect the States from incoming malevolence, Ashley created the ‘Manuka Bay Studios' brand ( and bank account) under the umbrella of which his own projects were instigated. It was hoped that this strand would ultimately dominate the one feeding off commissions - and sometimes it does. The brand still endures, in its own erratic way, and there is currently a range of Manuka Bay cards and prints and a range of steel sculptures.
A mutant offshoot, ‘Manuka Bay Music' excitingly sprouted in 2009 and produced Tyson, their son's debut album ‘There's Nothing You Can't Pretend.' And in 2010 a converted shearing -shed on the crumbling windswept headland became a recording studio for daughter, Tamara's band Mundi's album ‘In The Blink Of An Eye'.
These days, with an exhibition regime that assures Ashley Smith the painter a regular purging crescendo of creative frenzy and panic, Ashley Smith the artist feels more relaxed about pursuing fresh projects. A couple of recent book illustration commissions were most satisfying, ( he has a couple of his own books gnawing towards the light!) and the increasing accessibility of ways to animate his images must be explored...
...but room can always be found for an occasional, tasty commission!
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