Oil paints & aerosols: artist Stefan Smit creates magic in any medium

Abi Dengler chats to the Joburg artist about the inspiration behind his urban oil portraits, Banksy's latest stunt and his first solo exhibition

02 December 2018 - 00:00 By Abi Dengler

"Every artist was once an amateur." The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson certainly ring true for Stefan Smit. This now established painter began by filling countless sketch books. But six years ago Smit decided to put down the pen and pick up the paint brush. Since then he has drawn inspiration from numerous artists.
"I've been a huge fan of James Jean and I also love artists like Jeremy Mann. I love the balance between careful detail and having the courage to wipe away something you've spent hours working on."
Smit enjoys the idea and danger of destruction so much, and admits that he cannot create a piece of work without having something nearby with which he can easily destroy it. Whether it's a scraper, palette knife or window squeegee, it has its place among his brushes and pallets.
When I ask Smit whether he's following any world art trends at the moment he answers: "I don't think it would be called a trend, but I was interested in the way that Banksy made a statement about the art world recently by attaching a device to one of his paintings that shredded the work after it sold for quite a large amount of money at Sotheby's. It made me question how we see art and consider the value we randomly attach to artwork. What is it that causes us to perceive something as valuable?"
I sense a theme beginning to emerge in Smit's work. So when he tells me that he considers the main inspiration behind his artwork to be human interaction, I'm surprised. I thought that he was fascinated by the idea of destruction, not the building of relationships.
"Everyone exists within a social environment, so regardless of what one's unique microcosm in any immediate vicinity is, everyone finds themselves in one type of relationship or other. I'm interested in looking at how people interact with other people in their environment, which I believe results in a kind of social understanding and from that understanding we can make certain political assumptions," he explains.
Intrigued by his answer, I pry a little deeper into what has defined his career, "I haven't had any career-defining moments but instead I've had a series of introspective reflections brought about by my travels abroad and by my various experiences in this country. These experiences continue to nurture and mature my interest in people and how they relate to their surroundings. In turn, my interest in people and how they behave have fed my artistic expression."
Lately Smit has been offered opportunities to work for clients like Nike, Sony, Showmax and has been offered the chance to travel to Dubai, Sri Lanka and Denmark for his work.
CURB, Smit's upcoming show in Johannesburg, will be his first solo exhibition.
Smit uses traditional oil painting techniques coupled with a style that foregrounds the surface tensions that energise the space between people and their concrete environments. He approaches his subjects in a way that echoes the urban environments captured in these ethereal city compositions, and then, through his work, comments on how the subjects are influenced by their urban conditioning.
"In previous exhibitions I've focused on similar themes. In 2016, I exhibited a show titled Imprint/Blueprint which was about peoples' desire to use graffiti to paint on walls, a desire which can be traced back to the ancient urge to leave a mark on our surroundings, just as our forefathers did in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux."
In fact, Smit is so inspired by graffiti, that spray paint has become one of his favourite mediums, with oil paint.
"I love the viscosity and intense pigments that oils provide and obviously spray paint allows me to work on huge-scale pieces, which is liberating."
• CURB is a one night only solo exhibition which takes place on December 5 at GTC, Grant Thornton Building, Wanderers Office Park, 52 Corlett Drive, Illovo, Johannesburg. Email

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