Stuart Smythe

Stuart Smythe, a New Zealand-born artist who now calls Bali home, takes No Cure on a journey of mind, body, soul and great design.

WORDS: ANTHONY THOMAS / PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID HEWITSON

“At the end of the day it’s our hands that record our thoughts and if it’s through a machine there are too many channels for it to lose purity.” 

This commitment to analogue creation is a pillar of Smythe’s work. Favouring pencil, ink and acrylic wherever possible, his abstinence from digital tools is an interesting decision for someone trained in graphic design. 

“You can’t replicate the energy and feeling of a hand-drawn line digitally. It just doesn’t translate,” Smythe explains.

His work permeates authenticity as a result. Many pieces in his portfolio sit as easily as contemporary illustrations as they do tribal sketches, an aesthetic directly related to Smythe’s affinity and experience with the environment. 

“Process for me is about feeling. Life is process, that’s all we have. Every thing is in constant motion; the places I visit and ideas for art come from that. Ideas mostly come what’s reflecting in my world or the change I’d like to see. Sometimes it’s direct, other times not.”

More often than not these ideas make their way into a concept pad. These books are the lifeblood of Smythe’s creativity, housing sketches, words, random thoughts and everything in between. They are a safe place for him to catalogue lightbulb moments. 

Where these books differ from those of many other creatives is ideas aren’t simply dumped and left to die. Rather than allowing them to become graveyards of untapped potential, Smythe leverages them when inspiration is scarce.

It is very much a dual process of immediate response to stimuli and slow-burn thinking to connect the dots, yet the work maintains stylistic consistency. He attributes this to growing up among the surf culture of Waihi Beach, a beach community to the south of Auckland. Even after moving to Sydney to study and eventually taking off to see the world, surfing remained a stable piece of his identity. 

“There has been times in my life where I have felt more comfortable in the ocean surfing solo than being on land havingto deal with rules and responsibilities,” Smythe says.

“I’ve lost more than one job because of surfing, but in the ocean there is no responsibility except being a good human.”

While that youthful abandon has since being replaced with a balance of oceanic escapism and human reality, one thing remains true; Smythe and surf culture are inseparable.

Purity is a concept that continues to emerge in his outputs, a trend that really gained momentum after relocating to Bali. Prior to this, Smythe was working heavily with graphites, a medium he found pulled him into a time consuming pursuit of perfection. The distinction between perfect and pure is important, in that one is orchestrated and the other is raw. 

Smythe recognised this and began to view imperfection as a more suitable vessel for representing the world – creation without consequence, as he puts it. 

“The only constant is change, and perfection doesn’t exist. We live in a chaotic world and I feel that working quickly portrays that energy in a simple piece and message,” he says.

Consciously separating himself from the rigid control design taught him would have been difficult in the western world, but Bali proved ideal for tapping into the more visceral depths of creation.

“Being in a third world country allows you to get away from preconceptions of what every body else is doing. It allows you to escape the saturation of corporate pollution and visual culture, instead being submerged in a dirty paradise of trash and beauty. A contrasting environment that constantly evolves in a much different way than a planned city, where people are surviving using their primal skills and not collecting material spam to impress peers. The tropics allow my work and mind to be free.”

It’s a perspective soaked in shrewd self-insight, but having being in Bali for three years now, Smythe is shifting his focus from introspection to focus more intently on what’s happening externally. 

“I have been enjoying trying to tell a story and set a scenario with natural elements and symbols. I almost see them as landscapes or a moment in a wondrous place. There is more out there than our eye can see and I try to feel that and put that into my art. I try to get in touch with what else might be out there,” he explains.

Ultimately, the questions his work addresses are existential in nature. How sustainable is our current consumption rate? Will this have an impact on us in the future? What is being done? Huge questions by any measure. Smythe doesn’t claim to have all the answers, either; he is much more concerned with subtle promotion of environmental awareness through use of natural elements. 

What’s most remarkable about Smythe is his willingness to neglect ego in favour of accepting he is part of a much bigger picture, poetically observing, “The world starts to look really beautiful when you see the details as a creation of something much larger than we are.”

www.stuartsmythe.com