Posted by: bluelanternstudio | April 18, 2013

Herring spawn inspiration

There’s something about herring that I’m drawn to, over and over again. Maybe it’s the silver flash of their bodies in the water, maybe it’s the fact that they’re essential to our coastal BC ecosystems (food for pretty much everyone else) and yet in public consciousness largely overshadowed by the sexier wild salmon. Regardless of what it is, for a few years now I’ve been longing to see herring in action. You know, the actual SPAWN.

Herring (detail of painting by Robi Smith)

I came so close this year. In mid-March, I dragged my family to Parksville (under the guise of a family reunion, but the real driver for me was getting to the Brant Wildlife Festival and seeing those herring do their thing). In my ignorance, I thought the spawn itself (where the females birth their eggs in the eelgrass and seaweed, and the males ejaculate their sperm all over to fertilize them) would last a good 10 days. Instead, I was told by some very kind scientists that the spawn, though momentous, actually is a very brief and unpredictable event that is pretty much over in a night. So I missed it by about 5 days.

What I didn’t miss, though, was seeing the miracle of the herring roe—tiny, glassy balls clinging to seaweeds and rocks in the ocean and strewn along the  beaches at low tide.

Herring roe clinging to seaweed, Rathtrevor beach

Herring roe clinging to seaweed, Rathtrevor beach

I also witnessed the thousands of gulls, brant geese, scoters and other seabirds who descend to feast on the roe.

Seabirds on the beach at Fanny Bay, BC (photo: Steve Hodder)

Seabirds on the beach at Fanny Bay, BC (photo: Steve Hodder)

And the sea lions  who journey south from Alaska and north from California to partake in the incredible buffet. All that was deep, and rich, and satisfying.

Sea lions battling for dominance (photo: Steve Hodder)

Sea lions battling for dominance (photo: Steve Hodder)

But what was most mesmerizing for me was the herring roe:




Now that I’m back in my studio, I’m working with all of this to create new work. Stay tuned!

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | December 28, 2012

Stories of interconnection

As the year comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on my work and what I want to do next. Big questions, big answers.

I’m ready to create new work—paintings, drawings, collages—that celebrate the richness and diversity of coastal marine life, without the overshadow of doom and gloom that my paintings have sometimes had. While those messages are  important, they don’t have to be central to my thinking and creating all the time. I will continue to talk about the need for ocean conservation and protection, and support organizations who do the work on the ground. Me, I’m going to focus on the miracle of life and exploring the magic that happens under the water. I want to inspire others, not add to overwhelm and distress.

From Plankton to Whales: Stories of Interconnection

Some specific species are calling to me, namely gray whales and Brant geese. Both are on migratory paths that lead them from Baja, Mexico, past British Columbia to Alaska and the Arctic. My family spends time each year in the Baja and on Vancouver Island, even though home base is Vancouver, and I love that these species connect these two disparate climates and cultures.

Gray whale migration (Collage, artist: Robi Smith)

Gray whale migration (Collage, artist: Robi Smith)

For a few years, I’ve been aware that February is the time to go to the Baja. The geese leave early in the month to start their migration north, and the grey whales are calving and gearing up for their long trek. March is when they arrive at Vancouver Island, and there are two festivals that draw people to greet them: a Brant Wildlife Festival in Parksville and the Pacific Rim Whale Festival in Tofino and Uclulet.

I’m interested in these two species, but I’m more interested in the biodiversity of the ecosystems that sustain them along the coast and how changes to those ecosystems affect an entire web of life. At this point I have way more questions and curiosity than answers. I know the art I create as a result of new explorations will be different than anything I’ve done before.

At this point, what I need is time—to read, to talk to people, to get out on the water, to think, and to draw and paint my way into something new. To this end, I’ve started a new Indiegogo campaign to fund these first few months of exploration.

When you contribute to my campaign, you get some great perks in return, not the least of which is contributing to the creation of new, thoughtful, meaningful art that can be shared. And I will share it. If my campaign is fully funded, I will be in a position to freely share the use of the images I create with non-profit and other organizations working to raise awareness about ocean issues.

I would love for you to read more about my campaign, contribute what you can, and share it with anyone in your network who might be interested ( Many thanks!

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | December 5, 2012

Vancity Art Commission

This past summer I was awarded one of a handful of commissions for original artwork by Vancity Credit Union. My piece, now hanging in the credit union’s newly renovated South Burnaby Branch, is a mixed media collage of Byrne Creek Ravine, a local park. If you’re in Burnaby, you can see the piece in the Branch’s Community Stage Room, a space that’s available for use by non-profit organizations.

Byrne Creek Ravine by Robi Smith

Byrne Creek Ravine (mixed media collage, 36″ x 24″, artist: Robi Smith)

In developing the piece, I wanted to create the feeling of being in the ravine, surrounded by the fish, birds and animals that live there. I also wanted to incorporate the surrounding community and its relationship with nature.

To begin with, I took a number of walks through the park and down the ravine to the water below. I took a series of photographs which became my reference points for developing the final piece. This one of me sketching was taken by a photographer at the Burnaby Now newspaper.

Me sketching in Byrne Creek Ravine (photo courtesy the Burnaby Now)

Me sketching in Byrne Creek Ravine (photo courtesy the Burnaby Now)

The artwork is a mixture of collage and acrylic painting on a wood panel. Back in my studio, I began sketching out the basic forms in acrylic paint, and then painting in the background.

Sketching in the background

Filling in the background

I then began adding collage elements. To bring the idea of the local community into the piece, I sourced some local history books and pamphlets about the original pioneers who settled in the area. I cut out the shapes of the forest (rocks, trees, logs, ferns, water) from the images and text from these papers, painted them with washes of acrylic and glued them on to the painted background.

First collage elements

I then took maps of Burnaby and cut out in the shapes of animals. I painted them, drawing in details with ink, before adding them to the piece.

spawning coho

Because I wanted the animals and birds in the final piece to be true to the ones found in the park, I contacted the Byrne Creek Streamkeepers. They were very helpful, providing me with a list of species that volunteers have seen in the ravine. While I didn’t include every one, I did include a beaver, raccoons, skunk, coyote, squirrel, a robin, bald eagle, hawks, barred owl, salmon, trout and a lamprey.

racoon and birds

beaver and fish


In the end, I’m very happy with the new piece. And it has a great home,  hanging next to commissioned artwork by two of my favourite local artists, Rachael Ashe and Christina Norberg.

Installation view at Vancity's South Burnaby Branch (photo: Rachael Ashe)

Installation view at Vancity’s South Burnaby Branch (photo: Rachael Ashe)

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | November 1, 2012 article about me, my work and the Eastside Culture Crawl

This just in… has published an extensive article about me. It’s a bit disconcerting to see so much of myself revealed, but it’s all true. And I am very excited to be part of this year’s Eastside Culture Crawl.

You can read the full article here:

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | October 30, 2012

Miniature stories

About a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to take a master class with one of my heroes, artist and writer Nick Bantock. A brilliant artist, he is also tremendously skilled as a teacher and many of the ways he shared of how to approach creative work still inform my art making.

One of the exercises Nick had us work through that week was to create a tiny, one inch by one inch collage entirely out of cut up postage stamps. My first attempt was messy and cluttered, but I fell in love with the scale and limited materials and have kept coming back to that concept over and over again.

“Anybody home?” (Postage stamp collage; Artist: Robi Smith)

What I’ve discovered is that you can pack a whole lot of story into an inch or two, especially when the source material is so tiny.  The pattern I’ve settled into is to find a stamp with a particular character, human or animal, that really speaks to me. I then look at other stamps to find elements that relate to that character. Together, a story is suggested, which I embellish in the title of each piece. Sometimes, the titles end up longer than the collage!

“It’s a little bigger than I imagined.” (Postage stamp collage; artist: Robi Smith)

For this one (above) I started with the woman, who in my mind was clearly in the pose of critically reviewing something. What fun to find the red bird and then a blue shell that the bird could be delivering. I imagined the castle in the background as the woman’s home. They’re standing on a piece of boreal forest. You can do that with collage.

The New Deal (Postage stamp collage; artist: Robi Smith)

If you’re in BC’s Lower Mainland, you can see these and more of my postage stamp collages at a miniatures show which opens November 15 at Place des Arts in Coquitlam. The exhibition, Positively Petite, runs until December 21.

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | September 25, 2012

Last night I dreamed …

Last night I dreamed two police officers entered my studio while I was sleeping, and re-organized everything. For the better. Really. And the cool thing is, even though the studio in my dream didn’t really look like my actual studio (it was much bigger, and really totally different), they did move one of my cabinets to a better place and created a better storage area for finished work. Which would really work in real life. Hmmm…

Last night I dreamed two police officers came to my studio and re-organized everything. For the better. (Pencil crayon and pen on paper. Artist: Robi Smith)

This is the first time I think I’ve ever drawn one of my dreams even though my latest art journal encourages just this. Funnily enough, it’s called “Last night I dreamed…”. Each page starts with this prompt (see above), and then invites you to write down or draw or paint or collage what you remember most about your nighttime meanderings. Maybe it’s just a colour or a sound, or a conversation, or maybe it’s a whole movie from start to finish (you could use more than one page).

The book is currently at the printer (!) and will be available for sale ($10) as of this Sunday. I’m launching it at Word on the Street, where I’ll be exhibiting all my books and cards. Hope to see you there!

Keep dreaming!!

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | September 22, 2012

Why I’m supporting the Dogwood Initiative

I feel very privileged to have been born and raised here in BC, a province with  an abundance of wild spaces and home to incredible biodiversity.

Western Toad (acrylic on wood panel, artist: Robi Smith)

Because of the province’s natural capital, there’s long been a tension here between those who want to profit from BC’s incredible “resources” and those who want to protect the forests, lakes, rivers and oceans for future generations and other species.

Solitude (acrylic on canvas, artist: Robi Smith)

Enter Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, Stephen Harper and China. These four players, and the very wealthy and powerful few who control them, will profit greatly from shipping crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands across BC’s wild landscape to the coast, and from the coast to Asia on huge supertankers. The environmental risks and subsequent social and economic costs for doing this are huge, which is why most British Columbians are opposed to the Enbridge proposals.

For years, the Dogwood Initiative has been running a No Tankers campaign to raise awareness of the risks posed by the supertankers on the BC coast. The campaign started with little clear stickers that people can place on the Canadian $1 loonie, which puts the loon in an oil slick. This simple campaign has raised huge awareness (it’s how I first started learning about these issues) and has led Dogwood to be one of the most visible organizations demanding that the BC coast be ridded of oil tankers altogether.

Dolly Varden (acrylic on canvas, artist: Robi Smith)

Unlike many environmental organizations, the Dogwood Initiative has chosen to stay grassroots. It is not a registered federal charity and does not receive government funding. Rather, it relies on like-minded people to support its work. In my opinion, this has led the organization to be more able to respond creatively to the challenges ahead and to be a true advocate for the coast than others (under federal law, registered charities in Canada are limited in how much advocacy work they can carry out).

The Dogwood Initiative‘s effectiveness in raising awareness about oil tankers and its ability to galvanize citizens into action are the main reasons I’ve chosen to support the organization through the sale of my calendars, along with the Wilderness Committee and the Georgia Strait Alliance (blog posts on those two to come).

To find out more about my calendar project, and to support the work of  organizations like Dogwood, check out my Indiegogo campaign. Thanks to my fans, I’m more than halfway to reaching my goal!

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | September 13, 2012

Making a handmade book

I’m getting ready to exhibit at Word on the Street on September 30 and want to do something a little different this year. While I’ll have my Fish of British Columbia Colouring Book and The Things I See art journal on hand, I’d also like to create some books that are one-of-a-kind art pieces.

A few months ago, I decided to try making a simple accordion book that loops around into a star. Instead of using white paper and then having to come up with a story or images to fill it with, I decided I would create the whole book as a collage. I cut a big map of Vancouver Island into strips and then folded and taped them into the accordion shape.

Accordion book seen from above

Accordion book seen from above

Then life intervened and the book sat relatively untouched for weeks. One big stumbling block has been what to collage on to the maps, especially since I like the maps the way they are. While I started thinking about collecting and incorporating items related to Vancouver Island, that seemed kind of predictable and boring.

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow artist Rachael Ashe hooked me up with a librarian she had met who works at a medical library. The library was culling out-of-date books and offered us the chance to look through and take home any of the books that were otherwise destined for the recycling. I came home to my studio with a big stack of inspiration.

Looking through the medical illustrations and images, I began to notice how much the lines in the human body follow patterns that show up on the street maps. I started cutting them out and gluing them on to the maps.


Arm on the front cover

I’ve also been intrigued by x-ray images that are part of an old book about bone fractures. I’ve incorporated these in a couple of ways—gluing them into the maps and also creating a pop-up element into one spread of pages.

I confess I don’t really know where I’m going with any of this, but I’m really enjoying the process and feel like I’m on the right track. I’ll post more images as they come together, and I’ll have the finished book with me at Word on the Street in a short couple of weeks. Yikes!

Posted by: bluelanternstudio | September 11, 2012

Protecting the BC coast, one calendar at a time

Growing up in Vancouver, I have many happy childhood memories of playing on the city’s great beaches, digging for clams and chasing skittering crabs across the rocks. As an adult, I’ve spent time on many of the gulf islands and up the Sunshine Coast, being rejuvenated by the salty air, the cries of gulls and ravens, and the sight of great blue herons patiently fishing by the shore.  Exploring beaches at low tide with my son is like going on a magical treasure hunt for sea stars, crabs, sea anemones, and popping kelp.

Beach on Gambier Island

Beach, Gambier Island, BC

As I grow older,  and see how much less sea life there is on our shores (especially in and around the city), I’ve become more aware of how fragile these ecosystems are. All of it, along with the social and economic well-being  that goes along with it, could be wiped out by a major oil spill. It’s enough to keep me awake at night.


Herring (acrylic on canvas, artist: Robi Smith)

As an artist, I try to highlight the beautiful and mysterious elements of our coastal marine environment while also talking about the things we do or support on land that have a detrimental effect on sea life: from pollution and overfishing to habitat loss and climate change.

The biggest and most immediate threat to coastal life these days are plans to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta to the BC coast and then ship it to Asia on enormous supertankers. One spill from these supertankers would be bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden (acrylic on canvas, artist: Robi Smith)

Thankfully, there are many people and organizations here in BC fighting the pipeline and tanker tanker traffic proposals. I’m fully supportive of their work, and that’s why I’ll be donating a portion of the proceeds from my 2013 ocean calendar to the Dogwood Initiative and the Wilderness Committee to help them with their awareness and advocacy work.

The calendar will feature a dozen of my ocean paintings (one for each month). It will also highlight the efforts of organizations and individuals working to protect the coast in myriad ways. The calendar will be printed locally in Vancouver on 100% post consumer recycled paper.

I’m currently pre-selling the calendars through Indiegogo to help cover the design and printing costs. On the site, I’ve set up a gallery page where you can see the calendar images. I’ve chosen 8 so far and will post more in the coming weeks.

Moon jellies

Moon jellies – detail (acrylic on round canvas, artist: Robi Smith)

Thanks to my great fans, I’ve already raised nearly a third of my goal. I’d love your help in getting me closer, either by pre-purchasing your own copy of the calendar and/or by helping spread the word. You can share this post on Facebook and Twitter, or use the social media tools on my Indiegogo site. Many thanks in advance.

Here’s to healthy oceans and beaches for generations to come!

I’ve had so much fun this summer, poking around beaches at low tide with my family, collecting strange and beautiful objects for my Cabinet of Curiosity. The Cabinet is now full of wonders and on display at the Port Moody Arts Centre until September 30. Here’s an image of the full cabinet:

Waterways of Wonder: Curiosities from Port Moody, the Burrard Inlet and Beyond (A Cabinet of Curiosity by artist Robi Smith)

In curating the cabinet, I intended for the contents to flow from ocean to freshwater, from left to right, and then from the sea floor on the bottom shelf to land and then sky at the top. It didn’t work out 100% given the materials I ended up working with, but I stuck to the pattern as much as possible.

Here is the top left shelf, which shows a glass jar filled with raven’s feathers (sky), glass fishing floats (ocean’s surface), a rope found on a secluded rocky beach on Gambier Island, and a painting of mine of a capelin in Burrard Inlet.

Top left section of the Cabinet of Curiosity (Artist Robi Smith)

The bottom of the middle section is filled with shells found on beaches in the Gulf Islands and Howe Sound:

Bottom middle section of Robi’s Cabinet of Curiosity

Throughout the cabinet are sepia-toned photographs I took of strange and large objects and places I encountered in the area. Adding these images gave me a way of including things I found that wouldn’t be possible to fit in the cabinet, such as a set of bear tracks, a decaying old wooden boat, and the ruins at the Old Mill site in Port Moody.

Ruins – Old Mill Site, Port Moody (photo: Robi Smith)

You can see more photographs in the Cabinet here. If you’re interested in seeing the Cabinet in person, here’s the Port Moody Arts Centre’s website for details about hours and location. I’d love your feedback!

Older Posts »


%d bloggers like this: