Peggy Smith lives and paints in a remodeled cottage in Saint John. The rooms once occupied by her four children are now transformed into studios filled with paintings. Her seven gardens beside the Bay of Fundy serve as inspiration for the flower and landscape paintings. The Saint John String Quartet and Symphony New Brunswick rehearsals and concerts are her sources for her drawings and paintings of musicians.
In fact, many of these musicians have posed for portraits: this is in addition to commissioned portraits and studies that span almost sixty years.
Born Margaret Jean Ellis in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1935, Peggy studied fine art at Mount Allison University under Alex Colville, Lawren Harris and Ted Pulford, majoring in portrait and landscape painting. She later took Child Study at the University of Toronto. She was a founding member of the Society of Co-operating artists in Toronto in the 1950's.
She married in Toronto and had two children there before going to the United Kingdom for five years where two more children were born. She returned to Canada with her children to work at the new Confederation Center which her mother initiated in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. In 1965, she moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, to take a teaching job. She was also involved in day care, heritage of the old city, volunteering at the Seafarer's Mission and currently assists at a local food bank. In 1978 she became a born-again Christian and is actively involved in church work.
She has travelled to Egypt, Israel, Cuba, Belgium and China as well as to other parts of Canada where she has had many opportunities to paint.
She has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions since 1975. Peggy's work is included in the collection of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Charlottetown Confederation Centre, the New Brunswick Museum, the NB Art Bank, Mount Allison University, UNB, UPEI, the Imperial Theatre and many important corporate and private collections.
Certain paintings invite you to take a step
closer and to immerse yourself in their subject. Artist Peggy Smith
has a knack for bringing you into her paintings, and luckily for me,
she also allowed me to immerse myself in her life and home. Near her
80th birthday, Peggy is as fiery and determined as ever. When I arrived
at her home in Saint John, she was donned in a white smock and
beckoned to me from the front door with the promise of tea and
doughnuts. As I walked towards the house, I was compelled to pause for a
moment to take in the beautiful surroundings - meticulously tended
gardens abounded all around the house and two deer were nibbling on
flora, as if on cue. With inspiration like that, there is little wonder
Peggy is able to create such striking compositions.
Once inside her home, in which she has lived since 1967, Peggy brought the tea over to the table and we began our chat. Some of her first words to me were about her work ethic, something which she has had since a very early time. Still now, she gets up and puts on the smock, as though a uniform, so that she knows it is time to work. She laughingly said “Thou shalt work” to me as we sipped on our tea.
Peggy’s art has gone through a stylistic transformation over the years, but the subject matter remains the same; landscapes and music. She studied under Alex Colville, a true Canadian master, and upon graduation, entered into the art world as a part of the ‘Maritime realist’ collective. It took her 25 years to find her own unique way as a painter within the realist tradition, freeing herself of the prescriptive training she undertook.
When Peggy paints, her vivacity is transformed into the images of her work. Her intimate garden and landscape scenes have the ability to ground and move the viewer at the same time. Her paintings of music reveal the rise and fall of the sound and one is at once transfixed, hearing the tune clearly, translating vision back to sound.
Her work has featured music since her days in Toronto in the 50s, where she began drawing and painting guitars in downtown jazz houses. After moving from Toronto to England and back to New Brunswick, she was introduced to the Brunswick String Quartet and started painting their rehearsals, their concerts, and portraits of the musicians. Her passion has continued since with the Saint John String Quartet and Symphony New Brunswick, many members of which have become great friends. During concerts, Peggy draws in pen and ink. During rehearsals, she uses watercolour. No matter the medium, I was rendered silent, not only seeing the musical scene with my eyes but also hearing the musicians play. Her brushstrokes are an accompaniment to the sheet music, sometimes moving furiously, other times more slowly, and falling softly on the page, always with the greatest control. The musical paintings are rhapsodic.
As we spoke more about her paintings, it became evident that people, music, and nature are her favourite subjects. They have shaped her artistic career from the very beginning. Dominating her paintings is her ability to capture mood and atmosphere through light and symphonies of colour. There are no formulas for Peggy Smith, each time is different. And while differences abound, there is a sense of harmony to her work. There is a symbiotic relationship between the garden scenes and the musical paintings; each one breathes life into the other. The gardens are melodious while her paintings of music borrow colours and forms from nature to be understood, to be heard.
To know Peggy Smith is to know that her life and work are irrevocably tied together; shifting, growing, and constantly challenging one another. The colours, forms, and compositions of her work illustrate her uncanny ability to depict the world around her while infusing it with emotion and personality. An afternoon spent with Peggy Smith is an opportunity to meet someone with verve for life and a penchant for sharing. As our conversation came to a close, with a walk through her vegetable garden, I knew that this was a woman with a rapacious desire for knowledge and for creating. With freshly cut swiss chard in hand, I pulled out of the driveway wanting more than one afternoon.
Emily Cleland, BFA, 2015