“Time flies when you’re having fun,” was Bart Smeets’ aka Smates’ reaction when we first told him it had been a whole five years since we last covered him here at VNA. In the meantime he has managed to achieve that closest held dream of every creative mind, to make a living from his love. Although, as he later mentioned, such an achievement has come at a cost. With an interview that was five months in the making, we touched bases with him again after all this time for an update on how things have progressed.
“Realistic fantasy… or something like that;” Smates’ own description of his work is surprisingly vague for an artist with a style so polished. Having begun young, at just the age of 17, Bart attended art school and first broke into the graffiti world. Perhaps slightly unusually, he skipped the traditional steps of moving through simple tagging and letterforms and was fascinated from the get-go by characters. He found quickly, however, that his practical experience didn’t mirror his enthusiasm and made the decision to let his street work take a back seat.
During this hiatus he instead focused on traditional painting methods before finally returning in July 2009. “First I did letter pieces but that isn’t really my cup of tea, and when I started again with characters and the knowledge I gained during paint classes I found that I evolved pretty fast.” It was a year after this when he first appeared with us, combining the techniques he collected during his break with the passion he had first unearthed as a teenager, to produce his trademark smooth surfaced realism.
As well as a fixation on character work, Smates is often found combining his focus with aquatic scenes, half-submerged figures and underwater flora. He describes it as a way of creating a different dimension for his big personalities to exist in, separate from the world around them as well as to create depth. There is something about seeing the gentle curve of a meniscus in an urban landscape of straight lines and angles that makes his pieces really pop out.
Smates’ final challenge now is discovering that elusive perfect balance between personal pursuits and commission work, both equally vital. His favourite muse will always be the human being, he admitted, alongside certain animals, but despite this often he is forced outside of his comfort zone whilst covering other concepts “to pay the bills”. Although he admitted to not always enjoying these paid projects, he was able to see the light in the situation easily; “it is good do a lot of different things and use them to test and push yourself a bit.”
There was perhaps one question we asked which inspired the greatest response from Smates, and it was indeed the simplest. Is bigger better? The growing trend among urban artists seems set to continue, with creators pushing themselves further and further to accomplish larger and larger pieces for higher impact, Smates for one is happily part of the trend. “Bigger isn’t always better, but is always really fun” came the decisive response with a smile. Always presenting both a mental and physical challenge, he noted; “after a day working on a really big wall I’m dead tired”. This immediately led me to question his limits, how big could he go? Where does the never-ending quest for size end? “Once you’ve done the biggest building in the world, you hit the limit” was Smates’ confident final reply, and with upcoming projects including a 3200m² wall between himself and four other artists, he certainly hasn’t hit this limit yet.