Bec Smith is living proof that creativity does not need to end when our children come into the world. In fact, it can make us more creative and inspired than ever.
As an in-demand artist and designer, the mother-of-one is not only working with clients like the ABC (designing apps for our children, no less), but is creating works of art that are sold in stores across the globe. What’s more, Bec says that her work has evolved and improved since becoming a mother to her son, Alfie, by virtue of helping to understand her own self more intrinsically. We spoke to Bec about her work, where she finds inspiration and how she inspires creativity in her own family. In doing so, Bec Smith, it seems, is inspiring us all. Artwork photography by Ari Hatzis. Photography of Bec by Natalie Jeffcott.
We love your paintings. Can you tell us a little about your work? (In particular, your fabulous Cameos collection?)
I’ve always created in some way, then after my son was born, returning to painting was a deliberate act to carve out time for myself. Painting gave me a way to bring my thoughts and observations about things that were happening around me and within me into my own visual language. The body of work in Cameos is about personal transformation. Using shells as a metaphor I identified scenarios of my own lived experience, and aimed to capture these in iconised representations: cameos of oneself like a fleeting walk-on part, or a silhouette to remember someone by. Right now I’m on a similar theme but on things that are below the surface – emotional, environmental and cultural.
What inspires you?
Like a lot of people, I’m inspired by the things that play out in the eternal and internal built environment such as shape and colour, balance and structure, but beyond this, I’m most interested in systems, cause and effect, hierarchies and the dynamics between things. I appreciate philosophies of thought as well as the absurd, and I respond to grand ideas along with the beauty of the ordinary. As an Experience Designer, my mind is trained to seek out connections and I can swing widely between the divine and the ridiculous. I love a complex idea reduced to its essence – while not just for aesthetic reasons – there is a lot of hard work involved in doing this which I find infinitely satisfying.
Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition you were a part of in 2018 - “Parent & Child?”
What a wonderful event to be part of. The GRAIN Store Gallery – located in a converted grain store shopfront in the middle of Nathalia, Victoria. The GRAIN Store is a not-for-profit nationally recognised rural arts centre with a history of exhibitions, performances and workshops. My son and I were invited to participate in a joint Parent and Child exhibition there, where artists and their children were encouraged over the duration of creating, to document and show works created either in tandem or separately. They also held a Q&A around the processes employed and it was a very refreshing thing to hear how artist’s practices differ or align depending on their families needs, motivations and desires. The curator (and artist) Kristen Retalick chose to hang the children’s artwork at their eye level which gave such gravitas to their work in the context of being viewed by ‘grown-ups’. I also got to meet artist William Kelley there who is a patron of the gallery, a wonderfully generous and socially aware artist.
Does Alfie play a role in your creative process? (If so, how?)
By virtue of helping me understand myself better, yes indeed he does. Motherhood is fraught with complex emotions, I’m sure you’d agree. Much of what I externalise comes from inner mechanics: conflict, confusion or exasperation, as well as the joys, enlightenment and those a-ha moments. So from a conceptual point of view, you could say my son is a muse to me at times. During his younger years we would spend time together doodling, sketching and colouring, but as he’s older now he is, unfortunately for me, becoming less interested in creating art alongside me. He’s also more story oriented than me, whereas my perspectives are largely static. We share a similar humour though, which I love, he is so dry, deadpan and hilarious.
How do you encourage creativity in your family?
We already have a lot of creativity in many forms. My partner Kit is a composer and musician, and I’m a designer and artist. We both work from home most days so have plenty of opportunities to play and hear music, discuss art we love or even problem solve since we live and work in close proximity. We have copious instruments at hand, and art materials to use. And we are lucky to be surrounded by plenty of other artists and creative thinkers who are writers, photographers, jewellers, comedians, musicians, and crafts folk who bring their unique qualities and ideas to our day to day lives. We are very lucky.
You create your own art, while being an in-demand freelancer for some of the world’s best known brands. How do you balance the two - both with your time and your creativity?
I’ve been a designer for 25 years – worked as an art director and creative director, but then chose to be freelance 20 years ago – in fact, I just celebrated that milestone with dear ex-colleagues and clients which was utterly rewarding and I encourage all self-employed people to celebrate these types of achievements. I’m so familiar with working multiple jobs simultaneously: during those full-time positions I always had side projects for friends or family. I was often the last to leave the office to only to then go home and do branding or website design. I only work on my stuff now. There can still be crazy hours and some late nights but that’s when I work well. In terms of creativity, it all comes down to the individual process. I tend to use downtime to ‘catch themes’ or connect the dots of concepts or feelings, in the day to day times such as making tea, buttering the toast, or sitting in traffic. If I’m in the studio though I’ve trained myself to focus my mind to an idea through sketching. Movement and repetition and refinement of ideas are incredibly therapeutic. It might amount to nothing, but it also might amount to something great. I spend half my time as a designer and half my time as an artist, and the timeframes week-on-week differ. I always try to arrange work schedules around exhibition timeframes and vice versa, but that sometimes proves to be too tricky if there is overlap and sadly I might have to decline a commission or a design role. I always hope that people understand.
Tell us about your work in the creation of the ABC Kids apps - which many parents across Australia are thanking you for!
It’s an incredible feeling to design products that have been so widely embraced and loved. A lot of research, thought and care goes into making something work well for people and there is a bit of magic that is created, but I have to acknowledge the content in Kids iView, the Play app, and the Kids Listen radio app is really the showcase which I can’t take any credit for. Designing these products came at a time when they fit perfectly into my own family experience because my son’s age, ability and appetite for the content really sat squarely in that user profile, and so I was able to easily draw on and relate to other families needs. So yes I put him to work in my user tests! There were great insights and a lot of fun – gained from sitting with preschool aged kids and their parents, emphasising ways in which kids can adapt and learn how to use content through technology without requiring to read was the trick. It helps that I very much enjoy paring down complex ideas into simple formats (you’ll notice this is the same approach with my artwork). Beyond that, addressing emotional needs within the family dynamic was important.
You’re stocked in some amazing stores - including Urban Outfitters. How did that come about?
Urban Outfitters approached me with the idea of stocking a print of a specific painting they’d seen. Honestly I was sceptical at first because they are a gigantic business, but they have always been respectful and patient with my timelines. The print they sell ‘Life Or Something Like It’ reflects my first visual principles – the dynamics between things – and is the only print I’ve released. It’s based on an original artwork from a first solo exhibition at Pop and Scott, whose support and encouragement is responsible for making my work visible. One of my oldest friends happens to own that original artwork, so she did well to buy it when she did!
Has there been a distinct highlight in your career thus far?
I’ve worked on some highly visible projects, but it’s the experiences and the people that stay in my best memories. One of my favourite jobs still to this day was working at BBC Radio and Music in London where I designed the Electric Proms festival, it was an exciting time in my life.
How do you manage the “juggle”?
I don’t know if I do manage it! it’s such a fraught phrase isn’t it? Responding to each week is pretty organic, it can get crazy, but overall things just pan out. I imagine an equilateral triangle with Design Work, Painting, and Family Life. It swivels on an axis like a prize wheel, and while one corner is facing at the top, the other two are waiting for me to attend to it. Sometimes I move it and I feel in control (yay), other times it moves of its own volition and I just have to be cool with it. Things do suffer, but these are mostly less important things like the garden is drying up, I haven’t had my hair cut in months, and the house could do with a swat team of A Grade cleaners – I just try to keep perspective. I do Pilates and when things life gets too hard I call time out and go to the nearest park tennis wall and bash it out… Which really proves to me that I can leave things, and when I return the problems I thought were devastating are diminished.