(above) Sword Style, Blue, painting by Lorna Smith, 30” x 30”, oil on canvas
Venus and Earth Orbit, painting by Lorna Smith
27” x 20”, beeswax, paraffin, microcrystalline, pine resin, and oil on birch
Celtic connections: the art and artistic heritage of Lorna Smith
What did you draw when you were a kid? Maybe you started with crayon scribbles, then tried suns, trees and stick figures. For Placitas painter and printmaker, Lorna Smith, it was stars and daisies. I’m sure Smith was attracted to the joyous energy conveyed by such motifs, but she also saw stars and daisies as patterns, patterns she sought to learn and master by drawing them thousands of times. This commitment to accuracy was instinctual for Smith and had a profound impact on the course of her life as an artist.
“I loved the balance. I loved working at memorizing a design and trying to achieve the balance. And when I looked back on that, I realized that may have been partially genetic because my great grandparents were dyers and weavers in Scotland,” Smith said. Smith’s great grandparents were from Stonehouse, Scotland, just outside of Edinburgh. They immigrated to New York where they continued their craft, working at the Firth carpet company in Cornwall-on-Hudson—the woodsy Hudson valley town where Smith spent her early years exploring nature and becoming fascinated with its many patterns.
Though interested in Minimalism and geometrics from a young age, Smith didn’t start exploring Celtic art until 2002, when she was working on her undergraduate honors thesis for the Union Institute at Montpelier, VT. At this time, Smith was gifted a book by George Bain, a pioneer in Celtic art history, who, as Smith explained, “rectified all the misrepresentations in Celtic art that had existed in academic texts everywhere.” Prior to reading Bain’s work, Smith had been using three long rectangles in her work. After studying the authentic patterns reproduced by Bain, she realized that if she stayed faithful to the proportions, she too could depict obviously Celtic forms.
Smith was astounded that so many books before Bain’s included skewed Celtic imagery and suspects that it may have been ideological. Smith said, “I think it was like that old argument: the high and low argument. People wanted to make a distinction between themselves and primitive cultures. They would malign other people, and primitive was this blanket idea they would toss onto the ‘Other.’”
Smith’s desire to find out more about her family’s history—and subsequently her own artistic heritage—was finally met about a year-and-a-half after her thesis show, when long-lost cousins from Scotland contacted her parents. Still living in the town Smith’s great grandparents grew up in, the cousins sent pictures of Smith’s ancestors’ stone weaving workshop and a variety of patterns produced there. Around the same time, Smith contacted the history museum in Scotland to find out what kind of loom her great grandparents would have used and what sort of patterns they would have woven. The visual evidence she received confirmed that her interest and talent in textiles and Celtic patterns was innate. Indeed, in 2005 the Queen of England herself granted Smith’s family clan status and licensed them a tartan!
When Smith began to show her Celtic paintings and prints, she found that her viewers immediately understood the forms to be Celtic. What is it about Celtic patterns that are so recognizable? Smith theorizes that perhaps Celtic heritage is more global than we think. “I’ve given talks to audiences where there’s a wide variety of people, and I’ve had people say, from all walks of life, that they know they have Celtic ancestors. And by Celtic, they don’t mean from Ireland or Scotland,” said Smith. This widespread, seemingly visceral attraction to Celtic imagery expressed by such audiences drove Smith to look into just how pervasive Celtic culture may be. She discovered that the Celts were active on the Silk Road and went as far as Norway, Yugoslavia, Northern Mongolia, Spain, and Morocco. Archeologists have even unearthed female shamanic mummies throughout the Silk Road, as well as certain patterns that were traded by the Celts—one of which appears in Smith’s oil painting Sword Style, Blue.
In Sword Style, Blue, three sword patterns, blue with red outlines, point toward, and nearly meet at, the center of the composition. On either side of the largest sword are two abstract Buddha figures. The imagery recalls that of the Sword-Style period, a long-lived pan-European artistic movement that started around 250 B.C. Surprisingly, and to Smith’s great pleasure, many engraved swords from this period have been pristinely preserved. Pieces of them were cast off into lakes and streams, and sometimes placed underneath huge boulders on mountain passes. Sword Style, Blue speaks of the process by which the swords were made, depicting them tempering in water, surrounded by bubbles, after having been cast in stone to get their shape. The Buddha figures not only enhance the work’s meditative mood, they also represent the exact pattern that molecules of water in a whirlpool make. And the sword pattern? It appeared in nature long before it was traded along the Silk Road. Smith explained, “I’m looking for where these patterns came from. And it turns out that the sword pattern is exactly the same pattern that water molecules make when they’re rushing through a narrow streambed. It’s one hundred percent the same pattern.” Perhaps then, the connection to Celtic imagery felt by so many of Smith’s viewers is suggestive not only of Celtic culture, rooting itself all over the world, but also of the prevalence of Celtic patterns in nature—after all, nature plays a dominant role in the lives of everyone, everywhere on the planet.
The frequency with which Celtic patterns exist in nature led Smith to suspect, and eventually state with certainty, that Golden Ratio patterns were in Celtic patterns. “The golden ratio, which is also called the Fibonacci number, is the ubiquitous key to the universe. It’s found in the branching patterns of trees, and it’s also found in our DNA and in millions of patterns in the natural world. I started to think, well maybe Celtic patterns are in the patterns of the orbits of the planets.” Smith hasn’t been able to substantiate this last theory yet, but she expresses it in her piece, Venus and Earth Orbit.
Smith has lived in Placitas since 1985, but lived briefly in New Mexico in 1979, when she moved from San Francisco to study lithography at the Tamarind Institute. Soon after, she became intrigued by the geometric designs in Native American art, in which she found parallels to her own work. For the past eleven years, Smith has lived in Dome Valley, where she interacts daily with nature. Smith’s home is built in such a way that, even if she tried, she can’t forget nature and its many patterns; she has to go outside if she wants to move from room to room. No wonder she’s so mindful of the most “ubiquitous key to the universe.”
Smith’s work is currently on view alongside that of Harley Kirschner in the gallery of The Range Cafe, 925 Camino Del Pueblo, Bernalillo. The show, “Abstractions in Balance,” will be up until August 31. You can also view her work at the Rockin’ R Gallery (Homestead Village Center, Placitas), where she is the featured artist from September 16 through mid-October. Smith’s studio is open by appointment. Visit www.lornasmithart.com for her contact information.