Michael Smither

The religious art of Michael Smither

Ko te toi karakia o Michael Smither

Tui Motu interviews an artist whose work graces the walls of a local church.

“I grew up as a Catholic in New Plymouth, and probably the first influences for me were church art – the statues and holy pictures I grew up with. As far as I am concerned a picture is worth a thousand words, and those old pictures are burnt into my memory. I remember a statue of the Virgin Mary with her foot on a snake, standing on the world. The Stations of the Cross were powerful images which impressed me with their drama. I can remember at school being greatly struck by a guardian angel behind the figure of a child about to cross a rickety-looking bridge.

The Catholic symbols impressed me. The whole liturgy is surrounded by such powerful images. But in those days original works of art were practically non-existent. My father was an artist. The things I saw him create were certainly part of my youth. I gobbled up anything visual – including comics. The big event of the year was the arrival of the Columban calendar full of reproductions of Old Masters.

The desire to make things and to paint came to me early. I had quite a bit of training from my father, who had a silkscreen printing workshop. Even such commercial enterprises have quite a bit of art content, so I learnt how to paint and do silkscreen and make things out of cardboard and various media. I was able to play around in the studio and learn by copying.

At high school, I had a good art teacher and he encouraged me. I was given a room to myself out the back of the art classroom. I remember reading the story of Van Gogh – Lust for Life by Irving Stone. Once I read that I was doomed! The impressionist paintings we had at school were all rather poor reproductions and I didn’t get any feeling for them at all. They seemed to be a bit namby-pamby, compared with the church tradition with its strong ‘blood and guts’ imagery! I enjoyed paintings which told stories. Later I became interested in Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists. At art school my teacher was Lois White, and people have noted her influence in my work. At the time I disliked the way she painted, but something must have rubbed off.

At art school in the early 60s, I painted some religious pictures, such as Crucifixions – and that was very much frowned on! It was what I wanted to do because the ideas were so powerful. I remember painting Christ walking on water and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I also did linocuts in the style of illustrations you find in the Catholic missals. Some of my earlier works are to be found in the New Plymouth Art Gallery”.

- a snippet from Tui Motu issue 41, 2001 May.

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Stations of the Cross – Michael Smither

“Commissioned 1968 for stations to be produced in cement fondue. This medium chosen to fit the architectural detailing of the church but also has appropriately prosaic connotations for telling the story of the Passion and Crucifixion in the no-nonsense way that Smither had in mind. The choice of such an unsympathetic medium added weight to his concentration on the portrayal of the pain of the journey to the cross.

Smither was brought up a Roman Catholic and his early career in art is dominated by a concern for and knowledge of the Church and its teachings. This involvement is signified by the number of commissions he has undertaken and the music he has written for the Church”. 

Extract from: Michael Smither, an introduction; written by: Jim and Mary Barr 1984


"During the reconfiguration of the interior of St Joseph’s Church, the first and last two stations of the series became cut off from the body of the Church, behind walls that formed a new reconciliation room and a small tabernacle room.  At my request and considerable pressure from parishioners, the church architect was asked to redesign the walls to reveal the hidden works."      

- Michael Smither | 18 September 2000

St Paul sculpture st josephs church

Michael was commissioned by Father Duggan to create a sculpture of St Paul to be positioned on the front exterior of St Paul’s Church for the opening in 1966, on Barrett Road in New Plymouth. Father Duggan provided the wording on the scroll.

The material used in the work is a very rare American Grade A T1 steel, more commonly known as Cortene Steel, on which ‘rust’ serves only to seal the steel, not corrode it. The material was a “very progressive move” at that time.

In a conversation with Michael in 2003, he recalled, “… some eyebrows were raised at its appearance – an unusually gaunt Paul, which figure began almost immediately to show signs of rust!” Michael recalls the sculpture being vandalized with green paint at one point.

The installation was blest by Archbishop Peter McKeefrey, who according to Michael, “His Lordship rather noticeably chose not to sprinkle the sculpture with holy water, during the detailed blessing and procession around the church”.

St Paul’s Church was deconsecrated in March 2003 and following Michael’s suggestion, the St Paul’s sculpture was installed on the wall above the pathway between St Josephs’ Church and the Atkinson Building.

St Paul sculpture st josephs church

For more background information on Michael Smither follow this link to his website: https://www.michael-smither.co.nz/about_us