By Mitch Hurst
By Mitch Hurst
Joalida Smit was living the happy life in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2019 when her husband, David du Plessis, got an offer from his company to transfer to Chicago. Du Plessis flew solo to Chicago and soon after Smit and her two children came over for a visit. However, the idea of moving into a small rental apartment in the big city—she had already done that for almost 20 years living in central London working for the National Health Service—was out of the question.
After nine months, it was either her husband come back home to Cape Town, or gamble on a big adventure. They took the gamble, and somewhat randomly, they settled in Lake Forest.
“When we visited Chicago, we stayed in an apartment in Lincoln Park. I told my husband there are two things that I liked about Chicago. Number one, the lake. I want to be by a lake,” Smit says. “And I want to run in a forest. So, I Googled lake and forest and Chicago, and Lake Forest turned up and I said, ‘OK, we’re going there’.”
With her new life in Lake Forest, Smit, a neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist by training, couldn’t practice in the United States due to a different set of requirements and certifications. Six weeks after arriving, COVID-19 hit and as a way to cope with the harsh winters, she began painting.
This artistic journey led to Smit opening a studio in Lake Forest’s Gorton Center, and The Gallery is now hosting the first exhibition of her work, titled In Full Bloom: A Meditation on Paradox. The show opened on April 4 and runs through June.
“The collection brings together my love for the work of the American artist, Georgia O’Keefe,” says Smit, “along with my lifelong obsession with chiaroscuro, an oil painting technique where light and dark hues are blended with soft brushes to create the illusion of rounded shapes on a two-dimensional surface.”
The chiaroscuro technique was perfected by the Dutch Masters (Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Holbein) and requires a delicate balance between the white canvas (which creates a sense of illumination) and dark undertones (which creates a sense of depth), Smit explains. It also draws a tenuous line between her Dutch heritage and her new life in the United States.
“Smit’s work is a stunning representation of a lifelong practice and passion for this beautiful painting technique,” says Cecilia Lanyon, co-founder of The Cotton Duck Hospitality Group, which includes The Gallery. “In addition to the power of scale, these large-size paintings create an illusion of depth and dimensionality that transform a space and the viewer in front of them.”
Smit says she’s always had an interest in art, though she has no formal art training. She wanted to study art, but family challenges prevented her. Concerned about the instability in her native country at the time, she started studying psychology because it was a profession that allowed her to work in the UK.
“After my master’s in psychology, I went over to the UK and I retrained there as a pediatric neuropsychologist,” she says. “I ran a survivorship service for adolescents who were treated for brain tumors in childhood. So, apart from high school and the first couple of years during my early 20s, I didn’t really make any art. Until I came to Lake Forest, I had sort of packed it away, but there was always a dream to go back to it one day.”
When she first started painting, Smit says, she was “like a kid in a candy shop.” She wanted to try all the different styles, media, and techniques.
“It was quite hard to get back into it, finding my style and thinking what I wanted to say through art,” she says. “So, during COVID, intimidated by my rusty skills, I started working with a palette knife—I wanted to feel how the oil felt again after 25 years—creating a large series inspired by my forest runs during COVID.”
Because Chicago winters are so brutal, Smit says her forest paintings felt somber. Bracing her second winter in isolation, she needed to do something that lifted her spirits, so she began painting flowers. It is those paintings that will be featured in the exhibition at The Gallery.
“I knew it was going to be difficult, coping with the isolation, unable to work, in a strange country, not knowing anyone, and struggling to find myself through art again, so I thought if it’s going to be this hard, let it at least be pretty,” Smit says. “I’ve always worked large, even in high school, so I set out to really dig into this idea of shade and light, trying to push the genre to its limits and giving it a contemporary angle.”
Smit says she was initially ambivalent about becoming known as an artist who paints flowers, but she realized she had to decide on one theme and stick to it. When Lanyon asked her if she would do an exhibit of her large floral works, she had the motivation she needed to press ahead.
“All of the doubts about whether the work was good enough, whether I really could make this pivot from psychologist to artist, all of those voices, I had to quiet them and just see it through,” she says. “To be honest, I think it’s the only way to do it. You have to create a body of work and you develop through that work. The art teaches you; it helps you to find your voice through the act of doing.”
It’s actually not about the content at the end of the day, Smit says, but how one matures as an artist through facing oneself in front of a canvas on a daily basis. She realized that through her work she can tackle psychological themes in a visual way.
“It is really what this exhibition is about, using the metaphor of the flower in bloom to ponder existential themes of ageing, transition, and understanding the paradox inherent in nature— that the flower doesn’t bloom less bright because its fleeting,” she says. “It leans into that moment.”
She’ll continue to paint flowers, she says, but also tackle other themes because her “love of nature is the overarching inspiration.”
In Full Bloom: A Meditation on Paradox runs through June at The Gallery in Lake Forest, 202 Wisconsin Avenue. For more information visit thegallerylf.com. For more information about Joalida Smit, visit joalidasmit.com.