By Michaela Cavanagh / Photos by Aaron McKenzie Fraser / Prints by Yorodeo
It’s all shades of grey for Seth Smith. Or is everything black and white? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure he knows, either. Then again, what kind of person fits neatly into a box, colour-coded or otherwise?
Here’s what I know about Smith: He grew up outside of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, a community where the claims to fame include being maybe, possibly visited by Leif Ericson, the Viking, and being a robust locale for lobster fishing. Smith makes art—visual, musical, film—and in his work, these disciplines interact in peculiar ways that stay hidden until suddenly, they appear, like after ingesting a pharmaceutical cocktail. Smith experiments with shadows and light, gravity and levity; with what’s dark and what’s exposed. Put more simply, in Smith’s words, “I’ve never been able to focus on one thing—I don’t know if I get bored easily or I kind of like to challenge myself, but I always have my hands everywhere.”
This image of a many-armed creature with hands in every pot wouldn’t be out of place in Smith’s work as one half of Yorodeo, a design and screen-printing collaboration with Halifax-based artist and friend Paul Hammond. Smith says they got their start in 2003, trying to earn some extra cash while Smith was playing music with his band, Dog Day. From the beginning the work was edgy and disturbing but in a whimsical way.
“When we decided to screen print show posters for bands as a part-time job, it was pretty successful and everyone was really supportive … the only problem was that bands like my own band don’t have any money,” Smith laughs. “So then we moved from illustrations for The Coast [an alt-weekly in Halifax] to art prints, because you can really sell your work for more and there’s also more funding available for it,” he adds.
“I did my first screen print with a window squeegee,” recalls Smith. “Slowly we figured out how it worked—I also worked at a t-shirt printing place, and it was kind of similar, and Paul knew some of that stuff from going to NSCAD” [Nova Scotia College of Art and Design].
That was in 2003. Now, Hammond and Smith’s distinctive screen printing style proliferates the peninsula in gig posters on telephone poles, in galleries, on t-shirts, book covers, and canvas tote bags—even as logos and illustrations for local businesses and events. This past May, Yorodeo exhibited prints at a group show, titled MIS-FIT at Parentheses Gallery in the Halifax north end.
“Our goal is to be working on art prints because that’s what we love to be doing, but you still have to make money where you can, so we’re always working on other things, too,” Smith explains. “We’re still doing album covers, book covers, and we’re doing some work on a video game!”
Smith says that after ten years, he and Hammond have got a pretty good thing going as collaborators. “You learn to work with each other and I learn what Paul doesn’t like, and he learns what I don’t like, and you start making these boundaries and guidelines and after a while, you can just work together fluidly,” he says.
When I asked Smith what he thought made Yorodeo’s designs so universally and subtly familiar to Haligonians—you can always put your finger on a Yorodeo design no matter what sort of medium they’re working in—Smith isn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” he says. “We’re both fans of pop art and we definitely come from the background of making show posters for our own bands, you know, spending time at photocopy places, so that’s just in there,” he says. “But as far as that side of Yorodeo, there’s always going to be that part of you that shows through no matter how hard you try to change it or hide it—that part of your soul that shows through.”
So what does Smith’s soul look like? Or more aptly, what does it sound like? Dog Day material would be a good place to find out. “I do find a recurring theme is kind of moody, existential songs that can be fairly dark in nature—but we try to present them in the most uplifting way possible,” Smith says.
The other half of the Dog Day duo is Smith’s partner and co-conspirator in life, Nancy Urich. The band debuted as a four-piece in 2005 with Darcy Spidle and Cristal Thili, After releasing eight records, the Deformer LP from featured Smith and Urich alone. They had fled Halifax for peace and quiet in the country—specifically Long Cove—to raise chickens and be close to the ocean.
“When we were looking for a place we were touring a lot, and we were going from city to city to city, and when we got home we just kind of wanted to be where there was no noise and no excitement—we just wanted some quiet,” explains Smith.
Sense of place is a dominant force in Smith’s various art works, and in some ways it feels like Dog Day has found a new freedom in its stripped-down sound after relocating to a stone’s throw from the beach. With lyrics like “Need to make some changes / Need some fresh feelings / I don’t know if this will work” on “Part Girl,” it’s easy to understand the strength of two people baring their souls to each other with nothing else around, and why they needed that alone time in the first place.
Rest assured, though, Smith and Urich do not dwell in a picturesque spot that you would find on the back of a postcard. “This place is just one of those special little areas it seems like most people don’t know about—you go to the beach and it’s all people really do, but if you keep going you end up in this little spot,” says Smith. “At the same time, this is where the mafia might bury their bodies or something—there’s a certain sketchiness. I’ve had problems here and it takes the police like, 30 minutes to get here.”
Smith drew on that often uncanny and sinister nature of rural Nova Scotia that lies just beneath the charming images of lobster fishermen for his film, Lowlife. “The people who end up migrating here are pretty reclusive, and I’m a lot like that.” Smith explains. “It’s just a bunch of people minding their own business,” he says.
Lowlife is a feature-length feat of surreal, non-linear and supremely weird filmmaking about a man and woman’s descent into self-destruction through addiction to living drugs—a species of starfish with psychotropic properties—in rural Nova Scotia.
Smith wrote, directed, and produced the film, enlisting friends as cast and crew, including Darcy Spidle as “Asa” and Kate Hartigan as “Elle,” the two lead characters. The project—made on a shoestring budget funded partially by an Indiegogo campaign and much volunteered time—earned huge accolades after debuting at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal last year and winning the Audience Award for best feature at the Atlantic Film Festival. In November, Lowlife was screened on a cross-Canada blitz, hitting 13 provinces and territories over a three-day period.
Lowlife was Smith’s first foray into filmmaking andwas initially slated to be a short, ten-minute film—but Smith is never one to keep his many hands idle for long so the narrative kept growing and growing. “Production itself became a monster so I just had to go wherever it was going,” he laughs. “I mean, the movie is sort of comical, yeah. You take the light with the dark. At the same time it’s a drama and a mystery—and there’s no actual violence, just a bunch of weird scenes.”
Smith says he has caught the filmmaking bug: “I’ve always been really interested in mood in art, surreal areas of the natural world, dreams and imagined creatures and concepts, you know … those areas just allow a little more artistic flexibility,” says Smith. “Video just seems to lend itself well to that because you can really set up a scene and explore concepts in more depth … The other part I really like about it is it kind of takes everything I’m interested in—visual art, music, sound, sound design, special effects.”
Despite the all-consuming year-long Lowlife project, the multi-talented Smith is creating once again—and on many fronts. He has a Yorodeo retrospective coming up this fall in Halifax and a new Dog Day record coming out this summer. He has already written another feature length screenplay and has plans to shoot a short film in August. More immediately, he’s on the tail end of a new print series based on dreams that he’s hoping to show in Halifax.
“I’ve been taking a dream diary and kind of using that as inspiration,” he says. “I’m interested in the meanings of dreams, and I think it’ll be pretty neat. I’m using phosphorescent glow-in-the-dark inks—I’m trying to have two faces of each print, a waking world in the light, and in the dark it’s kind of a surreal dream world.”
Light and shadow. Waking and surreal. That’s Seth Smith. The glow-in-the-dark man.