December 10, 2017

Linda Simone Interviews Artist Vera von Benckendorff-Smith

Linda Simone is a poet living in San Antonio, TX. Her work includes two poetry chapbooks and numerous poems published in journals and anthologies, most recently in Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems (Dos Gatos Press).  Her interviews and book reviews have appeared in Valparaiso Review, Woven Tale Press, First Literary Review-East, Red Paint Hill, and other venues. She also expresses herself as a watercolor artist.

Artist Vera von Benckendorff-Smith

Each Painting…A Last Love Letter Sent from Prison Before Your Death Interview with Artist Vera von Benckendorff-Smith
Artist Vera von Benckendorff-Smith was born in the Netherlands to a Russian father and Dutch mother. Throughout her life, Smith moved frequently to locations ranging from the South of France as a child, to Germany, Japan, and the U.S. (California) as an adult, finally taking up residence in San Antonio, Texas.

I met Smith and became familiar with her eclectic work through the River Art Group in San Antonio, where she has been a member for about five years. She is also a San Antonio Art League member. I wanted to find out more about what makes Smith—and her art—tick, and asked if she would agree to be interviewed.

Linda Simone: What is your first memory of painting?

Vera Smith: I have no precise recollection of painting as a child. I know my mother kept some of my work. I remember painting a picture of my brother in oils when I was about 10—a blue background, his red shirt and yellow straw hat. My teacher painted the eyes, being unhappy with my attempt, and the result was a dreamy brother.

LS: Tell us about your creative process; is it more tortoise or hare?

VS:  Definitely more tortoise. Every once in a while there’s a piece I create quickly in one session. Usually my oil paintings take a long time, and can hang on the wall for a stretch before I find the solution to what remains to be done.

LS:  Do you work in other media besides oil? If so, do you have a favorite medium—and why?

VS:  Growing up, I used to miss color keenly when I worked in pencil or pen and ink. I got used to translating color. Presently I mostly work in oil, watercolor, and graphite. I enjoy each of them along with their possibilities and limitations. The chance to change from one medium to the next is, in itself, a treat.

LS: Do you agree or disagree with this statement: “Painting is visual poetry”?

VS:  That statement resonates with me. Yes, poetry takes the everyday world and turns it into a musical esthetic experience. Painting turns the everyday world into a visual esthetic experience. There’s an element of magic in both.
LS:  Do you use reference photos for your work?  When you approach the blank canvas or paper, describe for us the feelings you have.

VS: Yes, I do use reference photographs. To work in the studio without a model, photographs or sketches are essential. However I find that I use the photos only up to a point, then I give myself permission to follow my intuition.

Ah, the white canvas! I sometimes dread starting a new portrait commission because I fear I may not be able to do the subject justice. I wonder if I’m up to the task. However, I joyfully accept the challenge and can't wait to start, taking comfort in the fact that oil paint will dry and faces can be re-painted.

It’s a different feeling with non-portrait work. With my tree paintings, for example, I just feel excitement and give myself permission to express whatever comes.

LS: How has place played a part in both the subjects and style of your paintings?

VS: Moving has had a big impact on my art. In the Netherlands, I was uninspired by the landscape and mostly red brick buildings in my native country. The landscape seemed too green and the buildings too strict and austere. However, moving to Roussillon in the South of France at age 12 gave me sun, colors, mountains, and Roman stone churches that I fell in love with.

Japan and Texas have also inspired my art. In Germany and California, I was too busy with raising my young family. While I felt part of the German forests I walked in and admired the beauty of California, I was an observer then, not a painter. I remember that so many California landscapes had the Pacific in them and I didn't know how to paint the sea.

LS: Which painters—living or dead—do you feel have influenced your work?

VS: That’s a difficult question because there are so many artists whose work has influenced me. Whenever I could (and wasn’t busy raising young children), I was an observer in museums or galleries and stored away whatever I could learn.

To name a few of my inspirations: Vermeer; Post-Impressionists Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Bonnard;  the Impressionists; Odilon Redon; Tom Thomson; the Group of Seven; O’Keeffe; Utagawa Hiroshige; and Maillol. All are giants on whose shoulders I stand. 

And, of course, I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of the artists with whom I studied. From Elly Kuipers, I learned dedication. From Gerard Bonel, I learned that white consists of many colors and that being stubborn is an excellent character trait for an artist. Edward Povey taught me so many things. His most precious advice, to approach each painting like a last love letter sent from prison before your death, to say everything you have to say, and then to move on to the next painting with the same attitude.

LS: If asked to describe your style in only five or six words, what would they be?

VS: Whimsical, serious, colorful, direct, spontaneous, naïve.

LS: Where is your work currently on display?

VS:  My art is hanging in several galleries in Texas, The River Art Gallery in San Antonio, the Yellow Rose Gallery in Rockport, and the Port Aransas Art Center.  It is also on display in a number of local San Antonio coffeeshops, restaurants, most recently, at Float SA, a spa and sensory deprivation tank center—and even in my dentist’s office! In April 2018, my art will be shown at Southalamode by Blue Star Arts in San Antonio. My work was also included in the Women Artists 2017 Datebook.

LS: Have you ever considered offering art classes? What are your plans for the next few years?

VS: I’ve taught a few children's classes, but my focus right now is on being a student myself.

I want to continue my tree series, aiming for 15 or more paintings, while experimenting with new techniques. Of course, I will keep painting portraits of people and animals, working towards more freedom of style on my part. I also envision a large whimsical cat series—I do love cats!

What else am I planning? Plein air painting and again working with live models come to mind.

LS: What words of wisdom would you offer to aspiring or less experienced artists?

VS: Be kind to yourself, encourage yourself, care for the budding artist in you and, most of all...stick with it!

To see more of Vera Smith’s art, visit and  

© Linda Simone

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