If there’s one thing Greer Howland Smith is not afraid of, it’s colour. Growing up in a family of 10 children, Greer attributes her current position as a thriving artist to parents who encouraged them to be whatever they set their minds to. Having graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Masters in Fine Art, Greer attended the Saga Art College in Kyoto, Japan where she studied tapestry. Since then, she has exhibited in New York City, Edinburgh, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Boston, Glasgow, Belgrade, Los Angeles and Miami. Currently she resides and works in Hong Kong, but she’s also involved in a bio-tech art project in Boston. (Yep, bioart is a thing!) We recently caught up with the artist in her Hong Kong studio to talk first piece of art she has ever sold, whether she faced challenges as a female artist, and even which piece of art she would be if she is one!
When was the first time you or your parents realised you were artistic?
My mother was a creative executive at an advertising agency, and she would regularly take me with her to photoshoots and artist studios. When I was 3 or 4 years old, I would sit on the floor of her office and make “fashion drawings” for hours with graphic markers. She would hang up my drawings in her office and, maybe she was just being a good mom nurturing a budding artist, and she would tell me that her colleagues thought they were by a professional fashion designer.
How did you first start out as an artist, what medium were you drawn to and why?
We moved often while I was growing up and my parents would let me turn my bedrooms into art studios. There was paint all over the floors and walls. The first art materials I was exposed to and had the most access to were acrylic paints and canvas. But I would paint whatever was in my way, whether it be an egg carton, my shoes or a sibling — I am the oldest of 10 children so there was always a younger sibling nearby in need of a touch up.
What was the first art piece you ever sold?
Before I moved to Holland, we lived in a small creative town in the United States called Mineral Point, Wisconsin. They had an annual art walk on Main Street, and I had a little stall with all of my paintings. I was 15 years old. Some collectors from Madison—a university town nearby—bought a large colourful painting for 200 USD. They later sent me a photograph of it hanging in their home next to a Jerry Garcia painting (from the Grateful Dead). I was over the moon.
Later, I had my first solo show in New Orleans when I was around 19 or 20.
What do you like most about what you do?
Making art is euphoric for me. Once I start a painting or an artwork I usually can’t stop. The artwork makes itself. I am definitely obsessed with this process and invigorated by colours, making structures and working with complex concepts. I can’t imagine a life without creativity and the ability to make art.
The most memorable moment in your career?
Two years ago, I took my family with me on an artist residency in Scotland for 2 months during the summer. My daughter was 6 months old and my son was two-and-a-half years old. We lived in a caravan right on the coast of the North Sea, and I was working in an enormous random warehouse in the middle of nowhere. It was definitely an adventure I will never forget! My son still talks about it.
Describe your art.
I consider myself a multi-disciplinary artist, and I love working with all sorts of mediums.
My art ranges from traditional paintings to highly conceptual “bioart” installations using organic DNA supported by intricate scientific processes. (Bioart is a relatively new area of art that often involves artists adopting scientific techniques or, for example, collaborating with scientists in biology labs to create an artwork). I have been working in the bioart field for over ten years and have a few ongoing projects that involve molecular biologists. One project I am currently working on is essentially an artist representation of a science lab and touches on themes about how science is displacing religion in certain aspects of our lives.
Other than that, I am not afraid to use colour in my work!
Are there any challenges to being a female artist?
There are many challenges to being an artist no matter what your gender is, but generally it has been quite hard to be a female artist. I was lucky in that I grew up in a household where the mindset was that the children could be anything we wanted. Gender was never even brought up as an issue.
However, the structure of the art world — like many other industries — has been historically dominated by men, although this is changing. It is important to me personally that I support other female artists however I can (and not only during female history month!). I am also grateful that I have a high percentage of strong female collectors who have helped support my career.
Also, being a mother of two, I was not able to use toxic materials while pregnant or be as physical while making art as I would have liked. I am a very impulsive artist and so I found being limited in my movements and the materials that I could use to be quite challenging. But artists always find a way to work!
Who are some of your favourite artists?
I love so many artists! Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joe Davis, Matisse, Peter Doig, Barbara Kruger, Qui Xiaofei, Cecily Brown, Jessica Harrison, Ed Simpson, Maki Ishi, Gabriele Beveridge, Katja Novitskova, Jessie Homer French, Doug Groupp to name just a few!
Favourite city for an art lover?
That is a tough question! I have strong attachments to particular museums all over the world—the Chicago Art Institute, Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, Tokyo Mori Museum, New York City MOMA, Scotland National Museum and Tate Modern London. These are places I have returned to time and time again throughout my life, both as a child and with my children, so they are very close to my heart. Also, I have previously lived in these cities, and when you no longer have a flat in a city where you use to live, it is comforting to go back to the same room in a museum with the same artwork hanging in it. In this way, these museums feel like second homes sometimes.
I also love the artwork coming out of Los Angeles, and Prospect New Orleans (a triennial started after Hurricane Katrina in the United States) has some awesome progressive curators at its helm.
What inspires you?
I am constantly inspired by nature and scientific concepts. I love biology.
Also, I do not consider myself a landscape artist but it is impossible not to do landscapes while living in Hong Kong because it is such a breathtaking city. Hong Kong inspires me everyday.
What is the most fulfilling thing about what you do?
I love it when collectors show me where they hang up my art and tell me stories about how it has influenced their lives or their children’s lives. In this way, I feel like I am a part of their life every day, and I hope that I have enhanced their home environment. I remember all the artwork and artifacts we had growing up in our family home. They all came with stories about the artists and cultures that made them; it definitely opened up my world view in many ways.
I also love it when my children are enthusiastic to go to my studio and create art. It makes me feel like I am doing something right.
What’s the art scene like in Hong Kong/ Asia?
The art scene in Hong Kong is vibrant and growing. It is an exciting time to be here with all the new much needed art developments opening up: The Mills, Tai Kwun, M+ Museum, H Queens. Also, it is great that Hong Kong is becoming more of a destination for the international art scene and international artists.
On the flip side, Hong Kong obviously can be a challenging and expensive place to find space to work, but I think artists always find a way to make it happen.
If you were an artwork, what would you be?
I would be an Alexander Calder mobile because I don’t like to sit still!
What are your favourite fashion brands?
Select three items from HULA you would wear as part of your artsy wardrobe…
Photography: Daniel Murray