Frank Sidney Smith’s paintings at The New Art Gallery show beauty born from trauma

A LIFE full of trauma and tragedy has helped create some paintings which are enchanting and enthralling.
It seems as though Frank Sidney Smith decided to use his creative urges as a type of therapy, to try to come to terms with everything that had happened to him.
There are times when it’s impossible to look at some paintings without reference to the artist who created them and what he or she has endured, and this is one of those times.
The images are pretty and child-like in initial appearance but many tell stories of unbelievable sadness. It’s vital to read the paragraphs underneath each one in this exhibition at The New Art Gallery, Walsall, to have an understanding of what the innocent-looking pictures really show.

Frank took art nightclasses in Birmingham in 1976 and apparently decided early on to paint his life story and he thinks it’s that that has kept him sane through his many traumas. But this is no simple hobbyist – there’s a lot of talent here.
He has returned to many places from his past to draw and photograph buildings and landscapes to back up his memories and make the paintings as accurate as possible, and he doesn’t flinch from the sad and painful aspects of his life. There is an enormous level of detail in the paintings, from bricks and tiles on buildings, rare bits of countryside, lots of children in playgrounds and the bustling workshops of factories he worked in.
He was born in 1928 in the Thanet Union Workhouse, but there are images from growing up when he lived in children’s homes, when he was actually happy and well looked after, despite sharing cramped rooms with other young children.
Frank’s time in the army is covered, and includes a picture of his first sexual experiences, with a prostitute, something that must have been common to many in his era. Back home there’s work in the Black Country, and the happiness of his marriage, and family life which slowly fades as his wife, a schizophrenic, dies from lithium poisoning after being steadily overdosed in hospital.
There’s an intriguing image of a lively scene outside a pub – and Frank’s caption informs us he was noting down the numbers of cars owned by the drug dealers who supplied one of his sons, another schizophrenic who committed suicide by throwing himself from a block of flats.
Frank has so many things to be angry about but seems to have channelled it into creating these beautiful and sad images instead.
He is still painting at the age of 83, and will be attending an In Conversation event at the New Art Gallery at 2pm on Saturday, April 9, where there will be a chance to chat to him and his son Greg about his life and work.


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