Our next Artist You Need To Know is Fiona Smyth. For almost four decades, Smyth has made work in the intersecting spheres of art, comics and murals. Educated at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD U) from which she graduated in 1986, Smyth’s “comics have been marked by a bold and overt sexuality—rare for a female cartoonist at the time—that often, erroneously, saw her labeled an anti-feminist. Alongside her countless self-published zines, Smyth’s comics have appeared in Vice, Exclaim!, Canadian Notes & Queries and many other publications.”
Quill and Quire offers the following about Smyth: “A respected and sometimes controversial Toronto artist [she] has been referred to as an “urban cave painter.” Her iconic art has been featured in comics anthologies, murals, comic strips, zines, and in art galleries in Toronto, New York, and Tokyo.”
Fiona Smyth is from Montreal and moved to Toronto with her family when she was fourteen. “Smyth was raised Catholic, and her work is characterized by a strong fascination with iconic forms borrowed not just from Christianity but many other faith traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indigenous Animism, all merged to create a syncretic, psychedelic vision….Smyth has found comics to be ideal vehicles for disrupting traditional and patriarchal ideas of proper feminine behaviour. “My childhood was full of contradictory messages of feminine compliance and the burgeoning women’s movement,” Smyth told The Dalhousie Review in 2018. “When I got my period, I was attending a private Catholic girls’ school where no one spoke of periods, and students in grades seven, eight, and nine weren’t even allowed to carry purses. The female self-image was all about outer appearances, menstrual secrecy, and being of service to others. Thankfully, my family moved to Toronto, and I was enrolled in an arts high school where girls proudly spoke about being on the rag!”
Speaking about her 1987 comic Whore/House, Smyth noted, “The purpose was to critique the stereotypical roles forced on women by society, such as virgin/whore or mother/slut, which reflect a kind of naive 1950s view. I wanted to portray how women aren’t singular characters; rather, we are good/bad and ugly/beautiful all at the same time. In other words, I was embracing all of these roles simultaneously in a super-energized graphic way.” (Jeet Heer, from an article in The Walrus)
Several of Smyth’s notable publications include The Never Weres, (in the genres of science fiction and youth literature, published in 2011), and a series of progressive “sex talk” books for children, created with the writer Cory Silverberg: What Makes a Baby (2013), Sex Is a Funny Word (2015) and You Know, Sex (2022). In 2018, Koyama Press released Somnambulance, a career retrospective of Smyth’s work. A review of Somnambulance asserted that Fiona Smyth has created a “world of sexy ladies, precocious girls, and vindictive goddesses…revealed in all its feminist glory. This is recommended reading for sleepwalkers on a female planet.” (from here)
Since 2009, the award winning artist Fiona Smyth has been contributing a work each week to Monday ARTPOST, an online webzine featuring columns from artists and writers. This series is under the umbrella of CHEEZ, as a continuation of a comic strip that ran from 1992 to 2002 in Exclaim! Magazine under the same name. Until now, over 700 strips have been created. You can see the latest iteration of CHEEZ here, with continuing contemporary posts.
To celebrate Fiona Smyth’s exhibition CHEEZ 2022 in Toronto at the 50 Gladstone Avenue Saloon, the book CHEEZ 456 was produced, with a selection of four hundred and fifty six pieces, featured sequentially from the latest to the earliest work. (from here)
A selection of images from that series are below.
Smyth’s work has been exhibited in countries around the world, including the United States, Mexico, Berlin, France, Venice, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Many people in Toronto have enjoyed her vibrant and evocative mural on the exterior of iconic local club Sneaky Dee’s (at the intersection of College and Bathurst streets).
A review for the CBC, by the late art critic RM Vaughan, about the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton THIS IS SERIOUS, that featured several of Smyth’s works alongside artists like Seth and Julie Doucet, can be read here. Vaughan quotes co-curator Alana Traficante: “I question, do we have to speak about comics in the language of fine art in order to represent them in the context of a museum or gallery — or, do comics stand alone as their own field of artistic practice? I believe comics are not just a subculture, but also a culture in their own right. And that’s something I want people to discover: the complexity of the genre, its maturity.”
You can enjoy a conversation all about Smyth’s work – discussing an exhibition of her artwork at the AGO and also talking about her “critically acclaimed children’s sex-ed book [and how] her journey as a female cartoonist looked different a few decades ago [and how] she has navigated the cartoon industry since the 1980s, why she embraces the monicker of feminist artist, and her latest works” – from TVO here. Another fine interview with Smyth can be seen here.
Fiona Smyth’s site can be seen here and her Instagram can be enjoyed here. Smyth is currently teaching illustration and cartooning at OCADU.