Geoffrey Smedley obituary: sculptor, intellectual, author and UBC professor

He drowned May 9 after his ATV accidentally went off the public dock on Gambier Island

Geoffrey Smedley's intellect and insatiable curiosity took a physical form in his sculptures.

The 91-year-old retired UBC professor, who died May 9 when he accidentally drove his all-terrain vehicle off Gambier Island's public dock, was a well-respected sculptor who had just published his latest book.

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The book is a study of the work of the 15th century Italian artist Piero della Francesca and “demonstrated Smedley’s astute grasp of principles of art and geometry,” says its editor, Jan DeGrass.

“I loved him. He was just such an interesting guy,” DeGrass told the Coast Reporter. “He may have been 91 but he was sharp as a tack.”

Born in London, England, Smedley was a builder of complex mechanical devices that he called metaphorical machines, many of which had been exhibited in 2013 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

George Smedley sculpture
Geoffrey Smedley, Recalled Head (detail) and The Numbers (partial view), 1992-2000. - George Smedley

A biolgraphy on La Fondation Daniel Langlois says Smedley "evolved from using specific landscape sites to the use of language. It was during the period between 1975-77 that he questioned the notion of light, time and memory in sculpture. Combining disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy with accomplished craftsmanship, his highly intellectual work functioned as a metaphor for language, time and memory."

His work was exhibited in more than 60 galleries in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, including seven solo shows. His works can be found in various public collections, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Arts Council of Great Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

George Smedley in his workshop
George Smedley in his workshop. - Mary Burns blog

In her blog, Mary Burns provides an excerpt from his book on Piero, Beneath Appearances, which was not yet published. Smedley describes travelling to Italy to unravel the mysteries behind some of the Early Renaissance painter's works.

"I do not know exactly when the drawings were made, but it is obvious that Piero’s eyesight was extremely acute when he worked on them," Smedley wrote. "I suspect Vasari’s story of his blindness. How were the drawings made? My speculative answer begins in the studio itself. Once I visited his house at Borgo San Sepulchro. The rooms were lofty, elegant and flooded with Tuscan light once the shutters were opened. The most important room, his studio, was a laboratory: the place where his skills of craftsmanship were exercised in the company of his intellectual ability and his unbounded imagination. The laboratory has gone but in my imagination, I refurnished it with easels, drafting tables, and tee-squares. Dividers coming from antiquity must be placed first among the host of instruments followed by compasses, straight edges, a variety of set squares. There would also have been scales (Pythagoras weighed shapes in order to find their areas). To construct models benches, vices, anvils, files hammers and chisels and hands would be needed..."

Smedley retired to Gambier Island, just north of Bowen Island, in 1992 following 15 years as a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Sunshine Coast RCMP said it appeared Smedley reversed the ATV he was driving when it struck a barrier and flipped into the water. He then became partly trapped underwater by the ATV.

“Whether he meant to go backwards and he gave it too much throttle or meant to put it in drive, hit the throttle and went backwards … at the end of the day the fellow is not here with us,” said RCMP Sgt. Michael Hacker.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria received a distress call just after 5 p.m. Wednesday by way of marine radio and activated the Coast Guard, which sent a hovercraft from Sea Island. The Gibsons RCMSAR also arrived, as did oceanographic vessel John P. Tully. The Queen of Surrey, en route to Horseshoe Bay from Langdale, was also called in to assist and launched its rescue boat at 5:50 p.m.

Coast Guard divers retrieved the body from within the ATV’s cab in about six metres of water.

This story has been adapted from its original in the Coast Reporter.

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