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Feb. 29, 2020 | Saturday
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Ross Smith: A lifetime of creativity and design
Ross Smith, in his makeshift studio, surrounded by his most recent creative endeavour, abstract art. (Tim Taylor/The Lake Report)

For almost 70 years, Ross Smith has been drawing things.

Smith’s creative journey has included industrial drafting, lighting design, advertising and now, after retiring to Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2004, he has turned his hand to abstract art.

At 85, Smith has a distinguished air, a kind of debonair feel, smartly dressed, sporting a full head of silvery hair and goatee. 

Smith’s new townhome is testament to a lifetime of creativity, showcasing his and others’ artworks, including a large collection of Inuit carvings (he once had a financial interest in a gallery).

Born an only child in 1934, in his grandmother’s house in east Toronto, his father was a meter repairman for Consumers’ Gas. 

Smith didn’t finish high school. At the age of 16, a school buddy said: “Hey, I’m going to get a job in the drafting department at General Electric. Do you want to come along?” 

“So, I did and we both got hired.” 

That was the start of a lifetime of design and creativity.

“I was creative,” says Smith, who describes himself as self-educated. “When I went into drafting it was a way to get drawing. I would have loved to go to what is now OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), but my parents couldn’t afford to send me.”

“I worked during the day as an apprentice draftsman and went to school at night. At 21, I was, and probably still am, the youngest company design draftsman ever.”

After 10 years with GE, Smith moved on to a major lighting company, designing such things as the interior lighting for the new GO train system. When that company was sold, he saw an opportunity to break away and set up his lifelong dream — an advertising agency.

“I always wanted to be in advertising, so it was not as dramatic a shift as it might seem.”

Smith was 38 when he struck out on his own, focusing largely on industrial business-to-business advertising, printing and promotion. He owned the agency for 30 years, employing as many as 10 staff. His clients came from across Canada and the eastern United States.

During his agency years, he also kept his hand in lighting design. “I designed and manufactured the lamp standards at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition).”

Smith sold his advertising business in 2004. He and his wife, who has since passed away, decided they wanted to get out of Brampton. 

“We looked around Ontario,” Smith remembers of his move to NOTL. “We went east to Belleville. We went north to Muskoka. We went west as far as Leamington. But we just thought this was the nicest.”

As a youngster he used to come over from Toronto on the Cayuga (a steamship that sailed from Toronto to Niagara from 1907 to 1955), so he knew the town.

“I remember taking dates on the Cayuga, for a picnic in Niagara. It was great. She was trapped with me for four hours,” he smiles.

Smith is proud of his new career.

As he tours his current artwork, in his unfinished studio, he pauses at each canvas, as if to remember the inspiration for the work. Much of Smith’s current art is geometric, highly designed. 

But you can see from his collection, he’s been through more spirited periods, even one that focused on the colourful faces of cows.

Smith has two daughters and four grandchildren.

His Toronto daughter is a professional artist, earning a degree from OCAD, now selling her work across North America for thousands of dollars. “I made sure she went to art school — the one I couldn’t afford.”

Why abstract art? “Not everyone likes abstract art. But it pleases me. It makes me feel good.”

Smith has had one showing of his work but is searching for more opportunities.

And all this creativity has to fit between his four weekly golf games at the town’s historic course. 

Maybe 85 really is the new 60.

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