Oh brother where art thou: These siblings are connecting through a cross-Canada painting project

Forget email — Cody and Connor Smith communicate through paintings that make multiple trips between B.C. and Ontario before they're complete.

Forget email — Cody and Connor Smith communicate through paintings

Connor and Cody Smith's "Universe Man" (Connor and Cody Smith)

It's a sweltering Friday evening in East Vancouver and Cody Smith is trying to call his brother in St. Catharines, Ont.

"Connor, I told you to stand by!" He laughs and shakes his head as the phone rings and rings. "See? This is like the paintings. It's brutal."

The paintings he's referring to are the product of an ongoing collaborative project between him and his brother, Connor Smith. One of them is on the wall of the café we're sitting in. It's called "Universe Man" and it's massive: a fluid scene in oil, acrylic, charcoal, marker and pencil on an 80-inch by 120-inch canvas. It simmers with quiet energy. Parked cars, a brick wall and leafless trees, a couple silhouetted at a table, splashes of white paint and colourful streaks. Vancouverites might recognize the crisscrossing lines in one corner as the rollercoaster at the Pacific National Exhibition.

"It seems like I paint things from here and Connor's painting things from Ontario. So they kind of become, geographically, these hybrid images," says Cody. "There's something about Canada that I see in them."

The paintings, he says, seem to absorb something of the country they travel across. Each one takes three or four trips back and forth from B.C. to Ontario before it's finished. They fold the canvases into dense packages and send them via Canada Post or with travelling family members.

Connor and Cody Smith's "Upper Canada" (Connor and Cody Smith)

The brothers grew up in St. Catharines and both graduated from OCAD — Cody in 2010 and Connor this spring. They decided to make art together after Cody moved to Vancouver three years ago.

"Deep down, I think the project started as a means to connect with a close sibling while living 5000 kilometres away," says Cody. "It is kind of like how a handwritten letter on paper in the mail has more resonance than an email. It's tactile. There's something to grab hold of."

Deep down, I think the project started as a means to connect with a close sibling while living 5000 kilometres away. It is kind of like how a handwritten letter on paper in the mail has more resonance than an email.- Cody Smith, artist

The project has no rules or restrictions — which sometimes leads to frustration.

"I remember he edited out this immaculate image," Cody laughs. "The greatest thing I've ever painted, he just took it right out. I think it was a flower scene on the side of a road. But there are no rules, so we couldn't get mad at each other about it."

The process forces them to let go of results and focus on the act of creation.

"It's helping me be a lot less obsessive with what I'm painting and just open it up and let the world take it,'" says Cody.

Influenced by New York artist Joe Bradley, they paint on the kind of cheap canvas drop cloths you can buy at Canadian Tire.

Connor and Cody Smith's "Lucid Dreams of the Northwest Passage." (Connor and Cody Smith)

"We've always thought, personally, you should never respect a painting. As soon as you start obsessing about the object of the painting, you lose the excitingness of the image," he says.

The paintings are alive with shared history: from childhood camping trips in Algonquin Park to stories told by their grandfather. The distances they travel through time and space, says Cody, have an effect.

"They're kind of like photos with a very long shutter speed," he says.

When we finally reach Connor outside a bar in St. Catharines, he berates Cody exuberantly: it's taking him too long to open the latest shipment of paintings. He describes the feeling of amazement when he opened the first painting from his brother.

Connor and Cody Smith's "Sleepers." (Connor and Cody Smith)

"I thought, 'I don't want to touch this because it's so beautiful,'" he says. "It took me about a month to come to terms with thinking, 'OK, I'm going to destroy this now. I'm going to beautifully destroy this.'"

They've finished about a dozen paintings so far. Several are hanging at a Vancouver studio and gallery called Space and at Agro Roasters next door. They hope to show them in Toronto someday, too. Regardless, they're determined to keep the project going.

"I just want to keep doing them for the rest of our lives," says Connor. "Cody and I have said no matter where we are in the world, no matter where our lives take us, we just want to keep doing this forever."


Based in Vancouver, Rachel Sanders covers climate change for CBC Radio's What On Earth. She previously worked for the CBC program White Coat, Black Art, the CBC podcast The Dose, and CBC Vancouver's local current affairs radio programs. She can be reached at