Artist Ali Smith: Printing East London’s urban landscape

Canal boats, cranes and graffiti: Everyday East End scenes through a local printmaker’s eyes. 

Most people walking down Mile End Road probably don’t envisage a piece of art when they pass the local offy and East End caff found on the junction. They probably don’t even look up at all. But for printmaker Ali Smith, these everyday urban scenes are where she finds her artistic inspiration. 

Artist Ali Smith with her dog outside their home in Bow, East London.
Smith and her Irish terrier, Monty, outside of her home on Zealand Road, Bow.

Graffiti, bridges, canal boats and cranes are the subjects of many of Smith’s prints, who takes in the local urban area by walking Monty, her Irish terrier, through the streets of Bow and along the towpaths of the Regent’s and Hertford Union canals

‘They might not be what other people consider amazing landmarks, but I tend to like urban structures and buildings more than trees and things. The canals are great to capture because they are a mix of nature and the people who live on them,’ says Smith.  

People say London is lonely but I don’t think that’s true. There are pockets of East London like this one that have the community feel of a small village.

Ali Smith

But it’s clear that the area means more to Smith than just providing inspiration for her work. Talking to her in Zealand Cafe – with Monty nuzzling at our legs under the table – it is evident how fond and knowledgeable she is of the local area, having moved here to do her nursing training in 1987. 

On Kenilworth Road where Smith now lives just off the Roman, the sense of community that sprung up during the pandemic has long outlasted lockdown with residents still holding daily coffee mornings and weekly evening drinks in the street.

Smith said: ‘People say London is lonely but I don’t think that’s true. There are pockets of East London like this one that have the community feel of a small village.’

Smith gave up nursing 24 years ago to be a mum and a carer to her two children who both have long term medical conditions. During Covid the family were shielding so a lot of Smith’s artwork focussed on Monty and her son and daughter, but now she is out and about in the local area again. 

On one dog walk passing Queen Mary’s University on the canal path, Smith said her attention was caught by the colour combination of the blue boats complementing the buildings in the background. But rather than pitching up an easel and capturing it there and then, printmaking is a rather more arduous process. 

Screen print of a canal boat on Regent's Canal.
Regents Canal – Screenprint: Along the towpath on Regents Canal by the Queen Mary University Campus. ‘I often walk the canal path with my dog and the colours of the boat and the buildings seemed a great combination.’

Screen prints like this one are made by spreading ink over a stencil made of mesh screen to imprint a design on the surface below. The design becomes more intricate as layers are added, with a print that Smith is currently working on involving 17 layers and several months’ work. 

‘It’s like painting in slow motion,’ she explains: ‘Prints can be made on mass which is why I like doing them, but it’s not like you’ve just taken a photo of a painting. They are made using the same process but lots of people don’t understand that each one is a unique original piece.’ 

‘There’s something about the process of doing it that is quite mindful … although it can also be rather frustrating,’ she laughs.  

Smith said that during lockdown her kitchen was transformed into something of an art studio, but she does much of her work at the Idea Store print studio in Shadwell which offers printing courses including screen printing, lino cutting and etching to name a few. It was here that Smith attended a course eight years ago which reignited her love of art and introduced her to the patient world of printing. 

‘I came from an arty family and did art at A-Level, but I don’t think I had the confidence at the time to pursue art as a career. Looking back now I wish I had,’ says Smith. 

Now that her children are both of university age – with her daughter inheriting the arty genes and also studying printmaking – Smith says she finally has time to focus on herself. 

Taking on a new job as an NHS peer leader last year, printmaking is still a part-time endeavour for Smith, though she hopes to set up a website and start selling more prints in the new year, and has an exhibition planned at the Yurt Cafe in Limehouse later on in 2023. 

‘As a mum it’s always been about my children but as they’re growing up I have more time to rethink,’ she muses: ‘This year is my year of change, and I am just beginning to focus on myself.’

Black and white dry point print of a canal boat on Regent's Canal.
Regents Canal – Dry Point: Along the Regents Canal towpath just past the Palm Tree pub, off Grove Road, with the Mile End Park Walkpath Bridge behind. ‘I love the way each canal boat is so individual and particularly when they are covered in plants.’
Screen print of graffitied bridge in Hackney Wick.
Hackney Wick – Screenprint: A view from White Post Lane in Hackney Wick looking towards the ‘Here East’ Innovation and Technology campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. ‘I loved the mix of  buildings, structures and colourful graffiti.’
Black and white dry point print of the Regent's Canal and Bethnal Green gas holders in the background.
Regents Canal, Hackney – Dry Point: This is an image from a walk along Regents Canal in Hackney, parallel to Andrews Road and near to London Fields. ‘I love the gasworks in that area.’
Reduction lino print of a crane in the Isle of Dogs.
Isle of Dogs – Reduction Lino: One of 3 giant cranes by the Blue Bridge on the Isle of Dogs. ‘They have a real steampunk feel to them.’
Chine colle linocut of graffitied building in Fish Island.
Fish Island – Lino-Chine Collee: The Don Bakery on Beachy Road in Fish Island. ‘I don’t know whether it is still there but I loved the pink cat graffiti!’
Soft pastel print of graffitied bridge on the Regent's Canal.
‘Joker’ Regents Canal – soft pastel: Along the towpath, parallel to Grove Road, just past the Mile End Climbing wall on the left and the railway bridge ahead. In the background is Queen Mary’s university campus. ‘The ‘Joker’ graffiti always stands out for me and I loved the combination of colours on the buildings and canal boat.’ 
Screen print of the back of houses and a bicycle shelter on Kenilworth Road, Bow.
‘Ringo’s Patch’, Kenilworth Road – Screenprint: ‘My road in Bow has met for a daily chat and coffee since the Covid lockdown.  Ringo is the roaming street cat who has adopted many additional households in the area.’ 

If you enjoyed this piece, read our article about local artist Mira Connolly

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2 thoughts on “Artist Ali Smith: Printing East London’s urban landscape

  • Where can we buy these wonderful prints?

    Ali doesn’t seem to be on social media?

    Thanks for another great profile of a very talented local artist!

    Reply
  • Hi Ben. I’ve just seen your comment. Thank you. 😁 I’m on Facebook & Instagram as alismith7499 if you’d like to direct message me there.

    Reply

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