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Art helps others ‘stand in wholeness of their life’

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Kiki Smith grew up in a Catholic home dominated by art because her father Tony Smith was an acclaimed American minimalist sculptor who worked in large geometric sculptures.

In a public conversation March 31 at the National Art Gallery with the gallery’s curator Rhiannon Vogl co-sponsored by the American Embassy, Smith said she and her sisters would help her father make the geometric scale models or “maquettes” of his work out of cardboard.

“All he did was art,” she said. They had no television and little exposure to other information outside of the art world.   Her mother was an opera singer and actress.

“We had no furniture,” she said. “If you need a chair, you had to move it from one room to the next.”

Her father’s friends were famous modern and abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

She recalled how after the Second World War there was a great call for artists to participate in the rebuilding of the churches. Her father had designed a chapel that included Jackson Pollock’s painting on glass for the windows. Though the chapel was never built, the National Gallery has the painted windows by Pollock in its collection.

But Smith’s becoming an artist herself was not immediately apparent to her. Growing up in New Jersey, she took a course in industrial baking, but the work demanded getting up early and felt too much like “a real job.”

When one of her sisters decided to become an emergency medical technician (EMT), Smith decided to take the course as well. She found the work fascinating in “learning about other peoples’ experience of being in their bodies.”

She joked she would often gaze too long at stab wounds she saw in Bedford-Stuyvesant because of the way it penetrated the surface of the body and exposed the inside. After she became an artist this prompted her to do a series of sculptures of internal organs.

Because one of her younger sisters died of AIDS, her initial desire as an artist was to produce work that could be hung in hospitals. But she soon became classified as a “museum artist.”

“Would I want that on my dining room table,” she quipped.

Unlike her father and his friends, Smith was drawn to more representational art and works not only in sculpture but in stained glass, textiles, prints and drawings. She described moving from human figures to focusing then on the animal world, and the relationship of animals and humans.

A lot of her work began in dreams, she said. Then, she would try as best she could to reproduce it with “as close a proximity as I could.”

Sometimes she dreamed about art that was “other peoples’ work and I’d get jealous!” She would have to convince herself these were her own dreams.

“When one is an artist, one grows to trust what one is given, following one’s own work rather than trying to manipulate it,” she said.

The gallery’s present exhibit features her father Tony Smith’s “Black Box” which is a black, rectangular sculpture in the same room as Kiki Smith’s “Born” which shows a doe giving birth to an even larger figure of a woman.

“I have no idea what it means,” Smith said.

The gallery bills the two artists as representatives of the “zeitgeist” of their particular generations, marking the shift away from representational forms in her father’s case and back to them in Smith’s.

The process that led up to the creation of “Born” began with an interest in stories of children raised by wolves, such as Mowgli, a portrait of St. Genevieve in the Louvre, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood. After doing a print of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother emerging from the belly of the wolf, she asked herself, “What does it mean if you are born out of a wolf?”

She created work based on this question. Then, this theme progressed to “What does it mean if you are born out of a deer?”

Smith stressed it is important for artists to create their work rather than “wait for the universe to give you permission.” 

“We have much more power as artists to initiate” than we realize, she said.

She and her neighbours had bought a plot of land to preserve a bit of greenspace and she put a sculpture on it of a woman carrying a deer. “It completely changed my block to have that public sculpture,” she said. “It really changed everything radically.”

“It made people have pride in that place by being attended to,” she said.

For Smith, doing art is about more than mastering how to represent the body or animals properly. “I’m not good at this,” she said. “I need to do it more than I care about whether I can do a hand properly.”

“A lot of it is getting out of your own way,” she said. If you are blocked by not being able to represent something properly, “just lower your standards.”

She called being an artist a privilege. We are “stopped mainly by our own brains,” she said.

She described making art as a way to “keep kicking out a space so people can stand in the wholeness of their lives, to help them to stand in the wholeness of their life.”