Interviews

Meet LA’s Art Community: Sharing Inspiration With People of Color “Has Always Been a Priority” for Shinique Smith

An interview series spotlighting some of the great work coming out of Los Angeles. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Shinique Smith (image courtesy the artist)

Welcome to the 18th installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, we interview Shinique Smith, a painter and sculptor who creates monumental pieces made from colorful fabric that expressively borrow from calligraphy. Her abstract compositions of recycled clothes and materials reflect on those things we use and then discard, while the seemingly invented language of her works borrow from graffiti, Japanese calligraphy, and literature. She’s exhibited at multiple venues, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Yerba Buena Contemporary Arts Center, New Museum, and Studio Museum in Harlem. She’s also produced public art commissions for the Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority, Mural Arts Philadelphia, UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, and other places.

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Where were you born? 

Mercy Hospital — Baltimore, Maryland

How long have you been living in Los Angeles? 

About two years now.

What’s your first memory of seeing art? 

When I was very young, marveling at story book illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon and by Louis Untermeyer, as well as posters of Romare Bearden in my childhood home in West Baltimore. Somewhere between the fantastical story book realms and Bearden’s inventive representations of Black life, I learned what collage was and I began to see the world around me — my everyday life as a world of wonder.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph? 

I have always photographed the art I see and even videotaped at museums with my Hi8 years ago. Not sure if that would be allowed these days. For a long time, I used disposable film cameras, taking many selfies then too, but for years now I’ve been capturing art with my iPhone.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year? 

Unfortunately, I missed some wonderful shows due to travels, but there were several that continue to overlap in my memory. A few that I loved in no particular order were Isaac Julien: Playtime and Julie Mehretu at LACMA, the Sarah Lucas survey at the Hammer, Nathaniel Quinn’s show at Gagosian, Elliott Hundley and Liz Larner’s shows at Regen Projects, Karen Kilimnik at Sprueth Magers, and Lauren Halsey’s recent immersive show at Kordansky. Tough question because there’s so much creative energy and innovation happening in LA that I am constantly inspired by my peers.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Dust Tracks on the Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston is one of several books that I recently picked up again. I admire Hurston’s use of language, her insight and the beautiful way she builds characters even in telling her life’s story. There is a romance to our lives, or there can be if we can see the truth and empathize with it.

I’ve also been reading The Tree and the Leaf by JRR Tolkien, which includes his poignant essay “On-Fairy Stories.” I draw inspiration from literature and poetry for the calligraphy in my paintings and to spark visions — to affect the way I see and feel.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends? 

It depends on where the works are being displayed. Normally, I view museum and gallery exhibits alone. Sometimes visiting permanent collection works multiple times. Some museums are like visiting a temple where I go to pay homage to masters who helped inspire my path.

What are you currently working on? 

Indelible Marks, my solo exhibition with the UBS Art Gallery in New York, which is currently closed due to the pandemic, should still be on view through the end of June 2020. It is a special selection of over 20 new and older works that reveal the autobiographical and diaristic aspects of my work and how the collaged pieces of fabric represent personal codes and the sculptures become monuments to imagined collective histories. This selection expands upon my use of line, gesture, and the performative nature of my brushstrokes and the tying in my bundled fabric sculptures. As drawing has been an important part of my process, I’ve included some of my studies, and paired them with several prints and drawings by other artists — kindred spirits who are also in the UBS Art Collection.

I am also excited for my new sculpture, “Grace Stands Beside,” on view at Baltimore Museum of Art as part of its 2020 Vision exhibitions of women artists.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of? 

I am proud and grateful to have created a sustainable practice for myself and maintained a consistent market through disparities in institutional recognition and gallery representation for a woman of color, especially within the field of abstraction.

Since the beginning of my career I’ve built education and programing with kids and communities into all of my museum shows and projects. Having completed a Master of Arts in Teaching prior to earning my MFA and worked with students from elementary to graduate levels, education and sharing my inspiration with other young people and people of color has always been a priority. I’d never thought of it as activism or as the subject of my work, but more like what’s required to build a legacy. These efforts and ideas continue to inspire me, and I am quite proud that my art has provided inspiration to others.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects? 

Inspiration comes from music, dance, poetry, storytelling — science fiction, and it comes to me from within. Memories of places and significant experiences, nostalgia for my youth in Baltimore, my travels and experiences of other cultures. World religions, the patterns of fabric and objects that humans have made to mark their existence and the connections I see between them are beautiful and fill me with a sense of wonder.

I create a sort of private imagined code or history in the fabrics and clothing I use, and this inspires the work too — love the potential world we could manifest together if we tried and utopian thoughts like that drive me.

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