The following first-person story was written just before Tuesday’s announcement: The High Museum of Art recently acquired 56 prints by Kiki Smith that will go on view in October of 2011.
I didn’t know what I was walking into when Robert Brown, my professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, asked me to help in the printmaking shop for a week. For one, I’m rarely ever there, and, two, it was the same week that art-world heavyweight Kiki Smith would be coming to town to utilize our print shop for a collaboration with her friend, Valerie Hammond. Crista Cloutier, a photographer and guest writer for the Huffington Post, was also there documenting the experience.
Before this week, I had never really paid much attention to the works of Kiki Smith. Every time I’ve been in an art history class listening to a presentation on her work, I would find myself paying more attention to the back of my eyelids. Maybe I was being rude, or maybe whoever was presenting wasn’t engaging enough. Whatever the case, it’s very rare that someone like me has the chance to work alongside people like Smith and Hammond.
All week the shop was filled with conversations about the works in progress. Process became the main focus, as the two artists preferred techniques such as photolithography and photogravures. When we used digital photography, we printed it on printmaking paper and letterpress to bring their sketches and visions to life.
Smith is an intense woman. Period. She was born in Germany but grew up in Newark, New Jersey. She’s definitely a Northerner and was amused by my stories of an Atlanta that she wasn’t able to experience during her visit.
“I was actually shocked when I found out I was coming to Atlanta,” said Smith. “I thought we were going to Savannah. We’ve been here every day from about 10:00 in the morning until midnight. We’ve only been out to get groceries or to go back where we are staying.”
During her visit, Smith saw her work going in a different direction than Hammond’s work: “For me, I wanted make things addressing spirit photography which is a loose premise for our exhibition. I made one drawing of breath coming out of someone’s mouth. I’m perplexed by how color mixes in printmaking with the different plates. How can we make more colors?”
Her works revolved around a variety of ideas. Some were self-portrait photographs with sections of her face covered using color pencil and rays like lighting bolts shooting out from her eyes. Later we developed photo-litho plates of her self-portrait drawings that would be layered with pencil marks to highlight the wrinkles of her skin. She also shot photographs of her body and her notorious blue-star tattoos.
Now this is the part where you might expect to read all the profound thoughts Kiki Smith had to share over the past week. Smith’s personal thoughts soar farther than the research interests of an art historian. (It wasn’t like listening to a Kiki Smith version of Art Thoughtz, for instance.) Yes, we had a short discussion about the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenburg, but only as details to our conversations on being a Southerner versus being a Northerner.
Her ice-breaker to me was saying, “Did you know that in ten years, I don’t believe I’ve had more than one African American student?” Naw, Kiki. Really?
I honestly can see that because I mentioned it in my last article for BURNAWAY. Columbia University’s undergraduate population is only 8 percent African American, while the graduate population is less than half of that, according to a student population report from the provost’s office.
“I think that may be true,” said Smith, who has taught at Columbia, “and I’m in complete shock by it. What I like about [Atlanta] is that you really get the chance to see this middle-to-upper-class African American community. I’m coming here and looking down the halls, and I see African Americans shooting photographs, bringing their families, producing works, and staying for hours. At Columbia and NYU, we have many different students, but we lack the diversity to reflect the American population. Society will change because it is the nature of society to do so.”
Although my curiosity wanted the conversation to go on, we were forced pause for a moment as some of Atlanta’s art-world heavyweights arrived to speak with Smith. Michael Rooks, the modern and contemporary curator of the High Museum, came to visit our shop with David Brenneman, the High’s director of collections and exhibitions and European art curator. They stayed long enough to break bread and share conversation over dinner in the shop. Rooks and Brenneman were just as excited to be in the presence of Kiki Smith as the students were, to the point that they asked for her signature in art books. Earlier in the day, Louis Corrigan, founder of Flux Projects, found his way into our shop as well.
“I’m not interested in making work that is didactic,” explained Smith. “I’m not interested, as a person, in making a united stance on anything. I don’t really feel the need as a human being to make it a unified story. One may prefer it not to be unified. As a person in society you want to have space for your own experiences. It’s not like your experience is more important or significant, but you just want a chance to have space in a culture.”
“Stories are a major way that we hold meaning,” she continued. “I’m not interested in stories as fixed narratives. When I am interested, I like to subvert the narrative, take it out of its normal cultural understanding, and add to them or make them fit to an audience. In general, I’m not making much of anything that is my own, but in a way referencing what already exists, although not in a broad-based comparative way.”
This is very true of Smith. My classmates and I spent just as much time preparing photogravure plates as we did answering her questions about all our different lives. I may spend more time running the streets in Atlanta than Shaun McCallum, Laura Cleary, Nate Kamp, and the other studio assistants, but they had a lot of thoughts to share about issues such as the production of food, understanding science as art, and home ownership.
Some of the assistants used long waiting periods to work on our own portfolios, and these caught her eye and roused her thoughts. “People now live in a very different time than when I was young,” she said. “The main thing is to try and move away from being judgmental about your activities. It takes a very long time in your life to find a predominant interest. You know me, I like to let it meander around and see where it goes. What limits you in your artistic practice is your own taste and your ideas. That kind of stuff cuts you away from what happens and takes you away from your experience instead of letting your work unfold.”
Heavy. After a week’s worth of watching, listening, and producing, I found Kiki Smith’s work ethic to be like nothing I’ve seen from anyone before. Constantly moving about and making decisions, she understands the importance of collaborating and will clock long hours with you. Her time in our shop was very short, but, hopefully, next time she’ll get a chance to venture outside and see more of our colorfully diverse city.