/ From the Archives: Crafts and Arts

Interview with Allison Smith

By Patricia Maloney January 14, 2010
Fancy Work, 2010 (detail). Courtesy of the Artist.
Allison Smith received a BA from the New School for Social Research and a BFA from Parsons School of Design in 1995, and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 1999. She participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in 1999-2000. She has exhibited her work internationally, including as part of the UC Berkeley Art Museum MATRIX series; at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; MASS MoCA, North Adams; the Arario Gallery, Cheonan, South Korea; Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; P.S.1 MoMA Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City; the Indianapolis Museum of Art; the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; and The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh. Smith is currently working on a solo show for the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis and is the recipient of a 2009 Artadia Award.

Patricia Maloney: Can you describe Fancy Work and Arts and Skills Service, the projects you are doing in conjunction with SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary?

Allison Smith: About a year ago Frank Smigiel, Associate Curator of Public Programs, invited me to investigate the public programs that had taken place at the Museum over its 75 years of history, with the idea that I would find some moments to respond to, restage, or reenact, and those would be presented throughout the spring as part of the anniversary celebration.

Over the summer, I started researching the archives, going all the way back to the Museum calendars from 1935. I was really struck by the breadth of early public programs, much of which I attribute to the Museum’s founding director, Dr. Grace Louise McCann Morley, who was very invested in the civic function of the museum, as well as in craft. There was a leveling that I think she was trying to accomplish—the intention to go beyond the contemporary art of the time to include the whole range of creative practices with which people engage. The Museum would have an exhibition of Picasso, and an exhibition of children’s’ drawings in the next room. She exhibited textiles, ceramics, and prints, postage stamp design, and USSR propaganda posters. She was apparently blacklisted during the McCarthy era for showing those at the Museum.

PM: While she was still the Director?

AS: Yes. She was SFMOMA’s Director for twenty-three years.

I was excited by her approach and the kind of exhibitions she was producing. It struck me that the opportunity to look specifically at the public programs was a special one, because this huge portion of the Museum’s history is not going to be represented in the anniversary exhibition. It was fascinating to see that the Museum produced everything from soap box derby races to psychedelic light shows —in fact an incredible array of light and sound experiments going all the way back to the thirties.

PM: Were you the only artist invited to investigate the public program archives?

AS: I think so. I’ve been commissioned to do a series of projects in the spring focused on the Museum and its history, and Rebecca Solnit is producing a project in the second half of the year that I believe looks more generally at the Bay Area.

I wanted to comment on the recurring history of light and sound experimentation and the Museum’s early engagement with craft. During that time, the Museum not only held meetings of local craft organizations and guilds, but also classes and big conferences on subjects like dyeing and weaving. You couldn’t imagine that kind of thing happening now there.

In my own work, I’m interested in pre-modern and early American craft practices. Fancy Work, which is the first of two projects for SFMOMA, is inspired by the American Fancy movement, which is a period of pre-modern crafts from roughly 1790 to 1840. It was a time of very exuberant expressions within the decorative arts, including really fluid patterns on ceramics that become very trippy and abstract; quilts inspired by the invention of the kaleidoscope that vibrate with amazing color; and punched-tin lanterns that threw specks of light across the room and transformed a space in an unexpected way. These early forms of psychedelic abstraction precede modernist abstract painting by at least 130 years, and they all come out of a craft tradition.

The two main forms of Fancy Work are a quilt and a mirrored wall sconce. The quilt is a large-scale version based on one made by a Quaker woman named Rebecca Scattergood Savery in 1827. She made these incredible pulsating quilts. I had the idea to use the quilt itself as a projection screen for a light show of sorts. The “projector” is a scaled-up version of a faceted, mirrored wall sconce that reflects light outward. Think of it as a cross between an inverted disco ball and a satellite dish, combined with a colonial aesthetic. (Laughs). People will be able to navigate the space using a series of punch-tin lanterns that will also illuminate and refract light throughout the space. The musical component will include people playing the musical saw, with that strange sound that is haunting and really beautiful, I think. I love the idea that it is a utilitarian object —a tool– that is being played.

PM: Have you commissioned a musical saw band to perform?

AS: There’s no score for the event, but I’ve brought in Jackie Floyd Jones, who’s quite a Bay Area legend, in terms of saw playing. I believe she is 83 years old; she performs at the Alemany farmers’ market every weekend. She’s played for the Cockettes and has an amazing history. There will be several other contemporary saw musicians, including my studio assistant Renée Delores.

I liked thinking about the psychedelic light show as both a diversion—a kind of escape or fancy, if you will—and at the same time as a form that aspires to spiritual/ social consciousness–raising, and essentially to political change. I also think it is a really interesting model for breaking down a barrier between artist and audience, or artwork and audience. It’s an immersive art form; you have to be there to experience it. For many reasons, it’s a form that evokes social practice and yet has its own aesthetic trajectory. I wanted to do my version of a light show, but bring it back to these pre-modern craft practices that are so innovative for their time, yet utterly forgotten, and certainly not represented in contemporary art museums.

PM: Your description immediately reminds me of Hélio Oiticica's installations that, while not overtly political, embraced the concept that through a bodily immersion, one could recognize themselves as an individual in the world, and then go out and act.

AS: While we’ve put a lot of energy into making these objects that will flank the space, the piece is really about what happens in the space itself. Throughout the weekend, there will be a series of conversations, lectures, and presentations. For example, Sumpter Priddy III, the scholar who wrote the book American Fancy, is coming from my hometown of Alexandria, VA, to lecture on that movement, side-by-side with Robin Oppenheimer, who is a contemporary scholar of West Coast light shows from the sixties. On Sunday, January 17, there will be a hands-on workshop on patchwork “crazy” quilting, followed by a show-and-tell by one of foremost scholars on American quilts, Roderick Kiracofe, who wrote The American Quilt: A History of Cloth & Comfort 1750-1950, which is still the definitive souce. He was a collector and dealer of quilts for many years and now has an amazing, very focused collection of over 200 quilts. He has a particular eye for quilts that are extremely odd, improvisational, and eccentric. His presentation will be followed by a conversation with Cleve Jones, who was one of the founders of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

PM: When does the second part of your project begin ?

AS: Arts and Skills Service, the second part of the project, will launch on Monday, January 18. I’ve organized a series of gatherings scheduled throughout the spring that look at different facets where craft and war intersect, where artists and soldiers can be in conversation.

The whole project is a satellite one of the project I am doing here: SMITHS. Each month, I invite different kinds of makers to my studio, which is a storefront space. We talk about different craft histories, but always looking for contemporary metaphors, and for connections to current events. In some ways, this is a continuation of that project, but looking specifically at the theme of war.

World War II was a really interesting period in the Museum’s history. Looking through the archive, I saw the design of the Museum’s calendar changed; it includes notices about early closings and blackouts. Programs were pared down; at that time, over half the staff went into service. So the Museum was directly impacted, not to mention the fact that its original location was in the War Memorial Veterans Building [1]. That is such a unique history for any art museum. It was not just a question of sharing the same real estate; the veterans’ administration’s activities and the Museum’s were in tandem. It was something Grace Morley was very concerned with. There is amazing correspondence in the archive around all aspects of the War. Admission was free for soldiers and programs were designated specifically for them. San Francisco was a major disembarkation and embarkation point, and art was considered important for service people to see before they departed for war. That in itself I find really moving.

PM: Do you think it was in part a tactic for engendering nationalism, a reminder of the national treasures and history they were preserving?

AS: I’m not sure. I hadn’t thought of it that way. But there are a lot of interesting facets of the Museum’s connection to the war effort. Over the last few years, there has been some speculation of the possibility for a contemporary WPA, and it’s interesting to consider if and how that might function. As well as how much the perceptions of war, service people, and the civic function of the museum have changed.

PM: There’s certainly the consideration of the notion that art had a civic function, and that our government would support artists. I think we’ve gotten so used to the dismantlement of the NEA’s support for individual artists and the idea that the government is overwhelmingly opposed to supporting artists’ practices. It’s fascinating to think that artists were once considered an integral part of the war effort.

AS: One program SFMOMA developed with the Red Cross during WWII, which was later adopted by other museums and organizations, was called “The Arts and Skills Service.” In some ways, it embodies a proto-art therapy approach. The program enlisted artists to teach some fourteen different arts and crafts skills to wounded soldiers recovering in military hospitals. It was direct way to get artists involved in the war effort, utilizing their own skills.

PM: What were some of the classes?

AS: There were classes in different textile techniques, ceramics, metalworking, and graphics. Not much ephemera has survived, but there are advertisements that depict a soldier wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigar while learning how to make love tokens, ashtrays, and picture frames. (Laughter)

PM: Will any of the surviving ephemera be included as part of your project?

AS: Yes, at different points in the project I want to share that history. For the project as a whole, I wanted to look at this moment in the past and wonder over it, in the way that we are doing now. In the archives, there is a long report that describes the Museum’s struggles over what to do with the objects that the soldiers made, because they are unsure whether or not they are works of art, and therefore worthy of exhibition in the museum. Which is interesting because, as I mentioned before, there were exhibitions of children’s’ drawings, Disney animations, and postage stamps. Ultimately they chose not to exhibit the objects, even though the same report notes that the most important aspect of the program for the soldiers themselves were the objects they made.

AS: (cont'd.) I wondered what it would be like to restage this program—first, as an opportunity to remember a particular history of SFMOMA, but also to create the opportunity for artists to be in conversation with contemporary service people, which I think doesn’t happen often enough, and especially not at a museum. Within that, I have many other questions that I’m hoping to tease out from the project, such as “What is the contemporary version of an activity such as bandage rolling, in which civilians could participate and feel some connection to the war effort, to the soldiers, and their wounds?” What did it mean psychologically to gather one’s friends and connect to these injuries that happened remotely?

We are so disconnected from the front lines now. What are the kinds of wounds that are inflicted—physical or psychological—and what would the contemporary bandage be, either for the civilian who wanted to engage and doesn’t have a tactile entry point into the conflict, or for the soldier who has been injured?

In my work, I consider all kinds of conflicts: personal, social, and psychological. Within Arts and Skills Service, which includes conversations scheduled each month leading up to Memorial Day Weekend, there are three sections: one about the home front, and this metaphor of rolling bandages as a larger one for ways to participate. There is a section on camouflage, body armor, and decoys, which looks at ways to be on the front lines. There is a section that reiterates through all the different elements of the project, incorporating the military and war craft history and contemporary art. It is about trench art, which is made by service people in war, often using the detritus of war. In each of these sections, I’m interested in the tactile entry points that can be seen in a broader way, whether more personal or political.

PM: Can you talk more about the idea of tactile entry points? It seems that re-animating these craft practices—and specifically the physical interaction with objects—enables access to these histories. What is the significance of these tactile entry points for you?

AS: One way to answer that is through my investigation and engagement with reenactment. The way that I arrive at a practice that combines studio with social practice is through a performative act, one that’s done to experience how something felt, to put it in the most simple terms. I think that reenactors who perform history in the context of battle reenactments go to incredible lengths—almost to the point of obsession—in crafting the tactile aspects of the past, in order to achieve a position where they can feel what that moment felt like. This idea of actually trying to feel the trauma of war in one’s own skin is a really valid attempt. It's our privilege not to do that. Many of us can go merrily along and not feel the effects of war.

Art therapy becomes a really operative metaphor for me because the therapeutic process is one in which you try to engage with disassociated memories that were too difficult to experience the first time. With this tactile contact with materials, the hope is to engage at some level with a bodily reality.

I just want to know what things help soldiers relate, that help them feel human, stave off boredom, deal with the traumatic events that they are in the midst of, or deal with societal perceptions of their roles and what they are doing. I’m hoping those questions might be answered in the conversation with service people. But also, being a sculptor, and operating from the language of art, I’m also convinced that art has a role to play, even if it is a very personal, direct one. Learning a skill in the context of conversation is the most pleasurable kind of art making that I can imagine. I’m hoping that this project will create some of those moments.

PM: The phrase “bodily reality” made me think about the fact that one of the most visible aspects of this war is the popularity of videos on YouTube of service people surprising their families and their children with their return, or of coming home and being reunited with their dogs. They are incredibly heartwarming and moving, but really point to the fact of their absence. In so many ways, there aren’t representations of soldiers at war, of their physical engagement.

AS: Just thinking about the idea of rolling bandages—and again, I’m thinking about this as a larger metaphor—for a head wound or amputation. How could you not think about the horror of what’s happening? Our generation is considered to be apathetic, but we’re so disconnected from war in our everyday. Everything is constructed as very far away. We live a very disassociated, mediated, virtual reality. I think I’m working toward an idea of making some form of embodied performance, at least for myself, where I can put myself in a space where all the signs around me are telling me “Do not look at that. Do not connect with that. Do not engage with that. It’s out of your hands. You’re unaccountable. It’s not your fault.” It is that sense of awkward curiosity and accountability that makes me want to go there.

PM: Tying that concept into SMITHS suggests that your artistic practice is a form of activism. And by using that term, I don’t necessarily mean a form of protest. I mean the active pursuit of claiming a particular identity. Is that something you see happening? Is there community that forms in this space?

Fancy Work, 2010, installation view. Courtesy of the artist.

AS: In some ways, I see the activist part of my work as a slow-building rumble that eventually will reach a roar, but it is something that I don’t often put out there first. I think it goes back to the tactile introduction of difficult concepts. Many of my artworks are these exuberant, tactile, colorful, dizzyingly attractive, or seductive things, but which hopefully bring you to a kind of awkward set of questions that don’t add up to a statement that I am asserting. I was taught by artists who were politicized in a different kind of way, around feminism or institutional critique. I think that influenced my work and identity as an artist, but in terms of my own practice, I am much more interested in asking complicated questions that aren’t answerable, or maybe will spend my life asking in more and more complicated ways.

PM: What are some of the questions?

AS: To me, the most interesting and successful projects are when I can gather a diverse set of questions, hold them up together, and offer those to the viewer to grapple with on their own.

I’ve been engaged in ideas of how history, identity, and nationalism are constructed. I’ve looked a lot at craft, and notions of making play a role in that. I’m always looking for marginalized histories and want to show interesting, but overlooked pockets of history. I think the kind the hierarchical debates between art and craft have been going on for a really long time. At this point, I am interested in taking on the discourse around material culture and visual studies that has really broadened how we can see cultural production beyond art works or craft. That’s where I can enter into something like trench art and think about it as a kind of creative practice that changes the way I see myself as an artist in the world. What does it mean to take the conflicts of the world and try to do something creative from those extreme circumstances, using what is hand? Those are questions I’ve arrived at well past the point of thinking whether art and craft should operate on the same level.

PM: But you started out by talking about a particular interest in pre-modern craft, so what is the draw to that?

AS: There are a couple of things in that statement. One of them is that I realized recently that I’m not really interested in studio craft, which I hadn’t understood was a full-blown movement, and one that really flourished in the Bay Area. The way I think about craft is sometimes referred to as “the crafts,” or the “pre-modern” crafts. I’ve arrived at that by looking at the phenomenon of historical reenactment, in which you can’t separate the crafting from the performing of gender, masculinity, whiteness, nationalism, and colonialism. I’ve found it really interesting to locate moments that were somehow disrupted, or I can disrupt from a contemporary point of view, or restage in such a way to make it more inclusive, or question the underpinnings of it. I think that looking at the past is a way to obliquely look at the present. In some ways, I’m always interested in that kaleidoscopic engagement with history, in which one is thinking about the past as an entry point into the present.

And then there’s something aesthetically and tactilely that I’m attracted to.

PM: When I look at your work, I think about Avery Gordon’s concept of haunting. [2]. Ghosts are the traces that are no longer identifiable but still remain very real. They are the traumas that we’ve completely absorbed and incorporated into our being without even recognizing them. In order to understand what haunts us, we have to excavate the past and recover these traces. For example, the recent project that you did with the Indianapolis Museum—in these re-enactments we can recognize those things that are agitating us because they are still unresolved. In some ways, through this excavation, we become less isolated as a result, because we can reach back and pull them forward.

AS: That’s really interesting. You are saying that things that are agitating us, because they are unresolved, are haunting our contemporary life. They exist on the periphery. And feeling less isolated results from connecting with the things that are haunting us, or because we are gathering with other people who are also haunted?

PM: It’s about recognizing the things that are haunting us. It is not just about seeing ourselves in the immediate situations that affect us, but can see ourselves partaking in a larger narrative that is unfolding.

Another aspect that I recognize—or impose—on what happens here with SMITHS is the formation of a collective identity through engaging in the same activities. In some ways, taking on the role of the apprentice, and learning that skill, is re-affirmation of community. That’s why I wanted to ask you about it was like with "Notion Nanny" to function as both artist and apprentice.

AS: What appeals to me about craft is the deeply collaborative aspect to it. There is the kinship, a bond that’s formed, when people gather to learn something together, and are making something together. I think of SMITHS as kind of general store. Looking at the history of the general store, it’s a contact zone, a place where ideas, news, and questions are exchanged in the same moment as material objects are. In some ways, learning the skills is just a foil for getting people together to talk about something that matters. I like the general store as a metaphor for a place where you have this alternative economy of ideas and questions. I always thought that was one of the more interesting aspects of being an artist, that you could create a community based on questions, inquiries, theories, or hypotheses. That’s been a really rewarding aspect of art to discover and develop in my own work: the idea that I could be learning and meeting people. Talking and exchanging ideas can be part of this larger process that’s not about making a body of work; it’s about figuring out a way to live.

SMITHS: Fancy Work and Arts and Skills Service launches at SFMOMA on January 16, 2010. This interview took place at her studio on Jan. 6, 2010.

[1] SFMOMA was located in the War Memorial Veterans Building from 1932 to 1944.
[2] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

Patricia Maloney is Managing Editor of Art Practical.

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