Pull of the Moon
Recent Works of
BARBARA LEE SMITH
Pull of the Moon
cover: The Cove, 2009, 47 x 49.5â€?
Pull of the Moon
Recent Works of Barbara Lee Smith
Gregg Museum of Art & Design, North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC January 20 - May 15, 20111
The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.
Seeing by the Sea
— Loren Eiseley1
After her early years growing up in Cape May, New Jersey, and starting a family in reach of the Atlantic on Long Island, followed by three decades near the shore of the inland sea of Lake Michigan, Barbara Lee Smith has settled into a studio in the Pacific Northwest, overlooking a branch of Puget Sound not far from Tacoma. With rare exceptions, large bodies of water have never been far from her, nor she from the sound of wind and waves. The daily rhythms of the tides have long paralleled her own daily cadence of work, exploration and contemplation — and just as the tides, little by little, can turn rock into sand, sand into beach, and beach into dunes and back to stone once more, her dedicated and unremitting application of time and effort has gradually built up a substantial body of work, an admiring following of other artists, and a life in the arts. Smith’s enthusiasm for the work of others is as bighearted as her gaze on sea and sky. In Traces: Mapping a Journey in Textiles, she introduces us to fellow textile and fiber artists with the same quietly excited admiration she might display if she were calling our attention toward a rainbow over the Key Peninsula or pointing toward harbor seals swimming by in Carr Inlet, just below her studio window. It’s only fair, then, that we approach Smith’s work in an equally appreciative spirit. Lynn Ennis has selected a range of satisfying examples of Smith’s recent work for Pull of the Moon, the show that accompanies Traces. Together, the two exhibitions provide a rare opportunity to experience both a show-as-creation (for every act of choosing is a kind of creation)2 and creations by the chooser. In such a context, Smith’s curatorial generosity becomes even more obvious, for few of the pieces she chose for Traces resemble her own work or echo her medium, approach, or subject matter at all. Hers is a life that teaches by example. If, like the old adage says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Smith took that first step a long time ago and is still walking steadily along toward her destination. By now the daily pull of her work has become muscle memory — each part of her process as smooth as a sea-polished pebble — but that practiced “knowing how” now frees her to concentrate on the “finding what”: i.e., finding what images feel ready to emerge next, finding what the natural world surrounding her is ready to teach, finding what responses seem most appropriate for revealing the emotional and aesthetic reactions she feels toward it, and finally, finding what the materials she works with are capable of expressing. In the arts, doing and making are inseparable from learning, and through her constant art-making she has taught herself well. In Pull of the Moon, Smith’s nonwoven textile images offer with an open hand a world she knows intimately. But it would be an error to confuse their direct beauty with naïveté, for instead she has the kind of hard-won simplicity that can only be achieved through years of paring down experience to its essentials. That kind of simplicity is synonymous with mastery. — Roger Manley, Director Eiseley, Loren. 1978. “The Hidden Teacher” in The Star Thrower. New York: Times Books, Random House, p. 118.
As Marcel Duchamp demonstrated with his Readymade found-art sculptures.
The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea. — Isak Dinesen
Pull of the Moon Water. Horizon. Energy. Beauty. Exploration. The recent work of Barbara Lee Smith invites the viewer to step inside her world — one that has been a lifetime in the making. While at first glance these works reveal layer upon layer of material that forms a collage, the complexity gives way as the viewer steps back and looks at the work from a distance. While looking at it, two questions emerge. Why? How? Smith’s thought process is as layered as her art and in each piece there are glimpses into her life. She is a constant observer, a voracious reader, a generous friend and artist, and one who fluctuates between being a social butterfly and a hermit. This is why she can do what she does. Many of Smith’s early years were spent in Cape May, New Jersey. The vista offered her views of the beach and ocean and an amazing array of birds. Sunsets and sunrises taught her to look for color. One artist who caught her eye at an early age was Jackson Pollock. Her first exposure to his work was through Life magazine in 1949. She was 10 and captivated by what she saw. She also frequented the needlework shop in Cape May with her sister and bought stamped linens to embroider. Music was her early talent and she started taking piano lessons at the age of three. Although her musical abilities continued to develop, her parents discouraged studying music in college. Faced with a choice of nursing or home economics, she went to Douglass College (then the women’s college of Rutgers University) in New Jersey and majored in home economics. Here she studied science, cooking and sewing, but
detail: Sunrise/Kokkino Chorio, 2010, overall dimensions 49.5 x 78”
continued her musical journey, participating in many choral groups. A basic design course led her to the college art gallery and an exhibition of abstract expressionism that she never forgot. She also remembers performances by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, art that was removed from her conservative small-town upbringing. Like many women of the 1950s generation, she married right out of college and started a family. Eventually she and her family moved to Levittown, N.Y., a new community that offered her easy access to Manhattan where she saw exhibitions that made an impact on her — such as an early show of Kandinsky’s work at the Guggenheim Museum. While caring for two small children at home she found time to teach herself machine embroidery, following instructions in several women’s magazines and books from the local library. This brought creativity, something she had been missing, back into her life. In addition, a friend introduced her to the feminist writings of Betty Freidan, and through her husband she became involved in the Human Potential Movement of the late 60s. After a move to the Chicago area and 10 years of marriage, Smith and her husband divorced. While living near Chicago Smith took correspondence courses in teaching contemporary embroidery and design from the National Standards Council of American Embroiderers, and joined a local embroiderers’ guild. Guilds were a way to learn about stitching and design, with visiting teachers and lecturers and workshops providing opportunities to learn skills and techniques, something that universities were not teaching at that time. Smith refers to the guild as “an educational underground” and for about 20 years she was part of the itinerant teachers who traveled to teach, often internationally, for the guilds. She also studied with Chicago designer and embroiderer, Henry Stahmer, who emphasized making collages to begin a design and translate them into fabric and thread. Smith remarried in 1970 and eventually returned to college for graduate school at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. One teacher, Barbara Krug, encouraged her to go in the direction of painting on cotton and linen fabric and machine stitching, a combination that has been a constant as her work has evolved. Several years later perhaps one of the most important changes was discovering the material she uses for her art. In the late 80s Smith saw an advertisement offering artists three yards of a nonwoven polyester material called Lutradur, made by Freudenberg Nonwovens. The product was free and artists using it could submit work to be selected for an exhibition, New Art/New Material (1989) at what is now the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State University. While she didn’t enter the competition, she did send off for the material and began experimenting. Little did she know that this material would become what she would use exclusively from 1992 onwards.
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Artists … understand what it is to be in a place, not be from that place. — Mary Jane Jacob After many visits to the Pacific Northwest, she and her husband Mel decided to look for property there to call home. The next major change in Smith’s life was in 2000, when she left Chicago, her home for 30 years to move to Raft Island, Gig Harbor, Washington. Her studio, completed in 2002, sits above the house and over a garage. It is a magical space with lots of windows and in three places reaches out, cantilevering over the foundation and offering window seating, desk and storage spaces. Son, Randall Lanou, designed both the studio and the house that are part of Smith’s environment — a place where she and her husband greet guests, work at their separate businesses, and collaborate by way of conversations and ideas. Smith likes taking walks on the island roads. The ebb and flow of the salt water tide of Puget Sound uncovers treasures and then covers them back up. It’s somewhat like peeking underneath an artist’s painting that has been draped until it’s finished. Both her studio and home look out over the sound. There is nothing between her house and studio and the water. First you master a craft; then you create a being. — Martha Graham Smith is a disciplined artist. While the morning sun is making a decision about showing up for the day, Smith rises and checks e-mail and visits her studio. After a bit of work and gauging what her day will look like, she heads down the small hill to her home for breakfast. Then it is back to the studio to work. Using a space in the first floor garage that Smith has claimed for her painting, she starts by applying watered-down acrylics, as well as Jacquard silk paints, on Lutradur, the nonwoven product on which she had experimented many years before. Smith rarely uses typical brushes to apply the paint. She uses nontraditional materials such as foam brushes, the edge of a credit card, rollers, and spray bottles. Once they are dry, she takes the large paintings upstairs to her studio and pins them on the wall. This gives her a chance to stand back and search for the background for her next work. When she finds a welcoming composition of color and shape, she cuts it out and uses it as her next canvas, putting aside the discarded material to use in the next step. These discarded bits and pieces become a palette to add color and texture to the composition she has in mind. As she places various pieces on the canvas, she is looking for the picture in her mind to emerge. She fuses the collaged pieces using a heat transfer product (Wonder Under) to the background and continues to collage until the work is where she wants it to be. Smith says making art is “about chaos and control.” Her chaotic painting process comes under control with the collaged composition. In many ways this echoes Jackson Pollock’s process absorbed by her 10-year-old self. When all the pieces are in place, Smith “draws” with her Bernina 217 sewing machine which allows her to work in any direction. She sews four to five lines while the work is face up, then flips the piece and begins laying down line after line of stitches that resemble a topographical map. Rayon thread shimmers on the surface, catching the light and adding yet another dimension to her work.
Listening to music often plays a role in how visual artists work. For some it is the juice that feeds the ideas and for others is a distraction that has to be kept out. For Smith it’s a combination of the two. She prefers to work alone and often in a silent studio. When she is reading or thinking she must have silence. Otherwise her mind would be on the music. This comes in part from her early training and love of music. She really listens. After she has gotten so far on a project she likes to have music — of all sorts — because it helps her to work intuitively. We belong to the moon. — Mary Oliver At first glance from across the room one might think Barbara Lee Smith’s work is painted in watercolors, with that floating effect usually associated with this medium. As you move closer you see that there are many layers to her work. While the technical process is impressive, what takes hold is the sheer power of the images. Water plays a role in all of the work selected for this exhibition and one becomes aware of the ever-present relationship between the water and the moon; tides both high and low. Her works move from peaceful to energy-filled to fierce. In South Jetty the crashing waves remind us that nature can be threatening. Salt Edge gives the feeling of greater safety since more of the shoreline is showing, distancing us from the roaring water. In Almost Summer the viewer looks through a six-panel window-like arrangement that brings hope of renewal. The Jetty resembles a Monet painting. The Cove is quiet with a sun-filled sky. In Marshland/Twilight the sun lights the land on fire before floating to another part of the world. You find yourself anticipating the big reveal in Waiting for the Fog to Lift. In her journal Smith has recorded several lines of a poem by Linda Rodriguez:
I Give You River
… set me free finally with the power of moving water,
my own inborn element,
which carves memories of trauma from the earth itself
and leaves wondrous scars.
In Smith’s triptych The River one can imagine such a journey as Rodriguez describes. It’s the wondrous scarring that gives a new promise to the land. While Smith is inspired by her own place, she gathers great insight and inspiration from her many travels. And many times this inspiration draws on something from her past. During graduate school Smith was educated by two art historians from Greece
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who taught from their experiences and with their own slides, not those borrowed from a communal library. This exposure to Mycenaean and Minoan art and the Greek islands never left Smith. On a recent trip to Greece she took in the views and created Mykonos, a diptych that called out the beautiful colors of that region. Likewise there is another diptych, Above the Caldera/Santorini. The foreground offers more color; the sky’s intense blue and the water’s sparkling sea transport the viewer to these wonderful places. In the triptych Sunrise/Kokkino Chorio, Smith again invokes the colors of the purple landscape against a bright golden Cretan sky. Smith skillfully transports you from one horizon to the next. As you look closely, the layering fills the works with movement. There is never any doubt that the earth is shifting and the paintings vibrate with energy. Waves crashing, rivers moving and vegetation swaying. Whatever the subject, Smith is always investigating what we can learn from nature. She has surrounded herself with the natural world. Patricia Malarcher, editor of the journal, Surface Design, aptly describes Smith’s work as “walking into weather.” More is more. — Katherine Westphal Barbara Lee Smith is always looking to the horizon for the next project. Her desire to create pushes her to try new ways of looking, of creating, and of investigating. She dances with chaos and control, moving lightly between the two. In her journal she has listed what is important to remember: To be Grateful … Aware … Concerned … Transported. All good words to live by. — Lynn Jones Ennis, Associate Director and Curator of the Collection
Information for this essay comes from conversations with Barbara Lee Smith and an interview with her conducted by Mija Riedel on March 16 and 17, 2009, as part of the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for American Craft and Decorative Arts, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. All quotations are from the journals and notes of Barbara Lee Smith. Thanks to Linda Rodriguez for permission to include a portion of her poem, I Give You River.
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Above the Caldera/Santorini, 2010, 49 x 80â€?, detail opposite
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The Jetty, 2008, 49 x 67â€?, detail opposite
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The River, 2010, 49.5 x 92â€?, detail opposite
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Marshland/Twilight, 2010, 49.5 x 39â€?, details opposite
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Almost Summer, 2010, 62 x 41â€?, details opposite
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Mykonos, 2010, 50 x 78â€?, detail opposite
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Waiting for the Fog to Lift, 2009, 48 x 45â€?, detail opposite
BARBARA LEE SMITH Education, Experience and Honors
Permanent Collections (Selected)
MFA, Northern Illinois University, 1979, Mixed Media. University Fellow 1977-78
Abbott Laboratories, Chicago
Author, Celebrating the Stitch: Contemporary Embroidery of North America, Newtown, CT, Taunton Press 1991
Controller of the US Currency, Chicago
Curator, Celebrating the Stitch, exhibition of 140 works traveling in USA, Canada, UK and Japan 1992-94 Curator, The US and Us, traveling in New Zealand 1996-98 Honorary Member, The Embroiderersâ€™ Guild, England 2001 Residencies: Ragdale Foundation 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 Distinguished Lifetime Resident, Ragdale Foundation 2002 Senior Resident: Oregon College of Art and Craft, Portland 1996 Visiting Professor, Joshibi College of Art and Design, Tokyo 2000-2004 Pierce County, Washington State Arts Commission, Career Award 2009 Archive of American Artists, Smithsonian Institution 2009
Solo Exhibitions (Selected) Orie Gallery, Tokyo 1996, 2000 Thirteen Moons Gallery, Santa Fe 2002 University of Nebraska, Lincoln 2005 Tacoma Community College, WA 2006 Knitting and Stitching Shows, traveling in UK 2006 Bellevue Arts Museum, WA 2006 Jane Sauer Gallery, Santa Fe 2008, 2010 Snyderman/Works Gallery, Philadelphia 2009
American Medical Association, Chicago Embroiderersâ€™ Guild Museum, UK Indianapolis IN Museum of Art Itabashi Loan Bank, Tokyo Joshibi College of Art and Design, Tokyo Madeira, UK Mitsubishi Financial Services, Tokyo Mohawk College, Hamilton, Ontario Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Salvation Army Headquarters, Dallas Swiss-Bernina International, Steckborn, Switzerland Racine Art Museum, WI
Group Exhibitions (Selected) Recent Acquisitions, Indianapolis Museum of Art 1997 Lin (traveling exhibition) Hotel des Archeveques de Sens, Paris 1997 Triennial of Tapestry, Lodz, Poland 1998 New Traditions, Worcester Center for Crafts, MA 1999 Art of the Stitch: Insights, Barbican Centre, London and Gateshead, England 1999 Sculpture Objects Functional Art (SOFA), Chicago 1996-2010 SOFA NY 2001, 2003, 2005-7, 2009 Mighty Tacoma, Tacoma Art Museum 2010-2011
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Unless otherwise noted, photographs by Lynn Jones Ennis
Acknowledgments I was delighted when Barbara Lee Smith agreed to guest curate a major textiles exhibition for the Gregg. Early on in the process she developed the focus of the show Traces: Mapping a Journey in Textiles. At the same time I was envisioning a small exhibition of Smith’s work to run concurrently with Traces. I would like to thank Smith for being brave enough to not only work on a major textile exhibition as curator but to create new pieces for an exhibition of her work, Pull of the Moon. This took such discipline and steadiness of hand, head and heart. My deep gratitude to Smith for her willingness to take on two projects. I have been exploring the places that are important to her. For several years I experienced her studio space through images and descriptions. It is true that many times textiles need to be seen up close. And Smith’s work is no different. So to select the final objects for Pull of the Moon, I headed for Raft Island, Gig Harbor, Washington, where Smith lives and works. It was here that I experienced the magic of what place can do for an artist. Thank you, Barbara, for showing me this part of the world. I would like to thank Carol Douglas for her editorial skills and for her enthusiasm for this project. David Ramsey skillfully photographed the objects and Jessie Brinkley made it all come together with her artful design. To all the Gregg staff I say thank you. Once again the team jumped in and worked to make all of this a reality. The Friends of the Gregg offered their support, which is greatly appreciated. And to the students of NC State — thank you. You are the ones who make it possible to do what we do. To all — remember to look up at the moon — you never know where it will take you. Lynn Jones Ennis, Associate Director and Curator of the Collection