Interview: John Smither
Luca Curci talks with John Smither, one of the winner of the ARTIST OF THE MONTH – JULY 2020.
John Smither is originally from the Chicago area and grew up in the Midwest with an MFA in printmaking from Washington Univ. in St. Louis. While in grad school he also became interested in with working in video. Once out of school he moved back to Chicago where he continued to make relief prints, video, and large-scale drawings. His subject matter focused on the urban and wild landscapes of the area. At that time, due to technical limitations, he was never able to integrate these mediums into satisfying installations so the different media were typically worked independently. After showing in Chicago at solo and group events for many years he moved to Seattle. In Seattle, he continued to work on large-scale drawings and paintings based on the local environment of the Pacific Northwest. In 2010 he joined forces with another local artist, Zanetka Gawronski and started Core, a non-profit gallery, in Pioneer Square. At about the same time, with video tools being much more affordable and accessible, he also started to reintroduce video into his work. Fast forward to the present day, he creates integrated installations of paintings, woodcuts, and video of various sizes. He has shown his work at numerous venues including a live theatrical version at On The Boards in Seattle. His work is included in numerous private and public collections. John’s studio is in Georgetown’s Equinox complex and is open for visits every second Saturday of the month and by appointment.
Luca Curci – What is art for you?
John Smither – For myself, art is simply a form of personal expression which hooks the artist soul directly to the viewer. How this works for each artist is different and not everyone is going to get hooked into every artist’s soul. If you do make a connection, it can stand out as one of the more important parts of your life.
LC – What are you currently working on?
JS – I am taking a trip down the Oregon coast (west coast of the USA). During that trip I hope to collect new video, audio, photos, drawings etc. The northwest coast of the United States is a wild, wide open landscape with forests, cliffs, mountains, long beaches etc. The flora can range from desert to rain forest in a matter of a mile or so. I am hoping I will gather enough source material to start a new installation. In the past, my audio is usually enhanced ambient sound that is collected while doing the main taping. The audio plays an important part for these installations but it is one area where I think I can greatly expand on my process. For this trip I am bringing along a stand alone audio recorder which I am hoping will let me gather sounds much like I would use a camera to gather reference pictures.
LC – What is the role the artist plays in the society? And the contemporary art?
JS – Taking on the responsibility of the artist means you are willing to step out of your everyday mental path to open ones head to explore, experience and report back. This can provide feedback, commentary, beauty, and ideas for the society the artist inhabits. Societies often want to put boundaries on the what comes out of an artist and many artist are OK staying within. I am not sure if that is good or a bad thing. Is a medieval mosaic artist any less of an artist than a Yayoi Kusama or a Gerhard Richter? This of course brings up the problem of the artist in today’s world. It is demanded that you are new, fresh, brash etc… It is expected that your work be entirely yours and distinct from anyone else’s. The viewer expects your sole on a platter. This is liberating and we owe a lot to those how paved the way for this paradigm, but it can be just as suffocating. I think the simplest view I have for role of the artist in today’s society is to simply ignore the rules and just do what you need to do.
LC – Where do you find you inspiration?
JS – As you might have guessed, nature is where I get my spiritual hit. I love the intricacies of foliage which its gestures, power and vibrancy. I like to find intimate and incidental views to bring to life. These are the ones that stick in your memory in often fractured abstracted ways. It is that fractured memory that drives the work.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
JS – Once I have been out in the field and collected video, photos, audio, drawing etc, the hard part begins. When I come back from gathering I really don’t have a clue where the piece is going to go. I have to force my self to stop, look it all over, do little quick sketches and write down ideas. I am much more inclined to simply start working so this “stop” is the challenge. Its hard but its also fun, if that makes any sense. There is plenty of time to just “go for it” when out gathering and when a loose direction has been layed out. I just have to be patient at that one point.
LC – What is your creative process like?
JS – It’s a mess punctuated with moments of clarity. The phase of gathering source material in the field is one where I just have to stop thinking and let things happen. There is no plan going in except I know I need to bring stuff back into the studio. At some point in the collection process something will just say – video this and I just do it. As for the photos I just shoot everything. I have no idea what will be useful. Once in the studio, I have to keep just as loose as I sort through it all and figure out what the installation will actually be. Which video(s)? What size panels should I use in what configuration? I will do a lot of sketches and when something starts to gel I will use cut out pieces of paper and pin them on the wall to mark TVs, painted panels, woodcuts or whatever. Once that is worked out and the TV(s) and blank panels are up, its a free for all over again. I might have a vague idea of where the painting will go, what the stencils will be but that is often overcome by events. Once the painting is done and the stencils are revealed, it is time to stop once again and think about where the work is going. What stencils showing what images will overlay on the video in what combinations? Again, I will have a vague plan and just start diving into Photoshop and Premiere and see what happens.