An interview with Debra Smith

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Resident Artist Debra Smith studied fashion and textiles at the Italian Academy of Fashion and Design. She also holds a BFA in Textiles(93) from the Kansas City Art Institute and an Associate’s Degree in Applied Sciences(02) from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

We sat down with Debra Smith in her studio one early autumn afternoon. Her studio was filled to the brim with fabric pieces. They adorned her walls, filled up her work drawers, and covered the long table where we spoke. Taking in all the textures and colors made the whole space comfortable and reminiscent of being inside a giant quilt.

We discussed her art origins and her most recent show, Memory Trace. We also talked at length about her current aspirations and her plans for the future with her residency extension.

 What inspired you to become an artist? How did you get started?

I’m a third generation weaver. Both my mother and grandmother on my mother’s side were weavers. My grandmother was also a painter and quilter.

At the age of 5, my family moved to Hannibal, MO where my mom became involved in the local Arts Council. She actually help start the Folklife Festival that still goes on today. Thanks to that, I grew up around Raku fire pits, cyanotype workshops and other really weird workshops that were hosted by the Hannibal Arts Council. It left me with a really diverse project portfolio when I went to the Kansas City Arts Institute (KCAI).

When I attended KCAI, I was a little resistant to join the Fiber Department. I had been doing it all my life so when I finished my course foundations, I was more interested in printmaking, photography, and fiber. But when I stepped back, I realized that I could do more of all three within the Fiber Department.

I was also really blessed because around the same time, Asiatica, a company here in KC that makes clothing out of antique kimono fabric, just happened to drop off all this scrap cloth at the school. I was weaving, dyeing, and tearing strips of fabric at the time and had decided to weave some scarves out of their scraps. I ended up weaving five scarves for the semester sale which caught some attention, particularly from one of the Asiatica’s owners.

A lot of the acid reds and creams that I use in my work are actually the Japanese kimono fabric linings. First, I was using the creams but I was also in love with the acid reds but it took me several years to incorporate it in my work.

Why silk and vintage fabric in particular?

I think it was working for Asiatica that really exposed me to these beautiful sheer fabrics. There’s a vibration to the cloth that I’m drawn to. Kimono fabric is also 12 inches wide because of the strip construction of the kimono so all that I’m working with is handmade.

I had people write reviews about my work where they focused on “the body.” I’m not thinking about the body. I feel like I’m a painter and this is just the material that I’m painting with.

The vibration is strong enough for me that other people don’t have to know that its kimono fabric. When others are seen wearing my scarves, people always come up to them and ask them about it. There’s something familiar that they’re just drawn to.

What stories do you hope to tell with your fabrics and vintage pieces?

For me personally, they’re very emotional and they’re about the space that I’m in when I created them. I try to get out of the way and let the work guide me.

I like to give space to what I’m doing. I like to keep the titles vague in some way to leave space for the viewer to bring themselves in. I know a lot of people say that but that’s what I’m doing. When I heard Warren Rosser talk about his paintings he discussed how he was trying to get “air” into his work. I loved him saying that because I feel like I’m constantly trying to get air into my work too.

What inspired your show, Memory Trace?

It’s a title I used on other pieces. I feel like that the first pieces from the original Memory Trace series were produced as early as 2003. I wondered what was going on when I used that title and I feel like there are layers of meaning of it for me. To be quite honest, I haven’t quite figured all of those out yet.

For the purpose of this show, I had a major surgery this year on St. Patrick’s Day. They had to strap down my wrist during the entirety of it. The procedure was supposed to only last an hour and a half but it actually took four hours. By the end of it, my arms were numb. I couldn’t hold a needle or use a pair of scissors. Since I could squeeze the doctor’s hand, they weren’t too worried about it but they wouldn’t tell me why. Everything I was reading online said this could last up to six months.

Luckily, it lasted less than two weeks but the whole thing set me back more than I thought it would. I felt like I needed something to get myself working. So, I made 100 pieces that are about 7 X 7 inches. Some of them are new but a lot of them are based on little pieces that I made in the past that hadn’t made it into finished works. I had a lot of stuff started so it was a matter of going back and looking through all those pieces and scaling them down or adding to them to make a series of 100 pieces.

Getting those 100 done was a bit effort in and of itself. A week after the surgery, I started to recognize the solitude that I created in my life.

While devising the show, I also felt that the Studios Inc could work on its community outreach. To help me tackle both my issues with solitude and social outreach at SI, I decided to set up a Studio in the gallery for the duration of my exhibition. I’m going to bring my sewing machine down with a big table and invite people to come and eat lunch. We’re going to have a “Stitch & Bitch” while it’s up and a few other things. A lot of it is theater because there’s only a certain amount work you can get done in a gallery if other people are coming in but that interaction with people while allowing them to get a peek at what I’m doing is exciting. I’m also going to do a large installation on one of the walls which will change throughout the duration of the show.

My goal is to have some dedicated time in the space where I can let people know I’m here on social media. We’ll see what happens.

What are your goals as an artist? How would you define success as an artist?

One of my big goals at this point is to be kinder to myself and to ask others for help more often in a more timely fashion. I don’t feel like I ask for help well. I enjoy helping others.

I’m excited being here at Studios Inc because of the communal atmosphere. Before I had my weaving and art studio in my house so there would be days that I would only talk to the mailman. It’s been really exciting being here meeting other artists–passing each other in the hallways, going to each other’s studios, and having lunch. There’s another level of support that just happens based on the nature of us just passing each other as opposed to planning it all out in formal events.

I think success could really vary from artist to artists. For myself, personally–it sounds really silly– but just paying my mortgage and my bills. I always feel like I’m a little bit behind. I have three galleries that I show with: one in Kansas City, one in New York, and one in Iowa. As much as I’m working, I have this feeling that I’m not working enough because when someone asks for something I wish I already had it to get to them. Hopefully, in the next few years, I’ll ask for help getting papers organized and getting grants together because anything on a computer is not my friend. I need to find the way to find the money to invest in myself while also asking others for help.

How do you think the Studios Inc has helped you in your goals as an artist?

So here’s the funny thing that happened: Living in New York for 10 years, the studio I had there was primarily for my weaving. It was my bread and butter back in the day. It was how I paid the bills. I would make my artwork either in that studio or at home and it was always on the floor of another room. I could never see it because the space I had to work was so tiny.

To be able to work and see what you’re working on while you’re moving onto that next thing gives you space for ideas to percolate. I know this has been said a million times but it is true about this space. I’ve only been in this studio space for a year and, because I got an extension, I’m really excited for the next two years because I have the time to plan and play. Not everybody gets that so I feel very lucky to be respected and valued enough to get the extension.

Now I just need to hustle and raise the money so I can pay the bills. It’s that combo platter of what people always say: it’s that sense of community and the space to see what you’re doing. During the recent Sculpture conference, I cannot tell you how many people came into my space and ask “How many people share this?” And I’m like “Welcome to my basketball court.”

It’s a luxury of Kansas City.

 

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