• In the Studio:
    Barb Smith

    Suzanne Seesman: When I was looking at your work online one of the things that I thought  a lot about was kind of this idea… Well, maybe it’s over dramatic to talk about the trace but I don’t think it is. Or, the idea of residue.  It seems like no matter what happens in your work that this [idea of residue] is the thread that holds.  The conceptual line that holds.  And, the other thing I was thinking about and that I’m thinking about even more now that I am in your studio is this kind of line that you are able to play with sentimentality.  It’s a line that I appreciate because It never really goes fully into it.

    Barb Smith: I would say that the trace had been an important component.  When I first started doing working with the trace it was really objective and forensic.  The early work had some sort of emotional removal for me.  I was doing a lot of research about an absent body and objects and places where I can find the trace of someone but not know the details of what had happened or who that person was. - which turned into this question of where do I exist. Which is why the trace is still a thing that I work with.  And, I think, it seems to be evolving now into something even more process driven. For example the washcloth - it was an object from my parents house.  It’s probably older than I am and it has just been used so many times that the friction between the hand and the body wore that circle. So, it is as if that object had become a recording device and I think that is something I ask myself a lot.  What object or material can be a recording device of some sort?  A recording device that is not too personal and can speak to a collective experience, while not being too sentimental. I try really hard not to [be sentimental].  I am interested in the sentimentality but I definitely don't want to be sentimental. It's so easy. 

  • SS: Yes, but I feel like you go for it.  I feel like you make your job intentionally hard in that sense.  You know with things like keys…..

    BS: Yeah.

    SS: That is such a tricky territory to go towards without being sentimental.   So then I have this feeling that you set yourself up for that challenge intentionally.

    BS: Yes, I think so.  Because the thing is....that [the key] was the object that broke me, basically, the one where I became more emotionally attached to the thing I was making. Until then I had been pretty removed from what I was making but when I ordered all these keys on e-bay they were all on key rings. They had a different logic.  And, I remember, I dumped them out on the table and I spread them out and I started noticing that they had these really specific key rings. I could tell where they had banked or shopped…

    SS: Where were they from? 

    BS: Missouri I think. I think it was from an estate sale or something.

    SS: You don't think they were all the same person, do you?

    BS: No. But what I could start to tell were the couples or families.  I could see where they had joint house keys and joint car keys. It took me…. well, I was on the verge of tears for two days. I couldn't cut them up.  I couldn't take them off the key ring.  Because I felt like, I am rearranging the universe right now and I do not have the authority to do that

    (both laugh)

    Barb Smith in her studio in Richmond Virgina.
    IMAGE: Suzanne Seesman
  • BS: Right? So, then I just made peace with it but that was the moment where it got really personal.  I was hoping that by cutting them up and making it into a line and dealing with that form that I could take it away from being just sentimental.

    SS: Because of the abstraction?  You thought that maybe you could pull it away?

    BS: Yeah. But, it's tricky because now you have keyless entry or card swipe or something like that so then the keys are sort of inherently sentimental.

    SS: Oh, because their form is nostalgic?

    BS: Yeah.

    SS: Yes, I think that keys are! When I saw that piece I thought it did avoid the overly sentimental territory though.  But that is what I think is really interesting about your work.  I can see it as this thing that you go straight towards to try to tackle and you keep some element of that human connection without just making it over the top sticky sweet.

    BS: Yes.  I think of my work often as a catch-all drawer.  All of these weird objects that you're attached to but you're sort of not at the same time. They are completely extraneous but you can't get rid of them because you think, I need that battery and these rubber bands.  That sort of feeling of a catch all drawer was important to me versus a precious curio cabinet.

    SS: Or one of those knick-knack display boxes. Except those makes knickknacks into very special objects.

    BS: Yes. my grandmothers house - it was as if the entire thing was a catch all drawer. they had a small farm, they were very poor, there was the great depression and everything was to be saved because it could be used for something else.  That carried over to my parents house too.  So we would have weird collections of things like yoghurt tubs that would get turned into other things.  Everything could be fixed so… you didn't get rid of things.  There was this semi-hoarding lifestyle going on but it was super functional. 

    (both laughing)

    SS: Yes but it is also about the value of material.  Not the value of material so much as … maybe this thing that we're talking about - a fetishization. But again, it is not exactly fetishization. Perhaps it is related though.

    BS: Totally.

    SS: There is a recognition in your work that material has a lot of importance and power but, at the same time, I think it is so easy to overemphasize that [power].  I think that is a struggle with making sculptural objects or with making “sculpture” in general.  I don't know what - exactly - the “trouble” is. But, I think it is a problem that sculptors have that doesn't necessarily extend to other mediums.  You're dealing with objects and there is such devaluation of objects in the world. At the same time you don't want to sentimentalize the object because that is such a problematic territory.  But then again you certainly do want to recognize the residue that objects have.  And not just the human residue.

  • BS: Yes I will say that with all of the work that's on my website there's been some editing.

    (both laughing)

    I had been doing stuff that was SO sentimental to where it kind of bothers me now. But I had to do it.  I was making lockets and putting stuff in them - and it was uhhhhg…victorian!  So I had that moment and I got it out of my system-I think


    Which I needed to do.

    SS: Yes.  But I think it is also something that still comes in and out. I think a lot about romantic conceptualism with your work and I was thinking about that a little bit here in your studio.  It is about this challenge.  It is difficult to work in that realm. It wouldn't be to intentionally abstract something just to take it out of that.  You know?  Do you look at Susan Hiller's work?

    BS: Yeah!   It's certainly something I'm still trying to figure out.  It's almost like.... what is my formula exactly? I think a lot about how to invert the ephemeral and how to collapse person, place, and time.  I do it somewhat intuitively. It is also earnest. But in terms of the sentimental, I'm thinking oh…I don't want to go too far."


    SS: I also think that the older we get, the easier it is to just not be sentimental.  It's inherently different. It becomes a different relationship.  I think the relationship gets flipped a little bit where you're coming at it from one direction.  I don't know maybe this is true for you or maybe it is not.

    But at some point in my life as an artist I was really drawn to it in a way that was very - not even self indulgent - just plain indulgent.  And now I almost can't even be there and I want to be there.  So, it has flipped and I am coming at it from another direction where I kind of wish I could be that hopeful and I wonder what that was all about.  It makes me think of this congratulations card drawing that you have up!


    What is that about?

    BS: Um…yeah.  I made that and I was becoming really involved with my feet. So I made the video that is now up on my website

    SS: The digging? l love that piece.

    BS: Yes the digging.  That was the first thing I made at Skowhegan.  I was wandering around on this path thinking "what am I doing? I'm so frustrated. I don't know.  I don't want to make the work I've been making.  I want to make new work but what is this place? how do I relate to this place?" And then I made Dig, which I totally had a an interesting response to because my hands move almost as a mirror image.  That's just how my hands move and I knew that about myself but I didn't realize that everyone's hands don’t do that.  From there, for some reason I became really fascinated with my feet.

  • As a follow up,I made a piece that is not on my website because it is not quite resolved yet.  I found a pair of bronze baby shoes when I was in Maine and I couldn't help but buy them because they are this weird sentimental object you know? … baby's first pair of shoes, baby's first steps

    SS: Yeah, the bronze shoes. It's a thing.

    BS: Yeah, it's very midwestern and I became fascinated with them and I kept staring at them. You know there is a metal skin that is actually grown over the shoe so the shoe is inside of it. So I was thinking a lot before I made the washcloth piece actually about my relationship to my discipline and the sentimentality and the suffocation - all of these things.

    SS: Is this especially because it is traditionally called  "small metals" right? And so it's funny because it is not even about working in metal as a martial it is a specific idea.

    BS: yeah! "tiny shiny"


    Yeah whenever people say oh you're tiny shiny and I say yeah you’re big and dull you wanna talk about this?

    (more laughter)

    SS: You mean like, other sculptors who work in metal? That they are supposedly "metal sculptors".

    BS: Yeah "heavy metals."


    BS: Yes!  So I have these one specific pair of shoes that were from my home town actually. that had bells on them which is something my mom put on my shoes so that she could hear where I was when I was moving around.  So, I was thinking about myself now and my childhood self and this fetish of the baby shoe and also this sexual fetish of feet you know?

    SS: Yeah.

    BS: And so I made this video where you see my two bare feet and this shoe in-between.  And then you see the hallway in between my legs and I basically take my feet and start petting the shoe. and then I try to stick my toe inside the shoe and then…eventually,I break the bell off.  It looks like a nipple for a minuet and then I break it off and that is the end.  I don't know how I feel about it yet. I am really interested in that piece right now but…I don't really know what it is exactly.

    SS: Is it maybe that you don't know if it is a piece?

    BS: Yeah.

    SS: Do you think it might be that it is not necessarily a "piece" yet or it is on its way somewhere and you don't want to stop it yet?

  • Studio flowers.
    IMAGE: Suzanne Seesman

    BS: Yeah, because part of what I’ve been doing is working over a divide.  I have the work that I was making and then I had this experience at Skowhegan where what I was thinking about changed a lot and the way I was thinking changed a lot.  And, you can't jump that far that fast.  You know? You get spit out the other side of Skowhegan and you’re like, wait a minute.  You know?

    SS: mmm uhuh…I mean no.  I don't know


    …but I've heard.

    BS: I'm thinking.  I was doing this and then I did that. And, I see how those two things are related but there is this huge space in-between so i have to kind of…. backtrack a little bit to pick up the thread and figure out how to move forward.

    SS: Maybe it's about moving forward more consciously? After letting things happen? You want it to be somewhat under your control or something.

    BS: Yeah! So it's all about augmentation. I think I had a moment where I was like  "GET RID OF ALL OF IT! Edit it out- I'm starting over" but it's really an augmentation.  So, I did all this stuff and now I did all this other stuff and now I get to figure out how those two things talk to one another. The baby shoe video was a middle point for me.  The digging video was a reset that was related to what I had been doing. It's maniacal like the key piece but then I've been moving toward these floral card and the [inverted] balloons that you see and I'm not exactly sure where it is going yet.  But, I made the washcloth image recently which I'm really very excited about.