Friday, October 19, 2007

Art Space Talk: Mickey Smith

Mickey Smith was born in 1972 in Duluth, Minnesota and received a B.A. in Photography from Moorhead State University in 1994. Images from her Volume series have shown in galleries and museums throughout the United States and are included in the collections of the Weisman Art Museum and Fidelity Corporate Art Collection. Smith is the current recipient of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photography and a Forecast Public Art Affairs grant.

Volume series- Blood, 2006

Brian Sherwin: Mickey, I observed your art during Art Chicago. How did the exhibit go for you? Are you planning to take part in any other major art exhibits in the near future?

Mickey Smith: Art Chicago was my first fair. I wasn’t able to make it, but I heard reports that the show was strong this year and the Volume work received a bit of attention. It was great from that perspective.

The McKnight Photography Fellowship exhibition closed last week, in my mind a major exhibition wrapped in a great deal of pressure. Before the show opened, more than once was asked, "So what did you do with the all that money?" Toward the end of October Dean Kessmann and I will show at Ellen Curlee Gallery in Saint Louis.

BS: You attended Moorhead State University. Can you tell us about the photography department there? Who were your mentors at the time? Have you worked with instructors outside of college?

MS: There were two very different photography departments at MSU. I worked primarily in the art department, working with D.B. MacRaven, but spent time in mass communications across campus working with Wayne Gudmundson. The most influential person I have worked with is Harry Mattison, he truly changed my life and continues to be a creative force, even though we really have very little contact.
Volume series- Cancer, 2006

BS: Why did you decide to concentrate on photography? Also... who has influenced your work?

MS: My sixth grade teacher told my mother to get me a camera. Mr. Tolar was a huge influence, recognizing it would be an outlet with a lot going in a complex little 10 year-old world. Although I’ve worked primarily with photography to date, a shift is on the horizon. I’m not attached to the camera and I am terrible at the technical side.

At the moment I am reading books on Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Ed Rushca, Carrie Mae Weems, and Duane Michaels. They have been influential for a long while, but I’m just now beginning to study their work, hoping to glean insight about why I keep coming back to word and image.

BS: You are known for exploring history, knowledge, and a sense of place in your subtly evocative photographs of book spines. These spines often contain a single word or a small group of words that provoke thoughts of strength and weakness in the viewer. Can you explain why you decided to use books and words as a vehicle for your art? It seems as if you desire the viewer to create his or her own story around the words... is that so?

MS: Initially I was interested in the subject matter because it was such an oddity to be back in the stacks after being strapped to a computer for a decade. I had forgotten about the quiet sacred quality of the public library. Anything seems possible when shrouded with such vast amounts of information. The types of volumes I am drawn to are soon to be a thing of the past.

The books, specifically the spines, become a concrete and valued delivery mechanism for the words. I’m interested in what they become when photographed. I am interested in the bindery clerk in Minnesota that decides to bind BLOOD in red and the clerk in New York that binds the same title in blue.

One the greatest unexpected pleasures that has come from this project is that people seem to make a very personal connection to a word, or to curating their own series of words.
Volume series- Critique + Curator, 2007
BS: Mickey, this might be a silly question, but how do you decide which words to focus on?

MS: The way I select the titles is by walking through a dizzying amount of stacks. Literally, I get sick to my stomach while looking. Since I strictly use ambient light, so I don’t even bother going down dark aisles because I don’t want to come across a title that I love that will be impossible to photograph. In need to see the object, it is impossible to search online. The titles have to have the right combination of word, color, placement, and resonance.

BS: You had a successful 10-year career as an arts administrator before moving back to the other side of the proverbial desk to become a full time artist. How has knowing the business side of art helped you in your career as an artist? Any suggestions as to what emerging artists should look out for in the gallery scene?

MS: Two different issues. The gallery scene is an entirely different beast. I’m still learning how to look out for myself, so I can’t impart much wisdom. Students coming out of the MFA programs are likely better prepared than I am for the contemporary art world.

The variations between segments in the art world are stark. As an administrator, I specialized in international exchange, grant making and programming for public and non-profit arts organizations. When I worked for those organizations I thought I had a strong grasp on what it was like to be a working artist... In retrospect I had no clue what it would be like, even though I was still making a bit of work on the side. Being an artist is about a million times more stressful, more rewarding and random. Often I feel incredibly vulnerable, which was never the case on the other side of the desk.

Volume series- Detail, 2007

BS: You've stated that the switch from arts administrator to artist was like switching political parties. Can you go into further detail about this?

MS: I used to be a member of the party with the (perceived) power.

BS: Mickey, in the past it was hard for women to 'make it' as an artist, but it was especially hard for women working on the business side of art. Based on your experience, do you think that holds true today? Or is there more of a gender balance within the context of the contemporary art world?

MS: I do not find it to be true on the business side. Women are quickly filling leadership positions. The gender balance is about to tip as the first generation of arts administrators from the 1970’s approach retirement. It seems the majority of twenty-something arts administrators now getting degrees in arts administration tend to be women.

My experience with gender related issues has been more complex since I’ve started working as an artist. When I arrived at my first big meeting in Chelsea, the dealer walked around the corner, looked at me blankly for a long time (meanwhile I’m panicking - oh shit, I’m here at the wrong time, wrong place, he already hates my work…) and finally exclaimed, "Oh my god, you’re a woman!" I find it fascinating. Because of the scale and nature of the work people are often surprised to learn I am a woman. Another dealer in Dumbo told me once he figured out I was a woman it made him question weather I had an "underlying feminist manifesto." I could go on here about more negative experiences but there is no point really… I have absolutely no tolerance for funders, administrators or curators that take advantage of any artist. Recently I’ve become more involved in advocacy for individual artists.

The bigger question in the contemporary art world is ageism. Apparently I’m on the cusp of the issue at the ripe old age of 35.

Volume series- Continuum, 2007

BS: You mentioned a new project when I first contacted you. The project is called Unaccompanied Minor. Can you tell our readers about this project? What are your motives behind it?

MS: Millions of children travel between their divorced parents by foot, car, bus, train, and airplane. Some carry their suitcases next door, others board planes and fly thousands of miles. I was one of those children for over a decade. My mode of transportation was a Greyhound bus, the distance between stations 150 miles.

Unaccompanied Minor is the working title for this project I’ve been thinking about and occasionally working for twenty years or so... Once I start I’m afraid it will consume me completely. My motives are to remove the stigma of divorce for kids, turn attention to kids versus parents, make transit between homes a more creative and magical time, create a document, a community, a true and open conversation for the kids. At times I’m not sure if it will be an art project, a business, or both. It’s overwhelming.

BS: Can you share some more of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

MS: In 2001, I heard an artist tell an audience of arts administrators, "A little voice inside of me said, if you do not do this, the best parts of you will die and the rest wouldn’t be worth much." I recognized that voice inside. It still resonates to the core.

BS: What about your studio practice? Can you describe your average studio session? How do you map out what you are going to capture?

MS: At the moment my studio practice isn’t in the studio. I create everything on location and bring it back to the studio. I set aside big chunks of time that are quite far apart to make images on site, in the libraries. One of my goals lately has been to be a bit more prolific in studio. When I have an idea I tend to think about it for a long before actually making the piece. The flip side of the slow process is that there are few surprises and the final work looks exactly as I intend.

Volume series- Today + Tomorrow, 2007

BS: Mickey, do you have any suggestions for photographers who are just starting out?

MS: If you know you are supposed to be an artist, be an artist or photographer. Don’t get distracted. Make it your first priority. If you’re not sure, or don’t think you have the drive plus talent, go try something else.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

MS: Not at the moment, I hope my work says most of what I need to say… Thank you so much for the opportunity to consider your questions Brian.
You can learn more about Mickey Smith by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to see some of Ms. Smith's "Volume" pieces at the Art Chicago fair. I was very impressed with her ability to take such ordinary subject matter and imbue it with new meanings.

I work in an academic library so am very familiar with the periodicals stacks, but I don't look at them the same anymore.