Listed by Time magazine in 2006 in its list "Time 100: The People Who Shape Our World," American artist Kiki Smith gave a talk about her work and life as an artist at Whitman in early December.
Daniel Forbes '93, director of the Sheehan Gallery and adjunct assistant professor of art, filed an account and student photographer Nhi Cao '20 captured some of her slideshow presentation.
For a foggy Wednesday night so close to finals, the event was remarkably well-attended. Maxey Hall's auditorium was filled with a wonderfully mixed crowd of students, faculty, staff and community members. The entire senior art major class was present. Smith's campus visit followed these majors' weeklong November field trip to New York City, a component of the senior studio art experience.
Smith is hailed as an iconic feminist artist. Her use of the female body and animal imagery, as well as her visual references to fairytale narratives and mythology, have been written about extensively. However, early in her talk, Smith spoke of how important it is when art remains "enigmatic and indiscernible," offering viewers a nonverbal encounter with internal or external states that could not be experienced in other ways.
Playing to a rotating backdrop of works spanning her prolific 40-year career, Smith then shared some of her experiences as an artist and what is involved in her creative process. She did not speak chronologically about her career or individual works, as is often the expected format in an artist's talk.
Instead, she offered bits of wisdom equally applicable to areas of life beyond creative production. For instance, adopting the perspective when one undertakes something "and it doesn't work out—"that's where your opportunity begins." In making her own work, Smith said that "my greatest reward is in the struggle of it." She mentioned the importance of "showing up" for whatever one is engaged in, not just to meet the demands of external pressures but "for yourself" most of all. For our students, who are so focused on the knowing of things, she reminded them of the joy of discovery and that sometimes benefits and breakthroughs come when one is "willing to not know what you are doing."
Additionally, Smith highlighted the importance of repeatedly interrogating the thing that one is interested in. Stressing the interdisciplinary nature of her work and the importance of combining disparate elements, she also touched on a series of pieces that emerged by combining textile references drawn on her visits to mosques with images from natural history collections. Smith repeated several times in her lecture the importance of collaboration, too, stating, "Everything I know, I learned from working with other people."
Dylan Farnum, president of the Walla Walla Foundry—where Smith casts some of her works—introduced Smith, building on the opening remarks of Associate Professor of Art Nicole Pietrantoni, who oversaw all arrangement for the artist's campus visit. Farnum was a key figure in making this event happen and in carrying out the desire of Mark Anderson '78, owner and founder of Walla Walla Foundry, that his company be a resource for Whitman.
Smith's honorarium came from the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculty through the Robert and Mabel Groseclose Endowed Lecture Fund. This was the second artist talk coordinated between Walla Walla Foundry, Whitman Studio Art Department and Sheehan Gallery. Paul McCarthy inaugurated things in 2016.