Beauty and the Mess
“Face to Face” with Sculptor Barb Smith
After meeting sculptor Barb Smith at her studio in Queens, I spent the rest of the day looking at my feet in the hopes of finding the kind of overlooked treasure Smith is so skilled in collecting, a grouping of which occupies a significant portion of her workspace. In her studio there are shelves, a table, and many boxes full of these objects– both found and made. For objects that are less self-contained (such as dust in varying forms), she has a tray constructed of archival foam core and lined in college ruled paper whose compartments are filled with what you and I might sweep into the trash– or not even notice we were throwing away in the first place. The metal teeth used to cut a piece from a roll of tinfoil, for example. (She has a handful of those.) Or the dust that comes of a nugget of silver when it is being shaved down and fashioned for another purpose. (A pinch or two of powdered silver shimmers like fairy dust in one of the tray’s compartments.)
This isn’t hoarding– this is a systematic assessment of the meaning of objects. And amassing such a collection isn’t easy, as is evidenced by my own dashed hopes at finding anything significant, despite intense interest at what lay beneath me. The sidewalk seen through my eyes offers up only dull objects that would have no chance of redemption. An individual flosser? Gross– I’m not picking that up. A bottlecap? Too commonplace. Cigarette butts (though ubiquitous) have an outsized significance and are too associative to be worthy of a Smith-like collection, even in imitation.
What I’m after is something akin to the tied end of a yellow balloon, like the one I saw in Smith’s studio, whose form, associations, and status as discarded and then resurrected combine to make a piece of rubber more significant than what it humbly is. I don’t need to explain to you the evocations of a cheery yellow party balloon, and that’s why it’s worthy of the shelf.
Barb Smith’s work has the ability to exist beneath the umbrella of a single word but to complicate that word. That word is “care,” and it finds its origins in Smith’s beginning as a native Midwesterner. She references her grandmother’s “catch-all drawer” as something that taught her a “way of care,” that things can always be fixed. (Do all grandmother’s have such things? Mine own has a basket full of ribbons, lovingly saved for me from which to make a skirt.) Smith is precisely right in focusing on such a laden word, as saving things is an act of caring for the object, but also caring for another.
Care means deliberateness, but also delicacy; care requires skill and dedication. It is an internal strength that does not call attention to itself. It is apt for much of Smith’s work, but does not give credit to some of its more violent elements– or funny ones, for that matter.
Take the mobile of tongues (no, not that kind of tongue) taken from the tchotchke bells you might get at a roadside stop in Indiana (where Smith happens to be from). This mobile is constructed of the ceramic clappers (called “tongues”) of these souvenirs. Removing them she renders the bells “speechless,” tongueless– this might be the anti-care, exposing Smith’s interest in the place that violence and care “bump up” next to each other.
“Bump up,” might be the perfect metaphor because, after all, these violences are the opposite of loud. When care meets violence there is transformation, not destruction. (It reminds me of rowboats drifting into each other on calm waters in which a collision gently changes their course.) For example, when encountering the misnomer of memory foam (“It should be forgetting foam.”), Smith attempts to “break” it, to force it into a state more appropriate to its name. (You might catch a theme here, in that Smith considers the way things are named to be as much a part of an object’s identity as the material itself.) How does memory foam, which so quickly forgets the body’s impression, become just what it claims to be? Smith’s answer is in soaking the foam in aqua resin. She then presses parts of her body into the material, which dries to her shape. Indeed, she has “broken” the material, rendered its purpose as malleable bedding useless, but the violence done to the mattress is one of halting the process of forgetting, and in that way, it is a process of creation. This is where violence meets care.
Care also doesn’t mean control– Smith is a champion of letting a material have a mind of its own. She’s “working with a given,” and she understands that there are parameters within which the world operates. At some point she mentions how she’s left a piece of memory foam out in the studio so that she can “see how it does”– a clear indication she’s willing to embrace surprise and use it to her advantage. The word “how” in this statement (rather than “what”) imbues the chunk of memory foam with a sense of personality, as if Smith could walk into the studio one day and ask it, “How ya doing?” This might not be so off the mark, as she often talks of her work as if it were separate from herself– her conscious self, at least. Statements like “I hadn’t even realized,” “it confounds me,” and “it knows better,” reveal the profound trust she has in herself and a belief that her environment will reveal truths to her. Her patience is remarkable and has been tested across time– she has been known to collect material that only makes itself into her work years later.
It’s humbling to be around Barb Smith, as she makes you understand the payoff of patience. I have still not found my perfect piece of debris, but I know well enough to understand that it takes more than that. Care is not something that is learned in a day. Care is cultivated, quietly, until it becomes a force…
You can find out more about Barb Smith here.