Interview with Gail Smuda

I have known Gail Smuda for many years. She is one of the most prolific, courageous, and gifted artists that I know. Both members of The New Hampshire Art Association at one time, we often exhibited together at the Currier Gallery and elsewhere. I have looked forward to learning her answers to my questions and joyfully present them here to you.

First, here is her own brief biography and description of her work:

My work has changed over the years from large multi part acrylic paintings to one of a kind and small edition books. The books have been in exhibits in 47 states and several foreign countries over the 25 year span in which I have been making books.

I have begun to incorporate stories as well, so writing is a new element in some of my books.

I am intrigued by very small books that feel as if they must contain some sort of precious information or object as well as books of an unusual format. One of my more recent book/objects is a Victorian dollhouse that contains four different books. One has patterns that could have been used to decorate interior spaces, one has references to the clothing worn over the years by its occupants, one has references to the meals eaten and celebration of holidays and one has references to the occupations in which each of the owners may have participated. My theory is that an old house, ours is over 100 years old, has memories.

Memoirs of a Victorian House

 

Pat: You have always seemed to me to have a great deal of drive and ambition? Does this persist as you grow older?

Gail: I think I may not have thought of it as ambition as much as drive. I need to create things. It’s as simple as that. I often think artists have no choice. You just have a compulsion to create. As for the ambition I think that has more to do with a need for some sort of feedback. I have always made things that were fairly esoteric and knew sales would be few, if any, so I have no way to gauge the work through sales. I decided that I would enter exhibitions and enjoyed the fact jurors, who I did not know, would judge the work. Early on I set a goal to show in all fifty states. I assumed this would prove to be impossible and it may be that is, indeed, the case. I have shown in 47 states and found an open book exhibition in a “missing” state but it takes place every other year. I just missed the deadline. The other two states to my knowledge, have no open national exhibitions. I’ve shifted things slightly in recent years to jurors whose work I admire and venues in which I have never attempted to exhibit. So although I continue to enter shows I do so far fewer times a year than I did in years past.

Pat: You had a retrospective at a comparatively young age. Would you consider doing this again in ten years or so?

Gail: Of course I would love to do it again as it’s always a revelation when you see a body of your work on exhibit. At least it is for me. I see connections I hadn’t been cognizant of while creating, what I assumed, were individual pieces, very much one at a time

Pat: Are you both goal and process oriented?

Gail: Again, the goal is to get the work seen but the process is what it’s all about. That’s why I’m surprised when I see a body of my work and see the connections. I try to never repeat myself as I enjoy making the work but not redoing something that I have finally figured out how to do. I always have more ideas than I can execute. Perhaps I just have a short attention span!

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Pat: I know you have had periods when you couldn’t work because of medical difficulties. Has it been hard to begin again after these rough patches?

Gail: No, I am very good at keeping things in their own little compartments. When I have been unable to physically work I work in my head. I also am a very strong believer in the idea of doing what you can when you can. I have had periods over my life where I didn’t have a lot of studio time. I don’t beat myself up over that but just am grateful when I do have time. I never really stop working; it’s just that sometimes I stop actually having studio time.

Pat: Did you ever have to change your way of working because of such periods?

Gail: Yes, but again I think there are times when you can have the time and the materials you need and sometimes you don’t. It’s OK not to do your work if you know the minute you can – you will. I confess I am not very patient with people who bemoan their lack of time. I’m more the type that feels the whining could be replaced by making notes, thinking about what you want to do or just dreaming. It takes the same amount of time and is far more productive. If other things take the place of doing your work, it’s because those other things are more important at that time. It’s often, not always, a choice you make.

Pat: Are your energy and creativity linked?

Gail: I think so. It feels like it’s the only part of my life I have total control over. Well, in a sense. I started college when I had a husband and two small children. I knew who I was and I knew what I wanted to do. I was a voracious reader all of my life so I had a background of many interests. I had material to feed my art. I see my students now and most of them are very good at following directions and not so good at creating ideas. They seem terrified of making a mistake. The need for perfection seems to me to be the antithesis of creativity.

I became high energy when I discovered art. I was always doing things prior to that but was totally directionless. Art allowed me to focus my ideas and interests into creative channels.

Pat: You have always been very supportive of other artists. How strong is your own support system?

Gail: I am grateful for all of the support I have. My husband has always helped me in any way that he could from building some of my more ambitious projects to driving me anywhere I needed to go when I had vision issues.

I have a broad set of artists who I see often. One friend is my “museum buddy” and she was also an amazing support system for when I was having vision problems. Another friend is my collaborator and we are always working on projects together. I stay in touch with a few adult students as well as other artists and I was always in touch with my painting professor from college. He passed a few years ago but somehow keeping in touch with people is very important to me.

Pat: Do you ask other artists for input on your work?

Gail:  Oddly enough I don’t. I’m a, “it is what it is”, person. It sounds harsh, it may be harsh, but I really don’t care what other artists think of specific pieces. Sure, I love it when they say they love a particular piece, but it’s been rare that someone has had an idea about my work that I then incorporated into the work.

It’s not that I think my work is too good I think it’s just too personal and too odd. I admit I sometimes think about doing a piece that even I think – that is really weird. Of course, then I have to make it.

Pat:  Do you find it harder to promote your own work and do you ever resist this element of your career?

Gail:  Very, very hard, almost impossible for me I think artists should strictly promote other artist’s work. I can rattle on for hours about different artist’s work but tend to be tongue tied about my own. I just think when I write I write and when I make objects I’m using a different vocabulary, one I have no words for. That’s why it’s visual. If I could say it with words I would but it’s more about feelings and a visceral response, than I could explain in words.

Shape Shifting copy

Pat:  Do you feel you are doing your best work? If not, is there a period that you would identify as one in which you did your best work?

Gail:  I’m very much an optimist. The best is yet to come. Now, in practical terms that’s unlikely but it still works for me.

Pat:  You work in many mediums and ways. What is the first word that occurs to you when asked how you define yourself?

Gail:  Eclectic. There is an image that I chuckle about every time I see it. It’s, “imagine a computer with a thousand tabs open at the same time…..that’s my mind.” I confess I try very hard to avoid explaining my work. Again, non- artists always ask, “do you do watercolors?” Maybe it’s actually laziness but how do I answer that? Yes, and acrylic paint and drawing pencils, and fabric and I use book board, and ………

I’m amazed at how many artists tell me they’ve never heard of artist’s books. So how then do I explain what I do to people who have no background in art? Perhaps it’s just I haven’t figured out how to do that in 25 words or less.

Pat:  Much of your work is intimately linked to the lives, handwork, dexterity, and power of women. Do you in any way consider yourself a chronicler of women and their various roles and aspirations throughout recent history?

Gail:  I don’t think I would have thought of it that way but I think it’s probably true. I feel women have been underrepresented in everything – history, politics, etc.

We have been, and I believe still are, very much, considered second class creatures. I use the term creatures because I see how it is somehow assumed men are the “norm” and women “the other”. This works very much against us. We need more pride in what women can do and have done. Women who bash women, as Madeleine Albright has said, should have a special place reserved for them in hell.

People should encourage other people but women in particular. and women artists specifically, should support each other.

Traveling Man

As I was thinking, in particular, about this last question I realized how much I was influenced by the very few women in my family. I am an only child of two only children. My mother helped to run and worked in a business, my maternal grandmother, whom I don’t remember as she died when I was a child, had been a seamstress at one point in her life. According to my mother she could do anything that was required. My mother often spoke of seeing her paint a stairwell by standing on a tall ladder,

My father’s great aunt was a true inspiration. She was a very active woman who traveled, took care of herself, both physically and mentally and was a person I very much admired. So although few women influenced me (three) they were all very different from each other and all had something that was very strong in their personalities. I often wonder what my grandmother would have thought about my love of fabric and if she would have had more of an influence on me if I knew her when I was older.

Odd, isn’t it, how questions often lead to more questions?

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Gail Smuda