Studio Visits

Bundles and "Spirit Sticks"

Inside Shinique Smith's Studio

  • Photo: Naima Keith

Artist Shinique Smith is in the process of relocating studios. The space reminded me of something along the lines of large thrift store filled with vibrantly colored textiles, clothes, and miscellaneous curiosities. Perhaps the moving process added to the delightful cacophony of the place, contributing to a sense of movement that is equally felt in her paintings filled with dizzying swirls, psychedelic colors and often accessorized with a range of found objects from Hostess cupcake boxes to Chik-fil-A bags to plastic corn stalks.

Smith’s oeuvre consists primarily of painting, sculpture, and installation, but all of her works seem to call into existence a new reality or fantasy that exceeds the physical dimensions of the object. In the words of Brian Keith Jackson, her sculptural work “may be bound, seemingly holding the discarded in place,” but it “still exudes a spatial environment, bulging beyond region, country and commerce—trash versus treasure, need versus excess.” Smith’s ongoing series of large bales bind together discarded clothes and fabrics from around the globe, breathing new life into everyday objects. Her affinity for found objects and urban detritus can be linked to her adolescent foray in graffiti.

The studio consisted of two large spaces with white walls linked by a narrow hallway. The right-hand corner in the first room was overflowing with discarded clothing and trinkets. I entered the center of the room and was struck by two large-scale paintings that Smith said were works in progress. At this point, they were not accessorized and appeared more minimal than many of her other painting-based endeavors. Shinique Smith estimated that her artistic process is approximately 80 percent improvisational. Her artistic impulsivity is perhaps why, as Smith lamented, she is at times criticized for being a black artist that does not make “black art.” For Smith, it’s the aesthetic quality of the final object that counts most, not its political agenda.

The hallway that connected the first studio space and the second was interrupted by one of Smith’s miniature assemblages of stacks of bricks covered in a mismatched array of textiles. The miniature was met with the monumental once entering Smith’s second studio space which housed one of her large-scale bales of discarded clothing. She explained how she indiscriminately travels the nation to small towns such as Normal, Illinois, shopping in any and all thrift stores and Church bizarres that catch her eye along the way. Many of the objects she accumulates may never be incorporated into a piece, or may wait for years before she discovers their artistic purpose.

Recently, Smith has been collecting well-used dollhouses and Barbie doll clothing. At the center of one room in her studio, the pink, purple and white dollhouses were arranged in a circle forming a mandala, a circular spiritual symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. Flowers and Barbie doll clothes were scattered inside the dollhouse mandala, vestiges from what could be any girl’s childhood. Though they could have belonged to anyone, these objects were meant to remember Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Smith’s mandala will be shown at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s show Etched in Collective History alongside works by twenty-nine other artists about the 1963 Baptist church bombing.

As we were leaving, I noticed a bundle of ornately decorated bamboo staffs leaning against the wall. I  asked Smith if these were spirit sticks for a past or upcoming performance piece. She replied that “spirit sticks” was an apt description of these staffs covered in fabrics, some further accessorized with charms and miscellaneous trinkets. There were five spirit sticks and Smith handed one of to each of us to wield as we saw fit. She said she would like to eventually choreograph a ritualistic performance using the spirit sticks, but she hasn’t fully conceptualized it as of yet. The above photograph could be considered documentation of a spontaneous performance in its own right!