There is a tension present in the contemporary art world, centered around the use of the art object as mediator between the audience and the artistic experience. Some artists use traditional materials as their primary mode of communication, others use nothing but communal experience. SMITHS, a new storefront project in Oakland, sets out to straddle this gap by offering community-building experiences centered around the work of master Bay Area crafts men and women.
SMITHS is a unique project for the Bay Area: part-artist's studio, part-workshop, and part-general store. The name is a play on words -- "smith" means maker, as well as being the last name of the store's proprietress, Allison Smith. Each month Smith -- and SMITHS -- will host a resident maker, featuring crafts like beekeeping, quilting, and letterpress printing, as well as a variety of activities loosely woven around that particular skill, all open to the public.
The detritus of the first activity -- an indigo dyeing event with artist Travis Boyer -- was still present when I stopped by; the event drew in about fifty people, and sounds absolutely magical. Since I missed the main event, and the next one won't be until September, I had to content myself with picking Smith's brain about her interest in craft and her hopes for the project.
D: When do you start looking at craft?
SMITH: My interest with craft grew out of a series of projects I did involving the culture of historical re-enactments. I was born in Virginia and grew up close to a variety of sites where history was being performed via activities of making. In art school in the early '90s, I decided to take on the role of anthropologist to my own culture by conducting an ethnography of the Civil War re-enactment community.
Ultimately I found myself fascinated by the objects -- all of the cottage industries that have grown up around making all of the props that go into staging a reenactment. There's an incredible attention to detail; the better the craftsmanship and more authentic the process, the more opportunity you have for actual time travel. I also got really interested in the idea of these large scale events that are made up of tiny hand made details.
D: It seems like you're still playing anthropologist in some way, investigating the concept of the general store.
SMITH: Well, I really like the idea of a general store as a point of contact or exchange, and not just for material goods [it should be noted that the project is not geared toward selling merchandise, although eventually Smith would like to see some of the workshop results on the shelves]. Historically, general stores weren't just places where you got your food, but also your information.
D: So how will it work?
SMITH: Roughly it's organized to coincide with First Fridays. There will be a different kind of maker and set of activities each month, with the results on display that First Friday, at which time we'll also announce the next month's maker.
I want it to be as open as possible, both in terms of the community it attracts and the way we think about making. For the fall, I've been developing a cluster of events using Oakland's quilting community, but I'm also planning a series around the idea of "commune-smithing"... In the spirit of tinsmiths and blacksmiths, there are also tunesmiths, wordsmiths, and conversation-smiths. I want to keep looking at what it means to make.
D: Will you actually be offering apprenticeships?
SMITH: Not exactly. Ideally, the activities will shift on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully people will forge new relationships and continue them outside of the studio. For instance, if someone has always wanted to know about quilting, they can use the space throughout the month, and then they could form their own group that keeps meeting. And hopefully they'll keep coming back to SMITHS, as well.
D: As an art scholar and writer, I can wrap my head around the idea of social sculpture, or social practice, but how do you explain what you're doing to people who aren't interested or involved with contemporary art?
SMITH: Well, for people who aren't part of that conversation, whether or not it's "art" just doesn't matter so much. I enjoy the fact that someone takes pleasure in the tactile aspects, and if they feel welcomed into a conversation they didn't expect, that's great, but it's not the whole point.
There can be such a suspicion of objects in the world of social practice, perhaps because sometimes there's a belief present that the object should be skipped over in order to achieve a more intimate and direct connection with the viewer.
What interests me about the tradition of studio craft is the aspect of initial engagement through the hand made and how people project onto that. For example, in this model the object -- a quilt, for instance -- facilitates a conversation and is the residue of the conversation.
I really like the idea that the object and the conversation can't be separated.
For more information, visit the SMITHS site at allisonsmithstudio.com. For the moment, SMITHS is open by appointment only, with occasional drop-in hours.