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...and other thoughts from artist Keri Smith
By Dale Conour
Wherever Keri Smith goes, art follows. The illustrator/photographer/mixed media, any media, forget-media- I’ll-just-draw-on-my knee artist, is on a mission to get whomever she can back in touch with the world, and does it through the elevation of the everyday into art, and the subjugation of art into the everyday. She’s a seemingly inexhaustible fount of inspiration, producing books and work (check out "How to be a Guerilla artist" and "100 ideas") designed to get you off your feet and out in the world—observing, interpreting, creating, celebrating.
Q: Keri, it seems like you could be accused of being a creativity con artist. (Which would probably be a first anywhere.) Your work is so inspirational because it seems so technically simple. I would suspect you lure a lot of people into being creative— "Hell I could do that"— and then they try it, and it just doesn't seem as good as what you did. Do you ever get people too caught up in result rather than process and complain that they've been snookered? That creating cool stuff like yours isn't quite as simple as they thought?
A: I think if this was the case then people aren’t really getting the point of my message. Which is essentially that the experimental process is more important than the outcome.
What I am trying to get at is that in order to truly enter into an experiment, it means that you cannot know what the result will be (this is true for both science and art). You go on a journey into the unknown, sometimes you come back with something interesting, sometimes you don’t (this is always the risk). But if you don’t enter into the journey (take a risk), you automatically have nothing.
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Most of us are taught that we should not undertake something unless we are going to succeed.
I think it would be beneficial if we could all take courses that allow and encourage us to fail miserably at things, that is where the really interesting stuff lies.
At some point in my schooling I became tired of the belief that technical proficiency is equivalent to good art. I set out to explore the concept that the idea is more important than the execution. I would like to express the thought to others that technical proficiency is not inherently creative (this is a form of mislabeling that evolved out of traditional painting), somewhere in school we were taught that if we couldn’t draw than we could not be an artist.
There are many forms of creativity, many people have not given themselves the space to find other methods that might appeal to them, they give up when someone tells them a drawing is bad. It amazes me that still today in our culture abstract, conceptual and more "primitive" forms of art are not given any real validation, even after it having been around for over a century.
When I hear someone say, "I could do that," my response is, "But did you? No? Then do it!" See what it feels like. Go on a journey. Try to understand what the artist was doing and where they were coming from.
Even then, your piece will be very different because you have your own set of experiences and ways of perceiving the world. This is the beauty.
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Q: How considered is your work? Is it really as spontaneous as it feels?
A: I would say yes, it is quite spontaneous, but it may be partly due to a short attention span. I tend to work quickly so that I do not have time to lose interest in something. But that is changing slowly. I seem to be becoming more patient with things the further along I get in my own process as an artist.
Q: Your travails in high school, recounted in your "Letting Yourself Soar" lecture to the high schoolers, reminded me a lot of my own school experiences. I was a bored, underachieving student who stayed home "sick" a lot so I could draw, write, and read. I’ve always been disappointed that I didn’t get more out of my schooling (blaming myself at least as much as the system, though). How would you change child education if you ruled the world?
A: This is a complicated subject, both on a philosophical level and a political one. I already mentioned classes on how to fail and make mistakes. That would be the one thing. In terms of the bigger picture there needs to be a shift in what we put our energy and resources into in this country (the US). Education needs to become a priority, and we need to value the work that teachers do much more.
Being a Canadian I will admit to having a leaning towards what are considered more socialist ideals, (even though the education system in Canada is not perfect). My husband and I live in the US and he was a substitute teacher for a while so I got to see first hand what is happening in some of the schools here. It seems overwhelming at times to try to imagine how change could occur, to all appearance the public school system is a mess. I am hoping for a change in leadership that will shift the focus to education as a priority.
What is also needed are new teaching methods that allow for different kinds of learning (this is happening in some parts of the country due to people like Mel Levine).
Many children are being labeled as not intelligent, simply because they are right brained, have dyslexia, or because they have poor motor skills (among other things).
When I was in school my grade 12 teacher recognized that I was right brained and sat me down with another kid who was also doing poorly. He noticed that this student was incredibly articulate when he spoke out in class about certain subjects, but he could not write a paper to save his life (consequently he was failing most of his classes).
After some investigation he found out that the student had poor motor skills, which made his hand work much slower than his thought process (his writing illegible). Once he was given a keyboard to type on and was taught how to use it his writing caught up with his thoughts and he was off and running.
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This guy went on to receive a couple of phd’s. But it took someone to pay attention to HOW he was learning. Once you are labeled in school it is very hard to shed that belief (both for yourself and also in the eyes of others). Every person is unique, but often we learn to hide our uniqueness instead of featuring it. So often we are taught to be just like others when this has nothing to do with who WE really are (the secret to which lies in our idiosyncrasies).
The last thing would be implementing ALL of the senses into the curriculum. Classes based on touch, as this is one of the ways that young children learn the most. Sadly our culture is one of "DON'T TOUCH!!!" I want to hear "touch everything."
Q: Actually, I think a bunch of people, hey maybe even people like us, should start a working list of what the world would be like if creative types ruled. Care to start it off?
A: Ha ha. Yes but the mainstream may not like it. Off the top of my head...
- Mandatory classes in the arts
- Complete reworking of all institutions, beginning with making schools & hospitals into inspiring places full of color and life (no more grey hallways and florescent lighting), conducive to healing and formulating growth. Living structures that give back to the environment.
- Complete reworking of the political system, making it based on human needs and human rights coming first (free healthcare for all).
- Society based on sharing ideas instead of monetary gains. ideas valued over money.
Less serious (but important) pursuits...
- No regular schedules. Timing would be rather arbitrary
- Playgrounds based on using the imagination installed everywhere, for adults and kids
- Play time implemented into work schedules
- Three-day work week
- Structures that were incorporated into nature
- Technology-free days
- Gift societies become commonplace
Q: How does observation factor into your work?
A: Everything I do is based in observing in some way. It is a meditative process that involves paying attention and getting lost both literally and figuratively in what I am observing. (Sometimes it involves getting lost in a place, exploring somewhere I've never been, or seeing my own backyard in greater detail.)
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I am now trying to involve all of the senses as much as possible and work with them to formulate ideas. Lately I have become obsessed with "art made by accident," unintentional things that draw the eye in. Like the stains that leaves make when they stick to the sidewalk.
Q: Do you consider yourself an "outdoorsy" person?
A: Definitely. It is my immersion in nature that fuels me the most. It is endlessly interesting and mysterious. That is what in part keeps me going, the fact that there are some things that you can never know. I lived in the country for many years and hope to return to it someday (though some would say where I live now is practically the country). It’s all relative I suppose. John Muir said, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." I love that.
Spring walk collage © All rights reserved
Q: Does "guerilla art" provoke observers of it into interacting with their environment or is it a distraction, drawing attention more to itself?
A: I would say that both the act of creating guerilla art and viewing it provokes people to interact differently with their environment than they normally would. Certainly not in all cases, but when it works well it can serve to pull you out of your know world a little and shift your perception of it. It is connected to a more primitive form of communication, so unlike what we are bombarded by with mass media. Consider the idea of an "obos," a Japanese term for a pile of rocks that communicates a message to a passerby (it could be as simple as "I was here.") It is not an attempt to sell or control.
Guerilla art says the human spirit is alive here.
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Q: Are there visual artists working today that inspire you to look at the world differently?
A: Jurgen Bey, Andy Goldsworthy, Marti Guixe, Andrea Zittel, Harrel Fletcher, Steve Lambert, Tehching Hsieh, Miranda July, Pauline Oliveros.
Many of my favorites are dead: John Cage, Eva Hesse, Charles & Rae Eames, Bruno Munari, Alan Fletcher, Corita Kent
Q: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
A: I read, cook, go for a long walk in the woods, putter, hang out in the library, take naps, do nothing, write in a journal, move my body, drink wine, play with my dog, go on an adventure, knit/crochet, sew, do something just for fun, listen to music.
Q: You’ve tried a lot to get people to be mindful of, to appreciate, the everyday ephemera of existence. Why?
A: Deep down I am a stark environmentalist (though I’ve not admitted that formally). Years ago I became fixated on wanting to make the world better. One way to do that is to educate others on the current problems and offer solutions for how to fix them. But since that is not my area of expertise it did not make sense that I follow that path.
Also, I personally do not respond well to people who preach, or to those who are hard hitting with any kind of message so I did not want to become that. While I am a fan of Adbusters Magazine and value greatly what they are doing, I feel that often their delivery serves to push people away instead of attract them to the causes in question (sometimes working against the thing they are trying to do).
So the question existed for me, "How can one make the world better in a way that feels good?" In my experience I had already learned that you cannot change people, and you cannot force them to care about the planet when everything else in the culture is telling them otherwise.
So for me there are three other answers to the question:
- Lead by example
- Get to the root of the problem (research)
- Trick people into doing something they didn’t expect
Okay, so #1 and #2 I could do, but how do you go about the third, while staying within my realm of my expertise?
After reading "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abram I had what could be defined as an epiphany. I realized that it becomes impossible to care about something when you are completely disconnected from it. In our culture that is based on staring at screens all day (one that encourages us to "tune out" as much as possible), our senses are dulled over time.
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In my own process I found that if I didn’t enter into the "real" world in some form everyday, in a way where I was truly present, I felt numb to it. So I worked on a practice of 'tuning in' on a daily basis, looking at the cracks in the sidewalks, exploring the natural world in greater detail, collecting, documenting, listening, touching, smelling, etc. (much of this I have done from a young age).
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In a sense I became a detective, always attempting to look at it with new eyes. And so the natural progression is that I share my process with the world in the form of activity books that encourage others to also "tune in." Some of these books are rebellious in nature (Guerilla Art Kit, Wreck this Journal), but the end result is the same (activating the senses).
I cannot make people care about the planet, but I can encourage them to pay attention to it in subtle ways (in the hopes that by noticing it they will eventually see that everything is connected).
Q: How is the way an artist sees the world different than the average person?
A: It is a way of living in the world, paying attention to things that others do not see, using the senses, questioning things on a regular basis, activating the imagination, not listening to what others tell them to do but following their own path, existing slightly outside of the cultural norm.
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Q: In what situations do you feel frustrated, that you’re failing as a creative person? What situations seem most fulfilling?
A: As I already mentioned, embracing failure is an important part of the process for me. What I find challenging on a personal level is the point at which art and commerce merge. I think money can be ruinous to the creative act, and I am of the somewhat ancient belief that the two things should not be merged. But I live in a culture that merges them, and requires me to have money to eat (something I love to do). And so I have had to find ways to deal with this reality, having an agent to deal with the business side is one of them.
What is most fulfilling is the research and the creation of new ideas. I can spend days in a library following book connections, one thing leads me to the next, over time I start to see how all of my research is connected, and then a larger picture emerges. That is how a book idea forms.
When it happens I feel almost invincible. The best part is, the research is never done.
Keri Smith is the creator of
Wreck This Journal (Penguin/Perigee)
The Guerilla Art Kit (Princeton Architectural Press)
The Non Planner Datebook (Little Otsu)
She’s working on a new title for release next year (with Penguin Books), but has no information or a title yet. "I guess it’s a mystery book. l like that."
She also will be doing a regular weekly piece (fun exercises) for the kids section of the Guardian UK newspaper
Be sure to check out more of her work at her Flickr page.
And lastly, for regular creative inspiration follow her blog.
Let’s stay in touch.