‘There is Room for Everything in Art, As It Always Should Be’: Interview with Emily Smith
Why did you decide to be an artist? Please tell us a bit about your journey.
I’ve been creating art for my entire life; it’s always been a part of who I am so I didn’t have much of a decision in the matter. My mother is an artist and my father works with his hands making furniture and all sorts of other things- I was lucky enough to get good genes. I went to school at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and majored in Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. I have always worked in the arts, usually museums or nonprofits, and I am the Executive Director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. That takes up quite a bit of my time, but I’ve always managed to keep working on my own personal projects over the years.
The mindscapes or inner-selves of the characters that you have portrayed, especially in the series In Visible Skin Project, appear to be in a state of transition. Does this state of transition lead to the conclusion that a work of art is never trapped in fixity, that it too is in forever progress?
In Visible Skin is absolutely about transition, on both a physical and metaphorical level. The subjects of In Visible Skin are beautiful individuals that are brave enough to express their authentic selves. Physically, many people In Visible Skin transitioned to be in more alignment with their gender, but often those transitions aren’t physical at all. The goal of In Visible Skin was to not only give members of the Philly trans community a platform to tell their stories, but also have the viewer reflect on gender and the role it plays in society as a whole. With In Visible Skin, I wouldn’t say that I was interested in talking about works of art in a state of transition; I was interested in the wonderful people I was painting. But on a conceptual level, of course none of us should ever feel trapped, and we should all be flexible and open as we grow and change. That goes for art, too.
As an artist, it seems you are always migrating from yourself to your subjects’ stories, their conflicts, and their identities. While it is true that there is an intensity that amounts to provocation, how much of that subjectivity is there in your paintings and how much do you hold back? And how can you counter the subjectivity?
In ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ by Oscar Wilde, there is a line that I think fits my work pretty perfectly. It basically says that every portrait that is painted is not a portrait of the sitter, it is of the artist. For me, portraiture is interesting because people are interesting, but I think there are certain aspects of the subject that I try to find- something that reveals who someone is when they are unguarded for a moment. I paint a lot of self-portraits because I don’t have to worry about being subjective, I can portray myself any way I want. I can be ugly or broken or reflect whatever emotion I need to. With other people, I sometimes try to rein that subjectivity in a bit. Especially with In Visible Skin. I left as much of myself out of that as possible- that project wasn’t about me. But almost all of my other work is directly related to my feelings, experiences, or specific people I have to paint for my own reasons.
Your series When A Man Decides To Hurt You reflects that you have no inhibitions in projecting the violence that you have experienced. But when it comes to other people, how vulnerable are they willing to be? Or are they conscious that their identities and sufferings all form a collective memory and are subjected to the gaze of the artist? Does it create a mutual tension between you and your subjects?
I think everyone who I make portraits of know what they are getting into. Most people either know me well and know what to expect, or if they are a stranger, I show examples of my previous work and let them know exactly how it will be. I’m very protective of that relationship and would never manipulate that trust. It always depends on the person how vulnerable they are willing to be and that’s in their control. For example, I made a lot of portraits of my ex-girlfriend and she was a little nervous at first, but she got used to it pretty quickly. But when we went through a bad breakup, I had a lot of power to portray her exactly the way I wanted to. It comes with the territory of being close to me and it was something she understood. I paint my lovers and my friends and people I connect with on some level- if someone doesn’t want to pose for me, they don’t. They get that I do exactly what I want to do, it’s very honest, and I don’t ever think there is any tension. The people I’m interested in are usually game for anything.
There is an omnipresence of hegemonic ideologies (patriarchy, homophobia, etc) that your subjects are in conflict with. You have chosen to depict the aftereffects of violence and violation on the survivor. How radical do you think it is that you have portrayed the survivors of violence and not the perpetrators in the act of violence?
I’m not sure how radical it is- I think I naturally portray issues of hegemonic ideology because that’s part of my life and the lives of people I love. I don’t think it’s a forced theme, it just is. I was a victim of violence and I painted my experience because I had to get it out of me. It was definitely out of necessity to tell my story. However, if they had caught the man that hurt me, I would be interested in painting him, too. Why not? I’m interested in his story. I’m interested in why people hurt others. I’d love to talk to him and ask him why, but I think with the way I work logistically, it would not be very easy to portray the perpetrator. That wouldn’t be very safe!
Also this leads me to the question whether you have ever considered depicting the perpetrators of violence from an alternative perspective? Will it make your art seem digressive and less sensitive?
Sure, I would paint anyone I was interested in painting, as long as they were willing. But you’d have to be in a pretty specific mental and physical safe space to even approach that. I wouldn’t care about how that reflects on the rest of the work, or if it’s sensitive. I haven’t thought of it because it hasn’t been an option. I’ve never been interested in pursuing it, but if I was, I’d go for it.
What is the psychology behind the desire for violence and inflicting pain, as if it were the raison d’ entre for humanity?
I have no idea what the psychology for inflicting pain and violence is. I’ve never been violent towards someone else. However, I’m interested in personal pain, both physically and emotionally. I definitely portray that in my work. I usually portray intense emotions or experiences. I’m very interested in portraying emotional pain in a physical way. I think life is pretty intense and ugly sometimes, for whatever reason- it is cathartic for me to make work about that.
And how disturbing do you think it is that pain, a result of violence and violation, makes room for itself in art?
I’m not disturbed at all. I’m only disturbed if the work is made badly. There is room for everything in art, as it always should be.
Interview by Swastisha Mukherjee & Edited by Pallab Deb