Allison Smith: Extreme Sculptor

This is only Allison Smith's third semester teaching at CCA—she moved to the Bay Area about a year and a half ago—but she's already hit the art scene here with a powerful dose of positive energy.

She's hosting regular monthly get-togethers in her Oakland studio/home/storefront space SMITHS, inviting makers of all sorts—"from tinsmiths to tunesmiths" as she likes to put it—to share their skills and engage in conversations about the social aspects of craft. SMITHS is inspired by the history of general stores as intimate spaces of public exchange. The intent is to find useful models for creative practice, especially in times of war and economic uncertainty.

On the day I visited in early November, the theme was "Letterpress Broadsides and Beercraft." As I entered, more than a dozen local letterpress artists were displaying their work and engaging in a free exchange of prints. Subsequently, the Bay Area art critic and independent curator Patricia Maloney, her partner Smitty Weygant, and their friend Brian Andrews explained the history and chemistry of beer making (then sequestered themselves in the kitchen to brew a new batch). The rest of us gathered around a long table, and several local letterpress luminaries, among them CCA's beloved professor emerita Betsy Davids, led a roundtable discussion on the history of the medium, its special importance in Bay Area radical politics, and where it's going in today's increasingly digital world.

Courtney Dailey, a CCA Curatorial Practice graduate student and cofounder of Projet Mobilivre-Bookmobile, an annual touring library/gallery/exhibition, predicted with confidence the continued rise of letterpress in popularity and usefulness. Blogs may be picking up where the old, photocopied zines left off, she said, but individuals who still have the urge to create objects, to put text on a page in a personal, handmade way, are turning to letterpress and finding it a beautiful and elegant mode of self-expression.

After the discussion there was free handcrafted Smiths beer. Named for Smitty [Smith] Weygant, each batch is dedicated to an artist friend. Thus, Allison Smith Red Ale was served with pizza from the local worker-owned cooperative Arizmendi Bakery. And everyone got to take home a letterpress broadside made by CCA graduate students in Smith's Material Practice project seminar.

Plenty more is afoot at the SMITHS compound: Artadia just announced its 2009 San Francisco Bay Area awardees, and Smith (along with James Gobel of CCA's Painting/Drawing faculty) were the two big $15,000 winners. SMITHS was recently awarded a Southern Exposure Alternative Exposure grant. And Smith will be a Headlands Center for the Arts artist in residence in 2010.

Even more exciting, SFMOMA has invited Smith to set up a SMITHS "outpost" in the museum as part of its 75th anniversary celebration. On the big kickoff day, Saturday, January 16 from noon to 10 p.m., visitors to the museum's fifth floor will experience an immersive installation titled Fancy Work. Fancy Work looks back to an exuberant pre-modern moment in craft history known as American Fancy, which encompassed everything from patchwork quilts inspired by the 1816 invention of the kaleidoscope to punched-tin lanterns that created glittering patterns of projected light.

Smith's presentation will be a unique combination of psychedelic light show and quilting bee. She's working with more than 25 local makers to create a monumental patchwork quilt composed of more than 2,400 hand-printed linen diamonds. This vibrant, dizzying wall work will serve as a projection screen for an electrified candle in a giant mirrored sconce, scattering kaleidoscopic light in a thousand directions. Visitors will navigate the space holding punched-tin lanterns, turning light and shadow into moving patterns. Meanwhile, Smith and others will provide a hauntingly beautiful auditory atmosphere on musical saws.

Fancy Work is the first in a whole series of SMITHS-SFMOMA participatory programs and projects, continuing for the rest of that weekend and then monthly throughout the spring, culminating Memorial Day weekend.

Smith's interest in the convergence of art and war is inspired in part by SFMOMA's original location in the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue. There, during World War II, the Red Cross Arts and Skills Service taught some 14 different arts and crafts skills, including metalwork, needlework, and ceramics, to wounded veterans. The SMITHS-SFMOMA projects are part of a CCA studio course titled Extreme Sculpture, in which a group of students will work with the museum's education department to revive some of these semi-lost arts via a series of "skill-sharing" events that involve both civilians and soldiers. The series, Smith hopes, will help deepen the public's understanding of contemporary conflicts and how we envision ourselves in relation to "the war effort" today.

The Extreme Sculpture course is part of a new CCA initiative called ENGAGE at CCA, which combines the Community Arts Program's successful model of community involvement with the project-based learning approach of the architecture and design disciplines. Each course connects interested faculty (in this case, Allison Smith) and academic programs (Sculpture and graduate Fine Arts) with community partners (SFMOMA and local veterans' organizations) and relevant outside experts (historians, art therapists, et cetera). View a map of all the spring 2010 ENGAGE at CCA sites.

Details of the SFMOMA programs are still firming up, so check SFMOMA's site or www.allisonsmithstudio.com for more info in the spring!

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