Faculty spotlight: Sunny A. Smith, Dean of Fine Arts

Faculty Spotlight is an editorial series that showcases CCA's wide range of faculty members.

Fine Arts Dean Sunny A. Smith draws their inspiration from American history to create work that combines social practice, performance, and craft-based sculpture.

They have exhibited their work throughout the United States and abroad. They has produced over 25 solo exhibitions, installations, performances, and artist-led participatory projects for venues that include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Public Art Fund, the Arts Club of Chicago, and S!GNAL Center for Contemporary Art, among many other.

Smith earned a BA in psychology from The New School for Social Research, a BFA in fine arts from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA in sculpture from the Yale University School of Art. They joined CCA’s faculty in 2008.

Much of your work is rooted in events from American history, particularly the Civil War. How did that get started?

I grew up in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, and as a child I was taken to lots of historic homes, craft fairs, and open-air living history museums like Colonial Williamsburg, where interpreters dress in period costume and perform history through hands-on making, from blacksmithing to gunsmithing.

My childhood home was filled with historic reproductions, like a backdrop or stage set for reenactment.

As an art student in 1990s New York, I was most inspired by artists of color as well as queer and feminist artists whose work explored identity politics. I devoured the writings of Judith Butler, who famously theorized the performativity of identity, calling for “a different sort of repeating.”

Living History is founded on the idea that historical events gain meaning and relevance when performed live in an open-air, interactive setting. As a queer feminist, I want to draw attention to the ways in which identities are intersectional and multiplicitous, and I encourage participants to take history/herstory/hxstory into their own hands.

What drew you to teaching? What keeps you interested?

I knew from a fairly young age that I wanted to teach, because teaching seemed very compatible with being an artist.

Throughout my undergraduate years, I did everything I could to gain pre-teaching experience: initiating an art program for squatter youth, working with teens in temporary housing, earning a certificate of training in art therapy, interning and then working full time for two years as a museum educator at the Whitney Museum.

I was fortunate to get my first adjunct teaching positions right out of graduate school.

What keeps me interested in teaching is being able to positively impact students’ lives through my courses and mentorship. It is also just such a privilege to be surrounded by art and ideas every day.

What does CCA offer that sets it apart?

I think what sets CCA apart the most is the uniqueness of its combined offerings and its location in the San Francisco Bay Area. If prospective students are looking for a dynamic mix of art, craft, design, architecture, and writing and want to study in an incredibly beautiful location with a sensibility that is both utopian and critical, then they should seriously consider CCA.

In particular, if students want to study art in a place that is not so much focused on the art market but instead on issues like social justice and environmental sustainability, then CCA may be the right place for them.

What is the best piece of advice you've received?

I think the best artists teach by example. I can’t recall a specific piece of advice I was given, but I can think of a lot of incredible artworks that influenced me on my path.

If anything, I have learned to follow my own sense that no one is going to encourage artists to do the work that really needs to be done, because the most pressing and important work may not even be legible as art yet.

I’ve learned to pay attention to the voices in my head that whisper to me that certain ideas are either awkward or forbidden, and I try to manifest those ideas over the ones that seem more safe or predictable. That is a piece of advice I would give to others: follow your gut, be your own best critic.

If you are truly breaking new ground with your work (and if not, why bother?), then that makes you the best advisor and expert on your practice.

What (or who) inspires you?

I bring to the category of sculpture -- infinitely malleable, as Rosalind Krauss wrote in her famous essay "Sculpture in the Expanded Field" -- an interest in functional things. In my own subjective history of sculpture, Agnes Richter’s embroidered jacket, Dave Drake’s poetic pots, and Dirk Van Erp’s bombshell flower vases are on the same table with Pablo Picasso’s “Glass of Absinthe,” Meret Oppenheim’s “Object,” and Jasper Johns’s “Painted Bronze.”

Google these objects and you will get a sense of things that inspire me.

Beyond that, as Martin Heidegger points out in “The Thing,” what matters is the jug’s ability to enliven conviviality, through its proclivity for gathering, holding, giving, and outpouring. A similar idea can be found in the warmth work of Joseph Beuys.

I am interested in the idea of sculpture as something radiant, moving from things, like objects or gatherings, to techniques, like molding or shaping the world, and from materials, like felt or fat, to skills, including people skills. Things are just the beginning.