The COVID-19 Files : Interview with Martin Smick

The COVID-19 Files : Interview with Martin Smick

Bittersweet Waters by Martin Smick, acrylic on canvas, 30″ by 30″, 2020.

Martin Smick is a Providence based artist who has been living and working in Rhode Island since 2007 and has been teaching in the Painting Department at RISD since 2013. He has exhibited nationally, was a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown MA and was a resident at the Cité International des Arts in Paris, France. He holds a BFA from Washington University in St Louis and an MFA from RISD. He maintains a studio in Pawtucket and lives in Providence.

Martin’s first solo show in Providence unfortunately coincides with the global COVID-19 pandemic. The AS220 Galleries like most, if not all, cultural spaces are currently closed in an effort at social distancing to halt the spread of the virus. Martin was kind enough to do a short video tour of his studio, which can be viewed here, and short Q&A via e-mail.

detail of Bitter Nothing by Martin Smick, acrylic on canvas, 72″ by 96″, 2019.

1.     You are primarily a painter, but you incorporate some printmaking-like techniques in your paintings. Can you discuss your painting process?

After graduating from college in 2000 Imoved to Los Angeles where I began working on sets of music videos and commercials for a few months until I had the opportunity to meet artist and painter Richard Davis. Richard was a decorative painter who took me on as an apprentice. Through working for Richard I formed an interest in a wide range of painting techniques and materials. The use of stencils in particular became a lasting feature in my paintings and one that I continue to develop and adapt in new ways.

The stencil process I use now is an adaptation of screen printing, but instead of using standard screen-printing methods, with photo-emulsion, screen-mesh and ink I instead make screens using vinyl mesh and other wide weave mesh materials such as scrim or even burlap. I make block-outs with these materials and then use them to squeegee acrylic paint mediums directly onto whatever substrate I am using, be it canvas, panel, paper, or directly onto the wall.

2.     Who influences your work and current thoughts about art making? Is there a single artist or person that played a pivotal role in your development as an artist?

I wouldn’t say I have one artist in particular that influences me most. However, I have been very influenced by the many teachers I have had throughout the years. Teachers and mentors shape us in ways that go beyond the adaptation of style or technique. My teachers have instead shaped my attitude towards artmaking as an essential part of everyday life. As a teacher myself I would also say that I am constantly inspired by my students. I am fortunate enough to teach painting at RISD where I have had the opportunity to work with so many talented students over the last seven years.

3.     Your current exhibit at the AS220 Project Space considers invasive species as a subject for landscape abstraction, in particular Bittersweet, a common vine found throughout New England. What is the significance of these plants in your paintings? Are your paintings research based or do the paintings inform your reading and research?

I have been employing the Bittersweet motif over the last few years, ever since a collaborative project with friend and colleague Duane Slick. In 2017-2018 Duane and I received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to conduct research inside the collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Bristol RI. The Museum owned by Brown University boasts a massive collection of ethnographic objects and artifacts from around the world. Our project was exploring the complex issues pertaining to the collection and display of indigenous cultural materials. Duane, who is a citizen of the Meskwaki Nation of Iowa brought an indigenous voice to our collaboration, while I represented the Anglo-European colonial voice. The museum itself sits on nearly 400 acres of woodland on Mt. Hope in Bristol. The land itself is sacred Wampanoag territory and was the summer homeland of Wampanoag Sachem Metacomet, also known as King Philip. When we first began our research at the museum, I was struck by the pervasiveness of the bittersweet vine that appeared to be growing out of control throughout the surrounding woods. The bittersweet vine is an ornamental brought to America by Europeans in the 19th century and seemed an appropriate metaphor for the colonial drive to conquer and takeover.

4.     You have had two recent exhibitions/ collaborations with fellow artist and RISD Faculty member, Duane Slick. How did these collaborations come about and practically implemented? Is collaboration an important part of your art practice? 

The collaborations with Duane began in 2016 with a project at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard MA. In particular our project focused on a prized object in their collection, “King Philip’s War Club.” This object prompted our research into King Philip’s War and the legacy of indigenous communities in New England.

I never thought of collaboration as playing a particularly important role in my work prior to these last two projects however I have come to recognize great value in collaboration. I found it to be a useful way to expand my vision, both in terms an approach to subject matter but also in my approach to form. These projects expanded far beyond painting or printmaking to include video, photography, books, installation and digital animation. I think collaboration is important therefore, not only for of how it changes one’s perspective but also for how it opens one up to new ways of thinking and making.

5.     Your exhibit at AS220 coincides with an extraordinary time in our collective experience with a global pandemic shutting down all activities outside of essential services across the globe. How are you doing and getting by at this at this moment? 

We are managing as best we can. It is hard to know what will come next as we tend to be focused on getting through one day at a time. My wife is working from home and my two kids are home with us. We have two daughters and our older one was begun a distance learning program while the little one is only three and seems thrilled to have everyone at home with her all the time. It has been a challenge to continue making work at the studio since I have had to stay home and look after the kids while my wife works. However, I have been trying to embrace the time with the kids as much as possible and have also turned my creative passions to the kitchen, trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Whatever comes next it is could to know that art has endured throughout all of histories difficult times. Human ingenuity and creativity has a way of overcoming even the worst circumstances.

You can follow Martin Smick’s work on Instagram @Martin_Smick