The meaning of an animal in the World: An Interview with Kiki Smith

A giant of contemporary art, Smith opens up about trusting the necessity to do things, her pragmatic nature, and the importance of the meaning of an animal in the world


In preparation for an interview with Kiki Smith on her recent show at Bale Creek Allen Gallery in Austin, I was told a myriad of stories bordering on legend about the artist from sources who should rightly know. Speculation as to the artist’s inspiration, working methods, and general air skew to the otherworldly if not the outright occult. In agreeing to meet with her at her foundry in Kingston, New York, I was nervous two-fold. First, Smith is a giant of contemporary art and a personal idol to my younger self. Second — and perhaps it’s just all the work she’s made depicting herself as such — she may well be a witch.

And so, the person I met came as a surprise.

At her foundry, Workshop Art Fabrication in Kingston, Smith is known as one of the most hands-on artists, coming in virtually every week to check on progress, make changes on the fly at various stages of production, and create directly on site, scratching new works in clay and having them cast in metal all on location. She is on a first name basis with workers of every rank, most of them emerging artists themselves, and is just as likely to be found speaking with any of them about their own work as she is working on her own art or directing the finishing of her pieces.

I came to the foundry at the end of a lunch hour and was directed to the workshop floor to find Kiki. There I did not find a sorceress, but rather a serious woman in a serious, very business-focused conversation on her cell phone, clearly with a gallerist or dealer. Concurrently, and with a practiced ease, she began a silent lip-reading conversation with me apologizing for the delay and directing me to some of her in progress works. Eventually closing her phone, she gave a micro-tour of some of the other works in the foundry: a Mark Quinn here, a Tom Friedman there, over there a grouping of Ursula von Rydingsvards.

And then we came back to a table with two bronze hands of her own creation covered in a bark-like texturing. As Smith picked them up I could see just a hint of that mysterious aura she is known for. This was not any clinical examination. No, Smith was more like a curious animal nosing a foreign object than she was a technician. She’d spin the hands around and drop them back on the table with slight rotations, just a bit more violently than would be expected, pawing them about before pointing out barely perceptible flaws she’d like to adjust later. It seemed akin to scrying the way she’d poke at the works and hover over them in that slow rhythm.

And just as I was falling back into that pre-interview wonder her phone rang again. With a roll of her eyes she entered into another business conversation, this one a bit more heated, and in a heartbeat that magic aura traded itself out for that of a CEO standing their ground.

After she finished and the workers began filtering back out onto the floor we stepped inside an office to talk about her show in Austin.

Seth Orion Schwaiger: How do you feel about Austin?
Kiki Smith: I’ve been in Austin many times, and I think it’s fabulous. I love that there’s so much nature. Right near Bale’s gallery there’s a farm to table restaurant, I think they’ve got three acres or something, right in the city. To me, that’s incredible. The farm said they can hardly afford to be there anymore, but I think it’s very beautiful. It’s somewhat similar to Kingston, in its openness. You can be outside of both very quickly. Last time we stayed downtown because Jo Harvey and Terry Allen were having a big concert at the Paramount Theatre and that was good too, but I like these suburbs that border on rural but have a good coffee shop, something that has the hipness of Austin and liveable amenities of the city.

SOS: Did any of your feelings of Austin enter into the formation of the show
KS: I have turkeys where I live here, and I’ve seen them in Austin too, so there’s images of those. Two of the prints were of musicians Ryan Bingham and one was of Matthew Smith, and I made a print of them some time ago. Another musician is Donald Rubenstein and he and I collaborated on a print in the show. For me, I can make drawings, these were drawings of trees from New Mexico, but I thought it would be really nice to integrate words into it. Donald’s a musician and songwriter and so it was more interesting for me to just ask him. Language activates drawing in a different way, something you can’t get to with just drawings. The symbol density of language is really powerful.

There’s a work about harvest and bounty that I felt fit. Other things make less sense, like these images of goat moths, but I just like them. There’s of course the dog paws. Those were from some friends’ dogs in Oaxaca, but there’s something about them that remind of the space out there. You know, lounging — lounging about in dust. It’s a type of space that just doesn’t exist in the east.

Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith, “Jewel,” 2004. Set of three etchings on Hahnemühle bright white paper. Edition of 24, 14 in. x 17 in. Published by Harlan & Weaver

SOS: Talking about that work in particular, there’s a halo of scratches, or a background full of a particular mark. For a moment I thought that may have been from recycled printing plates where the image has been smashed down or burnished out, but maybe it was just building up mark through a direct drypoint technique.
KS: No no no, it’s from using plates that were originally mirror finished, but were scratched. And eventually most of the scratches are fugitive, like if they weren’t steel faced plates you’d lose all of that, and I probably lost a fair amount of them. At first a lot of the prints I made were at Harlan & Weaver which is in New York, and I don’t know why, but they always had a lot of old plates that were mirror finished but scratched and I just use those. I used them because I thought it was to my advantage.

It’s the same thing as having Donald write on the thing. There’s something about this uncontrollableness — etching can be incredibly fussy, you know you can really spend years changing very minute nuances of things that no one would ever notice — so I like that you can have this energy come into it that you yourself could never do alone. You’re always limited by your own aesthetics or by your own sensibilities. If you can find an opportunity to get out of your own good taste that you’re always stuck in then that can be an advantage. It just throws a wrench into the works a little bit.

SOS: And in your works that’s by design.
KS: Yeah, I mean, you can say “oh I don’t want that plate I want a polished plate” or you can decide to burnish out all these lines for the next two years if you want. I like it. I don’t do it now, because I get plates at school that are new, but then again, I end up using my students plates when they leave them and it’s the same thing. You get all this extra information, this collision of stuff, that you couldn’t really do in an authentic way on your own.

SOS: Is it purely an aesthetic consideration or is it that sense of history that’s important to your work?
KS: The history part I love in printmaking, particularly in etching. I love that it’s such a generous medium and you can go back and forth and back and forth. You can get rid of things but they leave some sort of trace on the plate, regardless. Some ink will get caught there regardless of whether it’s identifiable. I think it fits with slightly obsessive personalities. And I have one.

The great thing about printmaking is that it’s neither abstract nor representational it’s just grooves or marks in a surface which is filled with ink which is just a material. It has no other language. It’s just a thing.

SOS: That’s a very sculptural way of thinking about that.
KS: Well it’s so great because it shows you in a very clear way that what you’re seeing is illusion. You’re making an illusion of what you’re seeing. But when you’re doing it, you’re working in layers. You’re making layers and layers of information and I always thought for the late part of the twentieth century and that interest in deconstructing things, I thought printmaking was a perfect model for construction, because you see that at each phase there’s nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and then you put it all together and you have an illusion of something. Something you can see. Each layer is informing the whole but each one is autonomous. I really do like printmaking because it gives you a way to think about the world. And I think it goes very well with sculpture. Most people think about painting and printmaking going together, but sculpture goes very well with it also, because it’s a very physical thing.

Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith, “Jewel,” 2004. Set of three etchings on Hahnemühle bright white paper. Edition of 24, 14 in. x 17 in. Published by Harlan & Weaver

SOS: Do you find any downside to collaboration?
KS: Not much, because people can help you manifest your vision. If they don’t try to control you — too much — then it works out just fine. You get all of the creativity of the printmakers, because they want it to be good too since it’s coming from them. And they have so much knowledge, like I learned some new trick yesterday in etching that I didn’t know before. It’s really great to be around people who really know what they are doing. I’m pretty self taught. I never studied printmaking in school and just learned from working in shops and watching. Then I went to teaching when I realized I knew nothing about it. I didn’t like ink. I didn’t like touching it. I didn’t like hand wiping anything. But there are also excellent books, Kathan Brown’s Crown Point Press books on printmaking are just spectacular and we really try to teach from them.

SOS: So you feel like you went into teaching before you really —
KS: Yeah. I’d just read books on the way to school on my bicycle. I really like thinking about things, but for the most part I really don’t think about much, I’m actually super pragmatic.

SOS: I find that so hard to believe.
KS: No, it’s true. I’m not going around theorizing about things in life. I’m just like, I want to get this done today, it has to happen in some kind of order, I’m very practical about things. But I think the thing that’s nice about teaching is I can think of millions of homework assignments. I love thinking about homework assignments. I originally taught drawing and you know, anything can be a drawing. You can think of pencil on paper as a drawing, but you can think of wires or electrical cords or mapping of phenomena, it’s very expansive what a drawing can be. And then your brain just goes in fifty thousand directions of what it could be and I think it’s true with prints or sculpture or anything. With most mediums I don’t stray too far from home, but for teaching, all you really want to do is empower them, so they can have their own experience and find their own language and embrace their own creativity. I have no other agenda than that.

SOS:  I was at the Brooklyn Museum recently and I saw one of your works from the early nineties —
KS: A print?

SOS:  A photographic print I think, called “Las Animas.”
KS: Oh yes, photogravure

SOS: That’s it. I saw that work, and the contrast between this and the work in Austin struck me. I’m wondering if the work on exhibit there is more in line with your interests now. You’re known for this sacred, but primal female imagery, and I don’t think I’d describe anything on view in Austin in that way.
KS: Yeah, you know, things move around. Your life moves around. I mean, I can’t say I know anything about primal sacred female energy particularly, but I know that I don’t know anything about nature. I grew up in New Jersey in the suburbs and I lived in New York. But I see that — yesterday my phone was dying because I have twenty-six thousand photos on my phone now, and I looked back to 2012 or 13 or something, and I saw that everything was exactly the same then as it is now: taking pictures of the glints on the water; taking pictures of the sun; taking pictures of the moon; taking pictures of pollinators on flowers; this and that. I just see that living upstate or living outside of the city you are so aware of your natural surrounds, how much there is to observe and to learn about and to pay attention to. It’s wondrous.

I did grow up in the suburbs as a kid, and as you get older all of the human interactions that are so paramount when you are younger find a different balance in your life. When I was young I couldn’t leave New York for twenty-four hours. I’d go see my parents in New Jersey and would have to go back to New York that night. I didn’t want to to miss anything, and I was just so excited about everything in the city. Now I’m just so excited about looking at different kinds of mint, or how small or big pollinators are. It’s like television. I make these pollinator gardens and I just sit there and watch them because it’s just insane. You hear this cacophony of buzzing. I see what’s the most attractive to them and I plant more of those. I live on a creak and there’s all of these trees where the dirt on the roots, the soil has been washed away. And there’s four or five feet of exposed root under the tree. It’s been that way since I got there, been through two hurricanes still standing, and I just think it’s such a great image, these bare roots holding up the tree, like the hands of your fingers suspending your arm, and I think I’ll get around to that one day. There’s so much just in one’s yard that you can make artwork in relationship too.

SOS: Right. So if there is this change in your work over the years, you chalk a lot of that up to a change in environment?
KS: A lot. A lot. I made sculptures of plant systems when I was younger but then I fell into the body through (the medical textbook) “Grey’s Anatomy” and felt really at home in that. Then in ‘94 I started drawing animals and I thought that this is just much more important to think about in my mind, what the meaning of an animal is in the world rather than my interpersonal relationships or other people.

I went to Harvard and I was drawing from the Peabody Museum from these stuffed animals. One of the scientist there was saying how many mammals, from loss of habitat primarily, would become extinct over the next 20, 30, or 40 years. But that was ‘94 and so a lot of that is coming to fruition with climate change and habitat change. I just thought, “oh, I should pay attention to that.” I had this idea that once I saw a bird, but there would be a time in life where one wouldn’t know what birds were. I need to pay attention to that. At first I just made representation of animals but then it mixed with fairytales and this intersection between humans and animals, our identity in relationship to animals. It gets cooler too, where I’m just drawing from nature, or photos of nature. I think my work always, in a certain weird way, has a kind of cool too it. I’m not sure if other people would see that. Like my work in Texas has a certain formality to it.

SOS: I can see that in your work at Bale Creek Allen Gallery, but certainly some of your other work was provocative if not shocking to many of its viewers.
KS: But it’s still sort of formally cool in a certain kind of way. It’s not — I don’t know, I’m not — I act, maybe, hippieish or something, or friendly in a certain kind of way. But in another way I’m just formal. It shows in lots of things that I do. It’s not personally expressionistic. It’s more like looking at a phenomenon, or looking at a possibility of how things could be, but in general I don’t think any of it is all that warm.

SOS:  When any interviewer that I’ve read asks you about your religious or spiritual beliefs your answer will either be very mysterious or —
KS: Vague, very vague, hahaha.

SOS: — vague or non committal, so I just thought I’d give it a go and see if I can gain any clarity on the issue. What are your beliefs now, and how have they changed over time?
KS: It’s changed. First, when I was younger, spirituality was very pushed aside in the art world and very criticized, and there are many many reasons to criticize religions, but I thought that that was a lie, because spirituality is a big part of people’s lives, or at least their interior lives and how they connect to the whole of existence. That’s something that’s very innate in most humans, to try to have a connection to the greater whole and to see that the whole is greater than you. I think it probably makes it less lonely.

But then sometimes I go and I say look, I don’t know what any of that means. And then again, I absolutely know what that means in terms of nature. I can see the greatness of nature. In an anthropocentric way, we can say the cruelness of it rather than just the “is” of it. Sometimes things just are. They aren’t there particularly for reasons or illustrations or to tell me what to do, they’re just the way they are. That can change too, where things have ramifications do indeed have ramifications. But I don’t know. I think mythologies, personal mythologies can change over time. And also, culturally, there are so many different people and so many different beliefs here that there are ways that they all interweave with one another.

SOS: And do you feel like that’s how they are interacting within your own mind? Do you personally believe in parts of all of these beliefs, or perhaps none of them, or both sides of that equation at the same time?
KS: Everything in between. Everything in between. On any given day. Just coming down here I was telling myself, “You know, I have to remind myself everyday that I’m going to die, and that I have to be very attentive to how I’m living and how I’m acting,” and then I was like, “oh shut up. Just go to the foundry and don’t think about things too much.” You try to figure out some way to live but I think it’s all a mystery basically. And it really changes. It changes depending on what circumstances you are in.

SOS: You once famously said “My career has stopped being linear. A couple years ago the story line fell apart.” I’m wondering if you feel like the story line has come back together. How would you describe your relationship to the art world now?
KS: In that sense I wasn’t so much talking about the art world. It was more about seeing a progression in my work. It felt linear and that it related very much to my personal life and I could track it, even though my work doesn’t emote so much of my personal life, it’s still very personal to me. And then things just fall apart sometimes. Things that were significant aren’t significant anymore. For me, living up here, the things in nature are significant but it’s not — it’s not a united front. It’s not like a front coming in. I come here and I make things. They’re sort of all over the place what I make, but I don’t feel the necessity — it’s why I don’t really look forward to showing — because I don’t feel like I have some united front that I’m operating from. I’m not trying to prove anything or have a cohesive front about things. Things occur to me to do, I’m excited about doing them, they pop into my mind for God knows what reason, but then I just run with it. Like I don’t — for the most part it’s like “make a woman with pyrite” and I’m just like “okay” and I start doing it.

SOS: You don’t feel like you’ve ever needed to be tactical or strategic with your career?
KS: No, no. I don’t even know what would be tactical or strategic. I had a gallery when I was young and the gallerist said I could make things a little bigger. I made things the size of your forearm, or the size of a stomach or something. And I started cursing in my head and saying “I’m not doing what he says” and “I’m not gonna be told what to do” blah blah blah. And then I thought that’s not such a bad idea. If someone tells me what to do and I can see that it’s to my advantage I’m perfectly happy to do it. Being a career artist has a part where you are doing your thing and another part where you have to be doing it in a pragmatic way to get things done. But sometimes people suggest I do things and I embrace it and other things feel like a homework assignment from school and I can’t do it.

I always say I trust first my own necessity, my own necessity to do things. That’s why I come here every week and some of these things take me a year to do. I look at them and I say “oh no, that’s wrong, how did that happen, that can’t be like that” and then it changes a little bit and then something happens and you know what is needed. That process takes time. It’s not something you can prepare for. You just start doing something and it’s sort of meaningless often, you’re just doing it because you don’t know what to do with yourself, but then all of a sudden it’s like a snowball. It starts rolling and picking up things that are significant to you.

I guess I’m not very strategic. I had this show where it was just one piece, all made of glass, and it took up half the foundry, and it’s still in storage. But I wanted to do it. And I just thought If I make money and I’m paying for this myself, I can do what I want. I worked on it for two and a half years and I needed to do it and I wanted to. I’ll probably give it away to something eventually. You know, I’m pragmatic. I make things bigger sometimes or smaller, but art can exist in all different kinds of places — on desktops or living rooms or attics or storage facilities or sculpture parks. There’s no shortage of forms or of places that things can be, or ways to make things that aren’t engaging. It’s all engaging and has different meanings. Mostly I just like making things. That sounds very spacey, but I really like making things. If I got over it I could do something else but I really do like making.

I used to, when I was younger, always have to have something in my hands. Now I have arthritic hands so that’s less attractive to me because they hurt all the time. But I also don’t have that freneticness that I had when I was younger. I had more energy than I knew what to do with. But now I enjoy working with people. I like having assistants and working with artisans that know something. It’s very pleasurable.


Seth Orion Schwaiger
Seth Orion Schwaiger
Seth Orion Schwaiger is an artist and writer living and working between Austin, Texas, and Kingston, New York.

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