dialogue…Carrie Mae Smith…004

“Creating these works is in part about the repetitive act of doing, of labor, not assembly line labor and repetition, but similar to a chef in a restaurant, creating the same dish over and over again, always slightly different.”


Your paintings contain images of items sourced from thrift stores and estate sales, utilitarian items that perhaps hold traces of a person’s past. How is your subject matter’s past important to your work?

I am interested in giving new life and purpose to  discarded objects—sort of resurrecting them from their obsolescence—older objects, plates, silverware etc., things that have a history and a relationship to domestic activity.  Objects that once held some sort of importance or marker of importance and  have lost their status over time. They are small quiet objects, yet their loss of use or value indicates a shift in culture. Painting them is a way of reassigning significance to them. Remembering them through a new format—with a new perspective.  

studio view, 2017

In your studio, you have a collection of beautiful china and silverware. What is the process of collecting these items and your relationship to these implements?

I love the hunt! I go to estate sales and thrift stores in affluent communities. Some of my favorites are on Martha’s Vineyard and Brattleboro, VT–places where older generations have passed on and you can find quality stuff for reasonable prices. I look for certain shapes and simple patterns. I found a great stack of Italian plates in Vermont one summer that I painted in several different paintings. Recently I found what I think is an old Quimper, tin glazed, hand painted plate. I’m looking for these quality objects that have lost their status over time. They once held some sort of importance or signifier of status, and yet they are discarded—and have lost their significance. Painting them is like reassigning value to them.

How do you decide on which items to paint?

The objects I choose to paint are typically plain, everyday china or silverware, maybe with a simple pattern or gold rim. My compositions are often simple and minimal. I don’t really have a system of choosing the objects, but I am attracted to certain color palettes, subdued colors, gold rims and simple patterns.

detail, Six Tea Cups, 2017

The soft tones of your palette and blurred images, created through brush strokes and palette knives, seem to reference a fuzzy memory.

The objects I paint have to possess a sort of timelessness, or have the potential for timelessness in their representation. I don’t want it to be clear at first glance, I want there to be an ambiguity to the sense of time. The sometimes blurred or obscured outcome of the subject matter is somewhat of a resistance to painting exactly what is in front of me, an intentional obscuration to what the object is—to force the viewer to complete the object, from their own memory or understanding. Memory is inadequate, how we remember an experience is always different than another person who shared that same experience—it is never precise.

Can you tell me more about your process? Do you always work from a still life?

My process varies, but I mainly paint from life. Painting for me is very much about immediate response—a visceral, physical experience. I work quickly and intensely, I usually make a painting in one go, it can take any where from 1-8 hours.  If the painting doesn’t work out I scrap it or scrape it down. If the painting is larger it can take more time, but I try to finish the work while the initial paint is still wet. I like to paint wet into wet.

I play around with objects, arranging them until I feel some guttural response, a spark, the light/shadow doing something interesting and some sort of harmony between the arranged objects.  I do think about how the objects relate to one another and if they make sense together, as if setting up for serving cake or plates stacked after clearing the table.  I want the compositions to feel like a snapshot of an insignificant moment that the camera accidentally captured. I don’t want discord or questioning of the relationships of objects. If there is a narrative, I want it to strike in one beat, not unravel as a story. However, I do want the images to have staying power, so I work to capture a sense of atmosphere, time of day and sense of place without giving it a specific location.

studio view, 2017

Most of your paintings are painted on Mylar, it seems to offer a freedom or immediacy that canvas or panel does not allow. What drew you to this medium?

Mylar is smooth, no preparation necessary. I can launch right onto it with oil paint. It allows for greater flexibility.  The translucent quality allows a lightness you can’t get with a panel or on canvas.

What does a typical day at the studio look like for you?

I paint from life using natural light, so daylight is key. The earlier I can get over to the studio the better because it usually takes me a little while to arrive mentally. I begin by cleaning off old paint blobs from my palette and pushing out new blobs, premixing whites, greys, blues and violets. If I have to get back to something I started the day before, I spend a little time examining where the piece is at, turn it upside down, think about what it needs and get back to it. If I am starting new paintings, I spend time playing around with china and silverware arranging, rearranging, sketching and thinking, looking for something that moves me.

With the towel series, I worked much more methodical. I set up a schedule for myself, aiming to make 2 paintings a day, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon.  The process was much more like constructing a sculpture. I had a plan/framework of the idea already worked out.

installation view a
20 Towels on view at The Smithy in Cooperstown, NY

The repetition in your paintings of dishtowels, cuts of meat, silverware, etc. feels referential to our daily relationship and routine with food and meals, while your painting practice itself resembles a meditation on the utilitarian aspect of the artist’s study. What does the use of repetitive imagery mean to you in your work?

I initially started painting the tea towel to make a connection to the art historical practice of drapery studies.  It was something that Leonardo da Vinci did and the French Academy perpetuated. I chose the tea towel because it also has a connection to the domestic, particularly women and the historic gender roles of women and women’s work. The use of serial repetition drains it of it’s meaning and accentuates its banality.  

In grad school I hung a collection of breadboards in a grid that I acquired from a bakery.  They created a sort of modernist painting. They possessed a beauty in their inherent history, stained with yeast, flour and mold, that I simply hung them on the wall all together to memorialize their past—their history. The material of the painting was not paint, but the piece did a similar thing, confronting the viewer with the beauty of the banal, and the demand to look at the everyday and material culture of woman through a different lens.

When I’m working I think about the sense of being an observer, not a participant—repeating the imagery only accentuates this passivity. I’ve made numerous paintings of silverware arranged on isolated surfaces, stacks of plates, plates and silverware, meat. Creating these works is in part about the repetitive act of doing, of labor, not assembly line labor and repetition, but similar to a chef in a restaurant, creating the same dish over and over again, always slightly different. When you work with the same ingredients (or subject matter) over time you either get bored of it, or you build new understandings of it. It begins to reveal new qualities about itself to you and you reveal qualities of yourself in it.  

CMS_Seven Bread Boards
Bread Boards, 2012

Your paintings utilize a direct, simplistic approach to composition, focusing on object while often negating any underlying base or table.  What is the function of composition in your paintings?  

Removing the context of objects removes the sense of place and time. The objects are floating, or existing in an ambiguous space, this allows for a sense of mystery, of not knowing, of questioning.

You have mentioned that your protestant upbringing, involving the principles of Martin Luther, that things without function are superfluous, has been an influence over your subject matter. How has your upbringing affected your work? Becoming an artist seems at odds with that mentality?

Early on, becoming an artist was a swimming upstream type of experience. It was, and is, at odds with my upbringing. My parents both came from working class backgrounds. My dad was raised on welfare by a single mother who suffered from bipolar disorder and my mother was the youngest of 6 children, raised by a Baptist factory worker who suffered from PTSD (although it didn’t have a label then) from WWII. Art to them was a luxury, a hobby, not a vocation for someone from our economic class. I had to create space for myself and defy their rules and guidance to pursue the only path that made sense to me. It is hard not to be influenced by my proletariat upbringing, and I find myself referencing the banalities of life’s routines and utilitarian objects through my work. Painting quotidian objects links these ideas of everyday acts of service to painting and the “forbidden” practice of being an artist.

Carrie Mae Smith, Towel 1, 2017, Oil on Mylar, 27.25h x 20w inches
Towel 1, 2017

What was your first encounter with painting?

I grew up staring at two paintings that my mother painted. One was actually just an under painting, or drawing on canvas board laid out with ultramarine blue paint on canvas board. The other was a still life of a wine bottle wrapped in raffia with some peppers and other things at the base.  They were not especially good, but they were hand crafted.  I also grew up looking at a double-sided Georgia O’Keeffe poster that my mother brought home from the bookstore where she worked. I loved that poster.  On one side there was a reproduction of red poppies and on the other a magnified view of pink flowers—soft, yet bold.

with contemporary art?

I can’t remember how old I was or what grade, maybe 3rd or 4th grade; I went on a school trip to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT. It was late winter or early spring, because it was cold outside. I distinctly remember walking into a gallery and looking at this overweight sun burned woman in a bathing suit reclined on a fold out lawn chair. It was a Duane Hanson sculpture of course, but for several minutes my little brain grappled with why this woman would be lying on a lawn chair in a bathing suit inside, especially when it was so cold outside. The sculpture was so real I believed it for a couple of minutes. Once I realized that this was art I felt relieved and delighted—that I could be tricked by an object in such a serious setting. That was the first moment I felt the power of art, and how it can affect our experience of being human, question our belief in what is real and our experience of reality.

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Duane Hanson, Sunbather, 1971 at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT

Your father was a butcher and cuts of beef and pork are amongst the culinary subject matter in your current work. One of your paintings was even recently on the cover of Eurocarne magazine, a trade magazine to the beef industry in Europe. What is your relationship with meat?

Red meat is this masculine thing—bloody, bold, primal in a way. It is that big thing (“the roast”) that the man in the family is always expected to carve on holidays. Red meat is also gendered through the grill—especially steaks and burgers—it is less common for women to “man up” to the task of grilling.  I don’t subscribe to these gender norms and I’m not a big eater of red meat, but it carries these associations for me. Painting it subverts these associations, and allows me to take command of the subject matter through a medium that also has a history of favoring men.

What is your favorite cut of steak?

T-Bone, to paint and to eat!  Visually the bone gives a beautiful contrast to the rich reds. There is so much flavor in the bone, the fat that crisps up around the bone when cooked—I love to gnaw on bones.