Hannah Jones: What is your background?
Alexandra Smith: I grew up on an Alpaca ranch in Amarillo, Texas. I was homeschooled, and I think that homeschooling was a pivotal point to my creativity. I spent a lot of time on my own and it was important to the growth of my creativity. I started at Texas State as a painting major but took a beginners metal class and my professor for that class is the one who really influenced me to switch my major to metals.
Kendall Mealey: Why does metal work intrigue you?
Alexandra Smith: I’m awful at math, and I’m too ADHD to sit down and read something, so I think this kind of worked out best. And I think as far as just having a metals background, I think it’s just most logical because it is such a tangible, wearable thing—like people want rings, that’s what you wear on your body to show you are claimed by somebody. We all like to have our earrings and things kind of covering us, and we love delicate, little pieces that we can carry with us. It’s honestly something that would make the most sense to make a living off of if I needed to.
Kendall Mealey: Do you think your start in painting influenced your metal work at all?
Alexandra Smith: Um, yeah maybe. I think more than anything it just gave me the mindset of being okay if something is not so exact; it kind of ties in to how I work now where I don’t go into a piece where it’s all planned out and there’s no exact sketch, and where there is all these steps to reach this goal. I’d much rather start just doodling on a piece of metal or just start to drill holes, start to saw things out, and I love seeing my pieces just grow from there. I just kind of go with the flow through things.
Hannah Jones: What kind of personal narratives are related in your work?
Alexandra Smith: Personal narratives? You know really, especially with the work that I have up right now, most of it had to do with looking back and appreciating and being so much more aware of where I came from and the way I got to grow up. You know, things like knowing how to have this survival aspect in life that I got to learn when I was really young. I started to appreciate that a lot more when I moved away and moved to bigger cities, like Austin, and then San Marcos. You start seeing these people, and it’s not their fault that they don’t know how to live that way because they weren’t brought up that way, but to see people that would legitimately almost have a panic attack if they cant find their cell phone, or you know, kids who have never cooked food for themselves. All they know is Favor and take-out and fast food and that was such a mind blowing thing for me to think about. For me, anyway, it was this natural thing; you need to know how to start a fire and to skin an animal and birth one out. You know how to move heavy objects and take care of other creatures and these things that I just grew up doing. So I based the majority of my work off of that more primitive lifestyle I got to live. Even just looking through history and seeing how everything has changed so dramatically, especially with those smaller pieces in my show, they are etched portraits of tribal chiefs from back in the 1800’s and there’s a few in there that are etched eyes from animals that used to be native to Texas that are slowly being eliminated. Like buffalo and even rattlesnakes, you know people get paid to go hunt rattlesnakes and just kill them to get them off of peoples property and these creatures should be entitled to be here. We should be staying out of their way but we don’t, we, you know, we eradicate things because deserts don’t suit us at the time or what have you. So I think most of my work is honoring more-so I suppose a memory. Not necessarily my own personal memory, but these memories of a past that used to be here that no one is ever going to get to experience again. I like to create these visuals that can help us understand what it was like and what it could be again if, you know, we choose to basically calm down and stop messing with everything around us. So that is what I base most of my work off of.
Hannah Jones: Do you do a lot of research for your work? Do you have a process you stick to?
Alexandra Smith: You know, not really. That sounds bad but I really just kind of wing it. I mean, like halfway through if I start finding problems or I don’t really get to where i’m thinking I need to be, I’ll calm down for a minute and I’ll go look for references or even artists that have done similar shapes and designs so I can kind of see how they did it so I can get through whatever issue i’m having. But for the most part, I’ll use research as a problem solving tool. Other than that, or even, when I raised those vessels, I’ve never raised a vessel before and I chose two months before I graduate to figure it out. We usually have an entire semester dedicated to just learning how to raise a vessel. So I literally just got on YouTube and I just watched a bunch of videos of other people raising vessels and I was like, I guess I can figure this out. And ironically enough, it was really freaking hard. I broke a few of them. They would shatter and split and I have one that looks like a copper cow patty and it’s so bad. So I’ve definitely used research in that aspect. Mostly, if I don’t want to ask, I’ll just figure it out on my own.
Kendall Mealey: Do you already have a preconceived concept then while you are researching of what you would like to do or create before hand in your work?
Alexandra Smith: I think the hardest thing about that in this kind of university or academic setting, is that everything starts off as a designated project, and you are given these specific guidelines that you have to follow. So I think a lot of my projects and work have just been straight panic where the professor is like “Here’s a paper figure it out, let me know by tomorrow” kind of thing. At least with thesis and this show, these pieces were entirely what I wanted to make and I got to do exactly what I wanted and really explore. And so, when I started this process, I guess I decided that I wanted to do something that was more personal to me. I didn’t want to do a show where it presented some mass problem within our culture or poke fun at anything, or that has a lot of different opinions, I wanted to keep it personal. Whether that was personal to me, or personal processes of historical societies like burial shrouds or religious processes where you would bury a loved one, like my hanging piece represents.
Hannah Jones: Do you solely draw your inspiration from your personal life back home in West Texas?
Alexandra Smith: A lot of what I usually make is based off of Native American tradition. Thats not even a genetic thing, as far as I know, I’m completely German. But I think a lot of it is me always going back to home and where I come from. That culture is still very much visualized as a part of where I come from. The Palo Duro canyons are there and there were tribes that were really relevant in that space, so I think at the end of the day, everything just keeps pushing me back to where I came from and what I got to see and just that appreciation for that. I think thats really most of where I draw inspiration from.
Kendall Mealey: You referenced using different religious things like burial shrouds and urns for loved ones passing. Do you draw from just other cultures spiritual elements or do you bring any of your own spiritual elements into your work?
Alexandra Smith: I think I draw a lot from just others, because I do have a tendency to just read on a lot of different religious and backgrounds and wonder why they are a certain way. I think I like to have a really direct reference with anything where there is a very strong standpoint on why a piece is what it is, so there can be a lot of open opinions on it. I wouldn’t want to make a piece solely Christian and make that the only way it can be interoperated, or if a piece was about sexism make it solely about that. I think it’s better and pieces reach more audiences when things are open ended.
Hannah Jones: Do you think your practice in metals has changed over time?
Alexandra Smith: Yes. Quite a bit, thankfully I’ve gotten better at it. At first I just funneled out a bunch of shit, and it was awful. A lot of flat pieces of metal cut into shapes and just stacked on top of one another (in west Texas drawl) and I was like “look what I did!” and it was pretty awful. But yeah, I think I’ve always just drawn from the same conceptual ideas and that just has to do with the fact like, why do you like cake? It’s just something you like, its just those natural tendencies you have as a person to gravitate to like a certain color or a certain visual or smell. It’s just that personal palettable desire. Especially when you’re making things, you really have to physically be there. You are making it with your hands, you have to be really concentrated on it. I think you are just going to naturally gravitate to what you really like the most. And you do this so it’s not an awful time to make this stuff, because it can be very time consuming. Especially with my current work, the thing I like about metal is it is this very tangible thing that you can hold and it can become this…it’s like somebody holding onto their great grandmothers wedding ring and passing that down. Like objects can have such a relationship to the person and such a sense of connection to someone else or something else, that I always want to make sure that whatever I make, even if no one else likes it, at least I could appreciate it enough to keep. So that is what I make most of my stuff for.
Kendall Mealey: Now metal itself is a very corrosive material, and it can be destroyed and manipulated very easily. Do you take any of this into account when you put your pieces on display?
Alexandra Smith: Yes. I think when it comes to metals, even if it’s a fairly small piece, it can take quite a bit of time to make. Just that idea that there is this object that I worked so hard on for such a long time, someone can just walk up and take it and put it in their pocket and run with it…that’s why I made the point to put the plastic around and over my pieces so people don’t take them, or just to touch even! It’s one of those things where regardless of what you do to metal, it is a really hard surface but it is also very malleable. So if someone walks up and nudges your piece, its not just going to fall and bounce it’s going to get mangled. It’s going to get wrecked, and curved and turned. It’s the nice and really shitty thing about it. When you finish you are so proud of yourself, but during the process if you mess up one little thing it’s done. There’s no covering up metal, there’s no putting it back. Once you’re done, you’re done. You have to stay overly accountable by it, and at the end of the day, metal is expensive, it’s not cheap. So something that has been so expensive and worked on for so long, of course you are going to want to protect it.
Hannah Jones: Do you have any artists that you most identify with?
Alexandra Smith: By far, my number one go to guy would be El Anatsui. He makes wall hangings, really massive wall hangings that are kind of like a net. In a way, I reference him for the shroud I did for this current show. He uses all recycled aluminum and garbage. He is a South African artist and he basically goes and collects trash off of the streets where he lives, because it’s pretty impoverished, and he uses copper wire to connect all these pieces and he flattens everything out, drills a few holes and connects them all. Actually all of his helpers and assistants are all locals who have been unable to get a job. He finds them and basically employs people and gives them work. So basically cleaning up the trash where they live and creating something that is really beautiful. They are massive, if you were to stand in front of one, it’s all metal. It’s so massively connected and it’s so heavy that it starts draping down on itself. It’s so cool that he has that mindset of, “I can make all this money but I can also make it for the community and help my community and bring them in on it too”. His work is just absolutely beautiful. When you look from a distance, it looks like this massive color change of beautiful sheets of fabric because you can’t tell what it is, but when you get closer you see its the side of tobacco cans and beer bottle caps and old nasty stuff and he doesn’t really clean it up. There will still be tobacco on it and spit stains and all of this other stuff all over it, and it transforms into really beautiful stuff.
Hannah Jones: Do you think that you are somewhat drawn to metal for the fact that it is so reusable and environmentally friendly?
Alexandra Smith: I think so. I think that’s a big thing. I also think I just like the harshness of it too. It is such an unforgiving thing to work with. And, in a way, its one of those things where I think that any direction you go towards creative aspects there’s always something kind of dangerous. Paint and fumes can be harmful to you. Even with ceramics, you breathe in a glaze that hasn’t been fired yet, that powder can be really harmful to you. So especially with metal, we have all of those issues but we also have chemicals that can blow up, and torches that could set you on fire (laughs). We have drill presses that, you know, if your hair isn’t in a ponytail…I’ve watched people get their hair caught in a drill press and it literally rips a part of their scalp off of their head. So it’s kind of like a power trip, as shitty as it sounds, it really kind of is. You feel so empowered. The aspect that you have to be cautious, to not physically hurt yourself, but you also have to be rough to make it happen. I think that is probably what I enjoy about it.
Kendall Mealey & Hannah Jones on Alexandra Smith