Occupying a storefront in the Uptown section of downtown Oakland is a place called SMITHS. Sunlight seeps through the tall windows onto antique-looking jugs, teapots, baskets, and quilts, that are stacked on shelves along one wall, as if on display in a retail shop. It’s the studio of Allison Smith, “but instead of spelling it ‘apostrophe s’ for proprietary indication, I just added the s as plural,” Smith says. “The idea was to invite different kinds of ‘smiths,’ different kinds of makers, into the space to demonstrate what they do and to pair that with lectures and conversations about current events. So we’ve had indigo dying, beekeeping, press printing, beer brewing, all sorts of workshops for people to learn skills and the social histories around those things.”
That sort of promiscuous learning forms the foundation of the 43-year-old artist’s own practice. She is a constant apprentice, approaching leatherworkers, tinsmiths, wood carvers, spinners, ceramicists, and other artisans and getting them to teach her their crafts. What she produces with those skills usually has something to do with the “ways in which patriotism appears in everyday objects or decorative arts—connections between craft and war, and ideas around performing nationalism,” she says.
More often than not, an Allison Smith show will include some element of performance or participation. A couple years ago, Smith recalls, “I started thinking a lot about Colonial esthetics—the Revolutionary War period.” So she embedded with Cooperman Fife and Drums in Vermont, which not only hand-fabricates many of the musical instruments used in Revolutionary War reenactments today, but also exports drums for traditional festivals in the Middle East. Smith liked that strange overlap, seeing it as a bridge between the American Revolution, the Ottoman Empire, the Iraq War, and the Arab Spring.
The immersion at Cooperman led to Smith’s multifaceted exhibition “Rudiments of Fife & Drum” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she was artist-in-residence in 2013. The Aldrich gave her free range over a section of the museum that once served as a bank, post office, and general store called the Old Hundred. Inside, specially made drums dangled from the ceiling and rested on the floor, and fifes sat on furniture painted in the early 19th-century, proto-psychedelic style known as American Fancy, Smith’s favorite decorative-arts movement.
Outside, the artist put up a wooden tavern sign depicting a simplified rope-tension drum and decorated the porch with white bunting. And on Memorial Day, for the show’s opening, an ensemble called the Celestial Ancients Fife & Drum Corps donned red-and-white gingham uniforms designed by Smith and marched down Main Street, playing the instruments exhibited inside the Old Hundred. “The band was both honoring American history and participating in it,” says Richard Klein, the Aldrich’s exhibitions director, “creating an experience that was at once radical and conservative.”
Smith’s latest project, a series of mixed-media photographic works currently on view in “Set Dressing” at the Arts Club of Chicago, looks at how the past becomes fetishized through the presentation of antiques (and faux antiques) in historic houses, living-history museums, reenactment sites, and auction catalogues. She brings a sly sexual energy to these compositions by, say, photographing a gateleg table lying suggestively on its back or by printing the photos on silk or linen stretched over furniture.
“The very question of how we collect, preserve, display, and desire things from a past that can no longer be experienced fully is at the heart of this investigation,” says Janine Mileaf, executive director of the Arts Club. “A photograph of colored wools drying on a rack has been printed as a mirrored image, for example. The resulting picture ends up with a skein of pink threads at its center that suggests a vulva when doubled. That visual motif makes plain an undercurrent of eroticism and same-sex desire that is quite subtle, but present throughout the exhibition.”
Smith was born and raised in Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where her father has long been employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. “He makes spy gadgets and does a lot of Internet stuff he can’t tell me about,” she says. As a child, she would travel with her accountant mother, a folk-art buff, to juried craft fairs along the East Coast. Her father’s job brought the family to Iran in the late 1970s. There, they lived on a small American base with a large geodesic dome, which Smith later learned housed a satellite dish and was her father’s workplace until the family was evacuated in advance of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
Smith’s artwork nods to both her parents, who are now divorced. Its references to traditional crafts stem from her mother’s passion for American decorative arts, and the themes of patriotism and war rise out of her father’s CIA career, which always left her with a feeling of “low-level fear and anxiety.”
This parental connection was most overtly expressed in a pair of sculptures the artist displayed in her 2010 show “Fancy Work” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. On one side of a long room, she hung a monumental American Fancy–style patterned quilt (representing her mother), and on the other side she installed an enormous mirrored sconce in the shape of a satellite dish (symbolizing her father), which fractured the light of an outsize electric candle, and shone it onto the quilt.
At times, Smith has dug even more deeply into her family history. Her distant ancestors owned cotton plantations near Charleston, South Carolina. During the Civil War, Union troops captured the property and drew pictures of boats on the walls, likely using their bayonets and coal from the kitchen, Smith says. Remarkably, the graffiti remains intact, and, while still a graduate student at the Yale School of Art in 1998, Smith re-created the boat images as wallpaper for her piece Edisto. She then photographed a Civil War reenactor named Bill Max standing in front of her stenciled ships and placed that photo on the wall.
From 1990 to 2008, Smith lived off and on in New York City, before moving to the Bay Area to chair the sculpture department at the California College of the Arts. Teaching now keeps her busy for much of the year, but she uses the summers to work on larger projects, usually with the help of fellowships and residencies. She is represented by Haines Gallery in San Francisco, where her installations sell for up to $75,000.
Perhaps the piece that best encapsulates the artist’s serial apprenticeships is Notion Nanny (2005–8). “It was inspired by this genre of 19th-century dolls that depict a peddler woman wearing a red coat and holding a basket of miniature wares,” she explains. The sculpture is a life-size effigy made from ceramic casts of Smith’s own face, arms, and legs. The basket, bonnet, and coat were created in collaboration with different craftsmen and -women, as were all the objects that go inside the basket.
The work is a tribute to William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement and its Socialist underpinnings—what Smith calls “the politics of craft.” As Notion Nanny traveled to various institutions, from Studio Voltaire in London to the Berkeley Art Museum in California, it accumulated more and more wares until the basket overflowed.
“I worked with a blacksmith, a lace maker and linen weaver, a horn carver. I did wood carving, spinning, dying, rag-rug making, felting, different types of ceramics, several kinds of needlework,” Smith says. “With each maker, I negotiated an exchange. With the basket weaver, I stacked wood for him in the forest for a day in exchange for him teaching me how to make the peddler’s oak basket. And we actually went and cut down the tree that we used to make the basket.”
Trent Morse is working on a book about ballpoint-pen art for Laurence King Publishing.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “Material Girl.”