Monday, May 13, 2013

Barbara Lee Smith Shares Her "Journey"

Barbara Lee Smith at CQA meeting
Barbara Lee Smith’s love affair with land, sea and sky is reflected masterfully in her sweeping, impressionistic landscapes that first envelop, then easily draw the viewer into the scene for greater contemplation. The Gig Harbor, WA artist shared both her passion for place and her creative techniques with CQA members at the group’s May 11 meeting.
CQA members view image of "Wind" (48" x 25")

In her talk, titled “Sources: A Journey of Life and Art,” Smith described how she plans for the maximum creative accomplishment to be achieved even before embarking on one of her journeys, whether it’s to be a first trip to Umbria, or two weeks at an artists’ colony near Chicago…or even a walk from her house to her adjacent studio. “It’s the internal expectations that build up in you as you plan that matter,” she says.

Arriving at a destination, Smith takes lots of photographs to help her remember the essence of the place once she’s back home in her studio. She urges all travelers, “At the very least look carefully around you—at what’s in front of you, to the left, the right, above and behind you. Allow yourself to get uncomfortably close to the scene…let yourself get purposefully lost in your surroundings.” She advises to “be quiet…observe, listen to sounds, especially the musicality of foreign languages—you don’t need to know what’s being said.” And of course she writes down her thoughts and ideas continually, to capture what it is about a place that speaks to her.
"Old Growth" (18" x 35") as displayed at the meeting

Not all of her work depicts the foreign or the exotic, however. One series is based on her daily observations of the construction of the Second Narrows Bridge in Tacoma, while others celebrate her lifelong affinity for water—rivers, surf, lakes and ponds. She grew up near the Atlantic Ocean in Cape May, NJ, and now relishes being near the “very different” Pacific.
"The River" triptych (92" x 50")
A small seascape, as displayed at the meeting

Back in her studio, Smith will draw on her photos, observations and notes and begin a piece by using the “mind-mapping” technique, then may move on to a rough diagram full of notes. Once she begins creating the piece itself, she works entirely with Lutradur® as her “canvas,” a material she purchases “by the carloads.” She will apply acrylic paints and silk pigments to what can turn out to be many layers of this non-woven, polyester material that is something of a cross between cloth and paper. Often she will print a portion of an appropriate map on a piece of Lutradur® and add it to the work in a collage technique. She uses Wonder-Under® to adhere the layers to each other.
A portion of Smith's "mind map" for a new piece
A portion of Smith's annotated sketch in developing a new piece

Many of Smith’s pieces are quite large—you could say they measure in feet more than in inches—and some can take up an entire wall, inviting the viewer to feel a part of a near-life-size experience. A multi-part piece exhibited at Bellevue Arts Museum’s “High Fiber Diet” in February of this year measured 7 feet high by 15 feet wide. “That one took me two and a half months, full time, to complete,” says Smith.
"Oyster Light," a 5-part piece measuring 15' wide by 7' high, as seen in Smith's studio. The piece was later displayed at the Bellevue Arts Museum's "High Fiber Diet" exhibition

Often the size is determined by what she can reasonably get through her sewing machine: “All those layers make the piece pretty stiff.” A number of her larger works comprise 2, 3 or more separate elements, sometimes of different sizes, hung together as a single piece. An example of this is a multi-part work titled “Salt, Sand, Stone” that resulted from her visit to the Great Salt Lake to view the spiral jetty. This work includes a number of 12-inch squares and even smaller units, combined with a cluster of long, vertical strips.
A small unit from Smith's "Salt, Sand, Stone" piece

Working on a table measuring 4 x 12 feet, she sprays paint, daubs with foam brushes and scrapes with a credit card on large pieces of the Lutradur®--“I love the chaotic aspect!”—then stands back to study the piece. At that point she will cut out portions that she will use, discard others that “aren’t working,” etc., and begin to create her layers. A number of her pieces include a “lacy” rendering for wave-top foam. She achieves this by lightly melting the edges of the Lutradur® with a large heat gun. Once satisfied with the piece as a whole, Smith will use a soldering iron to melt the edges, thus sealing all the layers. And then comes the stitching…
View of Smith's studio

View of Smith's studio

Smith “quilts” her pieces entirely from the back side, with standard sewing thread in the needle (size 100, 110 or even larger) and rayon thread in the bobbin, using a “retrofitted Bernina” sewing machine that lacks feed dogs so she can maneuver the piece easily in all directions. She creates a “drawing” as she stitches in random, curving lines that, rather appropriately, share much of the appearance of the contour lines used on topographic maps.

Mounting her pieces for wall display is in itself a unique process. She adheres small Velcro® patches near corners on the backs of the pieces to line up with matching patches on custom-made frames, similar to stretcher bars, which are made to be slightly smaller than the finished artwork. Thus the piece “floats” slightly off the wall, adding to the somewhat ethereal appearance of the work.

Smith’s work has been exhibited in numerous venues both in the US and internationally, and many of her pieces are in private collections. Locally, Smith will be participating in an exhibit with 25 women artists on Bainbridge Island in November, with more information on this event to be available later on her website:

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