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Sitting Down With Chris Smith

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Chris Smith in the studio. March 21, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

I first met Chris Smith in 2009 when I was the new intern and Chris the new assistant director at the Linda Warren Gallery. I’ve always been interested in his story of how he became a professional artist as well as the passionate way in which he speaks about his work. Last week, I visited Chris’s studio to learn more about his artistic career and the inspiration behind his paintings.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): You pursued a career as an artist a little later in life than most people. Can you explain how that came to be?

Chris Smith (CS): I never thought it was a realistic career to pursue, and I still don’t know if it’s a realistic career to pursue. Growing up, I was in a blue-collar family. I was in a gifted art program when I was young. I was always painting – well, always drawing. But I started out my undergrad as a pre-dental bio major. I didn’t know what to study! I would’ve studied art, but I thought, “I’m the first kid to go to college. I can’t study art.”

And it killed me. Finally organic chemistry killed me and I was going to leave. I was going to drop out, but my mom talked me into taking other classes. So, I took the technology business information system classes and I studied half as much, got a lot better grades. Just did that. And got the job and moved to Lincoln Park and was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. After six years or so I just – I always wanted to go back and study art. So, I build up the courage and applied to the Art Institute. I took a summer class at the Art Institute with Loretta Bourque, who’s showing right now [at the Linda Warren Gallery] and I loved it. I just wanted to see if I still loved it and still enjoyed it. And I did.

And even when I was working corporate, I still painted and drew and did figure drawing classes. So after that summer I applied and got in, did another undergraduate degree and did a BFA.

So, that’s how I went back to school. Then when I left, I had to pay off bills to the Art Institute, so I took another corporate job, and it was just another reminder of what I really wanted to do. So, it was kind of like a labor of love. It wasn’t easy; the transition of making money to not making money was huge. But there’s a lot of gratification in creating something and communicating visually.

ZJ: Did you meet other people at the Art Institute who were in a similar situation? People who had gotten into things later?

CS: I remember there was this one woman, Deborah. She was my age and I think she had been doing social work. She had a psychology degree. She worked in prisons or something. Someone hit her in the head with a brick. She was off on medical leave and during that she was creating art. So, that’s a little bit more dramatic of a story.

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Chris Smith, Untitled, 2010. Oil. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

But there were some other people with different backgrounds who went back to school to do that. It was so interesting to go to the liberal arts school and study with 18-year-olds. It was tough, but a lot of them were so mature and so talented that they really hustled. And I had intelligent conversations with them. But the funny thing was when you’d have your typical 18-year-old who’s at a liberal arts school in Chicago and they’re just getting stoned and drunk. So they’re crying outside of class cause they’re failing. What do you expect? You missed the last four classes!

Looking back, I don’t regret the path I took. You never know what would’ve happened. What if I gave up early? Because so many people leave there and just don’t continue making art. So, I’m happy with the path I took.

ZJ: How did you come into your current style?

CS: I’d say the last year at the Art Insitute – I try to trace it back, but – We were playing with source material and just creating work out of different source material. And I remember at the time I was taking the Metra to Aurora and then working all day and going to the Art Institute. So, I remember at the Metra station this older gentleman fell. I didn’t see him fall down, but he was at the bottom of the escalator. He must have had a heart attack. I immediately ran to him and had someone call security and see if there was a medical staff there. I just kept thinking about what happened to him, where his family was.if he was ok. So I started drawing the scene and the stairs. I was abstracting it using these little organic forms and eventually I kind of forgot about that story because I got so involved with these organic forms. [I was interested in] how I could manipulate these forms and how they were totally abstracted, but to me they were still a person. All the pieces kind of started with that story and evolved, turning into these little single-cellular forms. These amoebas. The simplest life form I could find. And even how simple they are, I try to confine them in geometric shapes: squares or rectangles or sharp edges. I really started playing with that relationship between the organic and the geometric.

And then, it just felt really good. It felt like I was communicating my own story. Like I’m the little amoeba and some of the abstract forms that I’ve created are good things that happened in my life and some are bad things that happened in my life. I think that’s kind of the emotional content of it. And I’d say the other fifty percent is just painting: the history of painting, the surface, the gesture, the hard edge, and the curve.

I think that experience was the spark.

ZJ: Do you feel Chicago informs your practice?

CS: Very much. I don’t think it’s impacting me directly, but the artists in the city and the galleries in the city, and just trying to make it, living in the city. Commuting, paying rent… I don’t think anyone can create art without being influenced by their surroundings. Even if it’s political art or total abstraction, you’ve got to be influenced one way or another by your surroundings.  So, I think it’s more of an indirect thing, but I think I’d be crazy to say that Chicago doesn’t impact my work.

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A large canvas waits for its first dose of paint. Chris gets the most satisfaction when he can put his whole body into the brushstrokes. March 21, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

ZJ: From your perspective as both an artist and the assistant director of a gallery, where do you think the opportunities are in Chicago for emerging artists?

CS: I think during the last couple of years there’s been such a buzz about the apartment run spaces. I think you have the artists who are graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, UIC, Columbia, Northwestern, and The University of Chicago. I think there’s so many thirsty younger artists leaving school, trying to make things happen, and creating these apartment run spaces. I think that’s one of the biggest opportunities out there. And it creates an energy. A “We can do it, one way or another” type of energy. I think the galleries are a little bit harder to get into and I think that’s just part of; it’s tough times. Galleries are closing and galleries that still exist have a roster of artists that make it tough to pick up more artists. I think one of the biggest opportunities then is the apartment galleries and the experimental things like Art Loop Open that we were  talking about.

ZJ: What’s coming up for you? What’s next?

I have a solo show at Walnut Ink Gallery, which is in Michigan City, Indiana, and it starts June third. The opening reception is June eleventh. That’s really what I’m hustling toward. It’s exciting. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time. But the space is gorgeous and the two people, Chris and Julia, who run it are just amazing.

And then Friday I’m interviewing for the MFA program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. That would be a huge step.

For more information on Chris and his work, his website can be found here.

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