An Interview with Meagan Smith
Ceramic and Fiber artist Meagan Smith is the winner of the 2020 CAN Journal Prize for a Northeast Ohio artist in the Waterloo Arts Juried Show. Her work in porcelain, Isolating, is on view in the Brick Ceramics gallery. The entire show fills the galleries at Waterloo Arts, Praxis Fiber Workshop, and Brick. Smith earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing from The University of Akron in 2015. She is currently working toward an MFA at Kent State University in Textiles, with a focus on digital weaving. CAN conducted this interview with her by email. The Waterloo Arts Juried Show is open Noon to 4 pm Wednesdays and Sundays, October 9 through November 14. Call the gallery at 216.692.9500 to view the show. Advance appointments are not necessary.
Michael Gill: I am intrigued by the interplay of functionality and fine art in this work. It looks like a set of saucers with a serving of some little treat. Do you see this as being about food, or table manners, or a comment on ceramics as a functional medium, or something completely different?
Meagan Smith: It’s funny you say that, these do remind me of banchan, which is a collection of side dishes in Korean cuisine. I think around the time I was making this series earlier this year; I was eating a lot of Korean food. So the idea definitely subconsciously derived from an intimate dinner table experience. Yes, you could think about this piece domestically or culturally. Or perhaps even scientifically, as they may appear like natural collected specimens or fossils.
This is definitely a commentary on the schism and intersection of functionality/craft and fine art. That’s something I’m always trying to subvert. Craft is supplementary and the sculpture is almost seen as first. I think we can find an argument in this work concerning perceptions of that balance. There seems to be a very clear exclusion or less of an integration with the craft/functionality. Fine art is this weird breeding organism, independent, and dominant to craft. How can I level out both?
MG: The surfaces of both the saucers themselves and the pieces on them are beautiful. Can you tell me how they are both done? And the pieces themselves: How are they made? Are the “food” pieces extruded?
MS: Thank you, I love exploring the beauty in patterns and surfaces that feel tactile and seductive. Porcelain inherently has that soft power, it remembers touch so vividly, and holds the memory of your hand. I work both aggressively and gently by extruding porcelain through materials or tools that mimic a flexible shape or pattern like an orange-bag, curvy wire tool, or plastic nets. For the bowls I use a slump plaster mold and carefully spray paint them with a mix of under-glazes from a low angle to capture a shadow and achieve a smooth surface. They are fired to cone 9.
MG: Do you often make collections of pieces, or variations on a theme?
MS: Definitely. When I’m working in ceramics I tend to make smaller, more intimate pieces that form into collections. It seems very natural when I make to categorize, separate, preserve tiny bits and pieces, and puzzle them back together. Even the pieces that suffer an explosive accident in the kiln and diminish into fragments, or weird glazes that went totally wrong but oddly right at the same time, I can’t seem to toss them away. I collage them into new forms or they inspire me and I try to mimic those forms through extruding.
Sometimes I feel very much like these specimens do in their cold and hollow dishes… I see the beauty in their patterns or flaws and that resonates, reflecting a type of humanity we can relate to. That seems to be the running theme in my ceramic collections.
MG: I see that you work in both ceramics and in fiber. What draws you to both of those? Do you see connections?
MS: The processes and the material draw me to both. I enjoy following techniques to achieve a final outcome. Ceramics and digital weaving allow that, they show you what their limitations are. But you can push them in the direction that bends the rules, insert intuition or something that doesn’t quite follow. My body also engages in a more direct way in these mediums. I love working with tools, technology like digital looms or kilns, wet flimsy materials, and following systems of grids or structures. For me, that requires more physical and mental exercise. I’m always searching for stimulation as a millennial after looking at screens all day. With the interest in weaving and ceramics, I’m able to relocate that sense of tactility, labor, meditation, lucidity, and energy as a response to the digital and accelerated world we’re living in.
MG: Do you relate one to the other, or are they completely different pursuits?
MS: They relate in surface, in terms of pattern and texture. This ‘undulating twill’ in weaving is an organic wave and layering pattern that continues to re-appear as a theme in my ceramic work. It relates to the way an ocean moves, a more tactile and almost subliminal natural movement. I use that patterned motion to activate the surface so ceramic objects or weavings seem animated. They’re living, moving and breathing with this pattern. They want to exist and harmonize, cause tension, or relate to its surroundings when everything seems so slightly artificial and simulated.
MG: Your main study, though, is fiber, which is what you are studying at Kent State University?
MS: Yes, I’m studying digital weaving right now. Surface and systems are my deep-rooted strong interests. I have my thesis coming up next year in the spring! I want to make some larger scaled digital weavings and smaller collections that mimic those concepts I’ve talked about in previous questions. There are very few textiles programs in the country, let alone MFA textiles, especially focusing solely on weaving. We have a decades-long history of digital loom mentorship. I came here because I wanted the grad experience, and meet other faculty/staff/students in the program, and a mentorship under Janice Lessman-Moss. Digital jacquard weaving is such a niche; it really pushes craft and fine art into a new and fascinating contemporary direction.
MG: You recently spent some time in Japan in a residency. Will you talk a little bit about that experience?
MS: I reflect back on my one month in Japan very fondly, aside from the giant centipedes. I traveled to a rural part of southern Japan in Itoshima, Fukuoka at the artist residency, Studio Kura. That whole cultural experience definitely influenced my work: connecting with other international artists, shopping at local grocery stores, visiting downtown Fukuoka, dressing up in kimonos for the fireworks festival, or meditating at shrines in the environment. One of my dearest memories was at Nanzoin temple, with the largest bronze statue of Buddha. I had a really enlightening experience there, it’s so hard to describe what I felt and saw because it was so internal and spiritual. A heavy feeling casts over you when you’re walking alone in outdoor sacred temples in Japan. This sensation of being watched by spirits or your conscious sweeps over you and you’re incredibly aware of every move that you make.
MG: What did you make while you were there?
MS: I used textures and found material from the environment to create sculptures and small collections. I combined different materials to form new surfaces that I thought mimicked what I was seeing and feeling in the environment, which was often meditative and simple. As a part of Japanese culture, they place small belongings and trinkets on shrines for good luck, wishes, or offerings. I elevated the beach waste when I came across to those ideas of contemplation, mindfulness, and spirituality. So I placed objects like crab shells, plastic bottle caps, or rope very intentionally as a collection. This also reminds me of this piece we’re talking about.
MG: And in the meantime, there’s been COVID. How have you been surviving the pandemic?
MS: Yes, I do teach an intro to weaving class at Kent, so it’s nice to connect with my students face-to-face weekly. They make me feel more connected, happy and inspire me. I do visit my partner regularly on the weekends, which keeps my sanity at bay. I felt paralyzed in my art practice when COVID hit in the beginning, losing my grandmother, and my summer course that dropped. It was difficult making work because of all that happening. Now I’m slowly gaining momentum again with upcoming shows that were scheduled in the spring and being back in school. I also love to swim, spend time outside on walks, meditate, and eat good food… that’s incredibly important for my survival.
MG: And I see that in the Spring you are planning to do some more traveling and learn about Jacquard weaving. Can you talk about your plans?
MS: Yes, I recently applied to a 9-month Creative Fulbright grant to travel across Norway, visiting cities that have coastlines, fjords, rivers, and hot springs to serve as an inspirational element for my textiles work. I will immerse myself in their culture by doing outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, and climbing. They also have a rich history of weaving and design sophistication.
They invented the digital loom, so my research proposal suggests that there is a strong relationship present between craft, nature, and technology in the Norwegian lifestyle. I find out next year in the spring if my traveling is funded for Fall 2021 to Spring 2022. If not, I will travel for two months over the summer. And if COVID is still preventing U.S. citizens from traveling, I hope it is postponed to the following year and I continue to teach in the summer and fall. So much of these plans are still up in the air, but I’m trying to consider all possible outcomes to nourish my practice and teaching profession.