Fine Art

Grace Visits: Artist Mimi Smith

Our frequent arts contributor and artist herself Grace Graupe-Pillard is making studio calls. This week she shares with us her visit to the studio of the artist Mimi Smith, whose work over the past fifty years has functioned as an archive of our struggle to survive and maintain our humanity.


Mimi Smith: ‘A Knight in Shining Armor Theory of Life and Art’

Mimi Smith has spent a lifetime making art that integrates her personal life with the tumult and beauty of the surrounding world. Over the past fifty years, Smith has been making artwork as an archive of our struggle to survive and maintain our humanity, addressing the environment, nuclear war, AIDS, terrorism and feminism (before the word was commonly used) in compelling mixed media works, which she considers sculptures. For materials,  she uses clothes, clocks, threads, among other everyday objects, which she mutates into powerful indictments of callous injustices that many people routinely face.

As a young artist in the mid-1960s, Smith said, “Girls/women knew how to look at clothes intrinsically as a visual object, as I had been taught to look at a work of art. I felt that if I made sculpture in the form of clothing, I could say something about the common experiences I shared with other girls/women.”

MimiSmith_Girdle_1966Mimi Smith, Girdle, 58”x18”x8”, rubber bath mats, elastic, ribbons, garters, hanger, 1966. Courtesy of the artist.

The 1966 diaphanous draped dressing gown/negligee Steel Wool Peignoir invites sexual seduction, but is lined with prickly steel wool, a warning to “keep your distance” and  referencing a woman as housemaid and caretaker. Girdle, made out of rubber bath mats, is both whimsical and suffocating — a duality that Smith utilizes in most of her work where humor is always present, but laced with the biting realities of the acerbity of existence. The early clothes/sculptures, and the Knotted Thread series, where she spent hours in a hypnotic state of immersion, recreating elements in her house stairs, dresser drawers, bed, television, chair, kitchen stove, windows, doors, wall phone and even a fireplace all done with tape measures and a process of knotting thread, reminds me of modern day “genre paintings” where everyday life magically re-emerges into three-dimensional objects of grandeur.

Smith sees the world as a dangerous place and told me that a lot of her art focuses on “ . . . feeling protected and being protective . . . a female ‘Knight in Shining Armor’ theory of life and art.” Safeguarding women and children is a recurring theme. Having spent summers in upstate New York, she noticed that neighbors placed their flowers in protective surroundings to keep animals from destroying them. This vision became the conceptual impetus behind FLOWER, 2010, — a little girl’s pink camouflage dress hanging inside a wire cylindrical container, both a secure structure and a cage suppressing freedom of movement and exploration.

MimiSmith_CoveringChaps92Mimi Smith, Coverings for an Environmental Catastrophe: Chaps, 38”x26”x3”, steel wool, aluminum screening, hooks, 1992. Courtesy of the artist.

A 1990s series titled Coverings for an Environmental Catastrophe: Chaps and Chest Plate uses steel wool and aluminum screening to shield the body from harm. These pieces hang on the wall like disembodied figures, vigilant custodians of salvation. Smith has recently begun to re-visit the armor concept, but  the sculptures will now appear stronger and more lustrous with her addition of  household silverware to the steel wool.

Smith is one of the earliest women to make art about pregnancy and motherhood, embroidering  deeply private thoughts onto diverse materials. Having experienced multiple pregnancies, some resulting in miscarriages, she asserted, “. . .  I wanted to knit myself a baby . . . a whole lot easier than doing it the usual way . . . ” During her second pregnancy, while sitting in the park with her infant son, she observed women knitting. Feeling a shared connection with them, Smith began the first of many “knit babies,” usually 21 inches long, the length of her son at birth. While stitching her knit baby, Smith had a miscarriage, and decided to add a white undershirt to the sculpture, subtly embroidered with the shockingly poignant words “the baby is dead” — a work that is a eulogy to the potency and exquisite fragility of child-bearing.

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  • Grace Graupe Pillard October 5, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    Tim – thanks so much for your thoughts. Mimi and I both appreciated it.

  • Tim Aanensen October 5, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    The hoodie piece is haunting and poignant. Well done. I love the intimate connection between your life and your work. So brave, and enveloping. All delivered with a beautiful touch, while potently conveying serious themes. Great article Grace. Wonderful work Mimi.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard October 2, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Phyllis – Thank you so much. I respect your writing and editing so I am particularly pleased you enjoyed the piece.

  • Phyllis Rosser October 2, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Wonderfully observed and written. You made her work powerful and poignant at the same time. I don’t know if younger women understand what feminist art is but Mimi’s work is a shining example.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 28, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    Miriam – well stated and thank you so much.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 28, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    Cassandra – thank you so much.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 28, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Mimi – it was a pleasure to write about your work. I have known your art for years and finally got the opportunity to give you a piece of “my mind.” 😀

  • Mimi Smith September 28, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks so much Grace! And thanks for the studio visit.

  • miriam brumer September 28, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Effectively explained – the way the ideas of Mimi Smith and their expression result in an often unusual, but very apt, use of her materials to comment about various aspects of living and how they affect her. The use of steel wool in “Coverings for an Environmental Catastrophe” is a striking image – ominous and aesthetically fascinating at the same time. The “Knit Babies” are poignant – and have a definite resonance today, when despite science’s increased ability to assist fertility, many women still have enormous difficulty getting pregnant.

    A very succinct, vividly described piece which makes Smith’s work extremely accessible to the reader. It makes us want to see and touch the work.

  • Cassandra Langer September 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Excellent piece. Nice to see such an intelligent explication of an artist whose work I have followed with interest for years.

  • Mimi Smith September 28, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you so much Grace! And it was great to have your studio visit.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Thank you Ann for bringing up the “feminine” skills in the making of work.

  • Ann Dermansky September 28, 2016 at 10:53 am

    Thanks to Grace Graupe-Pillard for this compelling article. Mimi Smith’s work exemplifies the slogan “The personal is political.” What’s especially moving is the use of “feminine” skills–knitting, sewing– in the making of hard-hitting, feminist art. Brava, Mimi Smith! Brava, Grace!