Kiki Smith draws from the representational school in her artwork as seen here in her sculpture Born.


Kiki Smith draws from the representational school in her artwork as seen here in her sculpture Born.

April 18, 2016

Kiki Smith grew up in a Catholic home dominated by art because her father Tony Smith was an acclaimed American minimalist sculptor who worked in large geometric sculptures.

In a public conversation March 31 at the National Art Gallery, Smith said she and her sisters would help her father make the geometric scale models or "maquettes" of his work out of cardboard.

"All he did was art," she said. They had no television and little exposure to other information outside of the art world. Her mother was an opera singer and actress.

"We had no furniture," she said. "If you needed a chair, you had to move it from one room to the next."

Her father's friends were modern and abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

Smith, however, did not step seamlessly into a career as an artist. Growing up in New Jersey, she took a course in industrial baking, but the work demanded getting up early and felt too much like "a real job."


When one of her sisters decided to become an emergency medical technician, Smith took the course as well. She found the work fascinating in "learning about other people's experience of being in their bodies."

Unlike her father and his friends, Smith was drawn to more representational art and works not only in sculpture, but in stained glass, textiles, prints and drawings. She described moving from human figures, to focusing on the animal world and then to the relationship of animals and humans.

A lot of her work began in dreams, she said. Then, she would try as best she could to reproduce it with "as close a proximity as I could."

The gallery's present exhibit features her father Tony Smith's Black Box which is a black, rectangular sculpture in the same room as Kiki Smith's Born which shows a doe giving birth to an even larger figure of a woman.

The gallery bills the two artists as representatives of the zeitgeist of their generations, marking the shift away from representational forms in her father's case and then back to them in Smith's.

The process that led up to the creation of Born began with an interest in stories of children raised by wolves.

After doing a print of Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother emerging from the belly of the wolf, she asked herself, "What does it mean if you are born out of a wolf?"

She created work based on this question. Then, this theme progressed to "What does it mean if you are born out of a deer?"

Smith stressed it is important for artists to create their work rather than "wait for the universe to give you permission."


"We have much more power as artists to initiate" than we realize, she said.

For Smith, doing art is about more than mastering how to represent the body or animals properly. "A lot of it is getting out of your own way," she said. If you are blocked by not being able to represent something properly, "just lower your standards."

Making art is a way to "keep kicking out a space so people can stand in the wholeness of their lives, to help them to stand in the wholeness of their life."