The Art Assignment


Art Made in Adversity

Artist and educator Allison Smith shares her thoughts and library of books about art made in adverse circumstances. Featured are Vladimir Arkhipov's project Home-Made, archiving Russian artifacts made during Perestroika, and Trench Art, or art and objects made during armed conflict, highlighting works from Trench Art: An Illustrated History by Jane A Kimball.

AIRED: May 28, 2020 | 0:06:14

Hi everyone! My name is Alison Smith and I am an artist, an educator and Dean of

Fine Arts at California College of the Arts, and I am here at my home and studio

in San Francisco sheltering in place, like so many other people around the

world, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic . When I was an undergraduate art

student it was at the height of the AIDS pandemic and I'll never forget the day

that my teacher, Kent Issa, showed up to our painting and drawing class just

after his partner Billie had passed away from complications from HIV/AIDS earlier

that day, wanting to speak with us about death, the afterlife, and the power of art.

Teachers like Ken taught me that artists are visionaries, and healers, and

activists, and that artists have an incredible role to play especially in

times of great adversity. Teachers like Ken inspired me to become an educator

myself, and I'll never forget in the days just after the September 11th 2001

terrorist attacks in New York how I--as a young adjunct professor--showed up for my

students wanting to speak with them about their own collective and

individual responses to events at such a momentous scale. So I wanted to share

with you some things from my personal library that have really inspired me

over the years in my practice and in my teaching, so that we might begin to think

about what it means to be making art in times of COVID-19 and social distancing.

A contemporary project that inspires me to think about what it means to be

living in times with restricted access to goods and services is the project

Home-Made documented in these two books by the artist Vladimir Arkhipov. In this

project, objects made by ordinary Russians inspired by a lack of immediate

access to manufactured goods during the collapse of the Soviet Union are

collected and featured with stories by the makers about how the

objects came about, their functions, and the materials used to create them. The

archive includes hundreds of objects created with often idiosyncratic

functional qualities, made for both inside and outside the home.

For example, this object by Andrei Drozdov includes the following

description: "I was at the dacha in the village.

There aren't any shops there. The nearest shop is in the next village. There was

nothing there except what people brought with them, mostly food, and I think that

was rationed too. Remember, there was nothing at all then -- everything had just

suddenly disappeared. It was called perestroika. Anyway, there wasn't any

point in making an extra trip to the shop, so when we needed a ballpoint pen, I

went and made one. I had the inside of a pen, but the cover, the pen itself, was

broken. I must have broken it in my bag by accident when we were driving to the

village. I found a twig, I think it was lime, and dug the pith out of it--it's

soft in lime twigs. I lacquered it with nail polish that I got from Marinka

and added this decorative stripe. Arkhipov's project is filled with objects that

are: practical (like this thread spooler), innovative (like these aerial antennas),

conceptual (like this street cleaners shovel made using a street cleaning sign),

and delightful (like these everyday things made into playthings or

playthings made into everyday useful things: a bubble wand, a basket, a toy

locomotive, and a caterpillar). I have lots of books in my library that inspire me

to think about what it means to be making art in wartime. Although written

about by very few people, one of my favorite subjects is a subject of

"Trench Art". Trench Art is a term derived from the trench warfare of World War 1

but it's really a term that can be used for any object made in the context of

armed conflict, or its consequences. Three primary forms of trench art include:

1) Objects that are made by soldiers on the battlefield itself or at a slight

remove in the down times-- using whatever is at hand including:

expended bombshells, shrapnel, and other detritus, as well as personalizing their

military-issued gear. 2) Objects that are made by soldiers who are recovering from

wounds and military hospitals--these are works that are made from bed,

things like needlepoint and pincushions, and other sentimental love tokens.

3) Objects that are made by soldiers who are incarcerated in prisoner of war

camps--using things like soup bones to make beautifully carved vases, or beads

to make beaded snakes for trade on an alternate market. I hope that some of the

ideas that I've shared today are inspiring to you in thinking about the

ways that individual people have responded with creativity and ingenuity

to really extreme circumstances. I hope that in the weeks and months ahead,

as you navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and your own forms of self care, that you

continue to make art and to think of it as an ally in your process of

understanding, of recording, of processing, and healing, through these incredibly

uncertain times. I appreciate the opportunity to share these ideas with

you, I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and well, and thanks for



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