Pierogi: Obviously a lot of your work has to do with the concept of mapping. Why has that been such a theme in your work for so long, how has it kept your interest?
Patricia Smith: Mapping came into being kind of organically when the forms I was working with sort of intuitively erupted. The forms were already there and it was just a matter of treating them as maps, and I think that really happened when one day I added some text to a drawing, a kind of right brain / left brain bouncing back and forth, and I found it really fascinating. It was almost like watching my own mind struggle with these forms in terms of left brain – “what are they, let me define them, let me put them in a context,”—and the right brain that just sort of wanted to turn them out. So that process became mapping. How do they relate to actual maps? It depends. Sometimes I use an actual map because I see some beautiful forms on it and I’m looking at them very abstractly, but what I’m mapping is more an interior rather than exterior.
P: That makes a lot of sense. How do you decide when you want to add a textual element, or the placement in relation to the main form?
PS: For me it’s a very absorbing process. Again, it’s an intuitive progression where the form comes first and then I’m trying to define the form – it’s almost as if the form is producing these compartments or these texts – like I’ll be drawing something and then on a side notepad I’ll be making notes of words that come up, and the form usually ends up being defined as a very integrated place or “building” or some kind of structure.
P: Right, there’s some sort of aerial views and architectural content as well as some more organic, almost animal-looking or sea life type of forms in your work. Do you look to found imagery for any inspiration or for the forms themselves?
PS: I don’t consciously do it but I’ve looked at a million things and it creeps in, so there are influences that come up and sometimes I consciously refer to things. But it’s more a process or experience of making something, it’s very organic. I recently had a show at Frontroom Gallery that just came down, which was installed in two rooms – the drawings in the first room were based on actual incidents relating to geography, and the drawings in the second room were maps of texts and ideas. Again, things always seem to be splitting into a sort of right brain / left brain of mapping. [Laughs] For example, in some works, you can see fragments of a map of Paris. I never took a map with me on the journey but would refer to it when I got back to see where I’d been, noticing how my mind was distorting distances or things like that.
P: I think that’s a big part of why cartography is so engaging, you’re really creating as well as reflecting what’s there, you make stuff through that process of mapping it, decide the scale. When you’re making a work for either of the kind of modes, do you know what it’s going to look like before you start?
PS: No, never. I might think I know where it’s going! [Laughs] But it ends up differently.
P: Do you leave any elements to chance or is it more additive, bit by bit?
PS: Well, the watercolor is always a big chance because I do the watercolor last and there’s always that, “hold my breath, hope I don’t screw it up,” moment. You can’t take it back. But the process of building up the drawings is such a labor-intensive, long process because I make thousands of microdots where I’m building up texture. And I find that’s a useful process for me because it takes time so it kind of gives time for the direction and ideas to emerge at their own pace and I’m not rushing it.
P: Have you experimented a lot with medium, or have you always been drawn to the more methodical kind of drawing?
PS: I make paintings, drawings, and installations using many different sorts of materials. My last show included a twelve -foot wide, nine-foot high painting on neoprene rubber, which was a mental map. I’ve done work with airbrush and stencils, using techniques common to street art. I’ve created a room-size map out of colored sand. I try a lot of things, but somehow this pen and ink process is ongoing throughout. I’ve become kind of obsessed.
P: And what about scale? You mentioned the large painting but have you ever done these sorts of drawings in a larger scale?
PS: Yes, I have one that’s three-feet wide by nine-feet long which took me about six months. I used the same fine-point Rapidograph pen, which is kind of insane. These works [in the Pierogi Flat Files] are a specific smaller series, a new process where I was running these pages back and forth through my inkjet printer distressing them – a kind of a printmaking process. I really wanted to build up the layers.
P: In terms of the mapping, or what / where you’re mapping, have you been attracted to the same themes as when you first began making art?
PS: Well, I started as a painter, but the mapping really started when I began to add text to the pieces. When the text came in – now its been at least 15 years – it set off something new, there was the real consciousness of this other part of my brain that wanted to define and describe and make it more concrete. I find it so much easier to talk about the drawings with the text in them. In the paintings, what can you say? They’re mute… The way it happened, I was working on this huge painting, and I was so exhausted by it, not knowing where it was going or what it was doing, so just to calm myself down I took a piece of paper and pen and started making dots, next thing I knew I was drawing the same form as was in the painting, and then I realized I’d made something. [Laughs]
P: How do you know when your works are finished? Is it just an instinctive sense or do you look for some certain thing to fit together in the end?
PS: Well, it’s really clear when it’s done. I never know when that is going to be, but it’s really clear when it happens. 99% of the time I do the watercolor last, so when I see that the drawing is ready, it’s very quick, and then that will be it.
P: How much do you think your surroundings, either place of origin or travels, influence the content of your work?
PS: Yeah, I think a lot about my role as an artist, my personal journey of being an artist, and for me it’s to develop a kind of sensibility and to live it, even more than the actual things that I make. For my direction, I work on developing a heightened sensitivity to place and to my body in relation to architecture or landscape, pushing the psychic envelope, what I’m feeling emotionally, psychically, physically – an attempt to experience the totality of where I am at the moment. While I was at a residency in Paris over some months, I was overwhelmed by where I was. The city itself is this beautiful labyrinth. I felt my role there was just to move through it and experience fully whatever came up. That’s what I try to do wherever I am, and traveling is always an easier way to do it, I think, because when you’re somewhere unfamiliar, your senses perk up, or maybe you’re lost, and then you really are doing mapping. You have to figure out if you’ll find your way back to the hotel, and you become aware of where you’re going. Even in how you’re feeling – you could go from feeling happy to overwhelmed to free – traveling brings out those extremes.
P: Is there any kind of autobiographical element in the works?
PS: They’re completely personal. With my “Incident,” series, if you want to study the texts in a particular drawing, you can deduce that something happened. I would say that I expose myself completely in a very complicated and veiled way, so you’ll probably never figure out exactly what is there. But what I’m trying to convey is not the actual incident but an emotional connection that the viewer makes; it’s almost like leaving clues, I try to make the text function in a poetic way so that it’s evocative rather than descriptive.
P: I wanted to ask, too, about your titles – how do you decide on them, and how do they relate to the works?
PS: The titles that came about when I first started doing these things when I was thinking, you know, “What did I just make?” I had the feeling that a fabricated personality was emerging, the personality, say, of some kind of official in an institution, who’s trying to be by the book. Some of the drawings have stamps on them, for example.
P: Sort of administrative.
PS: Yes, all blinders on, do-it-by-the-rules, but at the same time totally insane. [Laughs] I had fun with that and I felt like it made the drawings funny. I’d label them as institutions – completely absurd, outlandish institutions.
P: What are you working on currently?
PS: I’m leaving soon for a residency at Kaus Australis in Rotterdam, where I’m going to work on flood maps. The Netherlands is well-known for managing its water issues. I’m interested in exploring the thoughts and feelings connected to water and flooding, for example the constant subliminal fear that exists when you live below sea level and the perpetual need to control it. Flooding in general has a lot of connotations.
P: Right, it would destabilize the map, then. If the forms are encroached upon
PS: For the subconscious, that kind of destabilization is so overwhelming. And we’re going to see more and more of it. You might say that the weather is causing an irrational state to emerge, or maybe we’re influencing the weather because we’re becoming so emotional. And then there’s the possibility of an awful desire, deep within, to witness the biggest flood ever. All these crazy feelings – we’re so connected to our environment like that.
Pierogi’s flat files contain several works by Patricia Smith, a selection of which are viewable here.