Paintings, 3-D invite viewers' own interpretations

January 15, 2012

By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor

Artist Dianne Smith creates something out of nothing.

Or not exactly nothing — rather, the everyday leftover items around us that most people would just throw away.

Her colorful, textured and unique totems, pillars and wallhangings now on display at Piedmont Arts are made from twines, fibers, strings, ropes, paper cloth and other discarded things most people wouldn’t give a second glance to. In her hands, they turn into pieces that catch the eye, prompt thought and provoke a unique interpretation from each viewer.

"Dianne Smith: Surface and Soul,” which also includes abstract expressionist paintings, is on exhibit now through Feb. 25 at Piedmont Arts. Also at the galleries is “Within Shadows Cast,” a special installation piece created on site, and a homage to the Civil Rights Movement with materials from the Rev. Thurman Echols’ collections.

From canvas to 3-D

Smith, 46, is an abstract painter from New York City who said she operates “by energy and what I’m feeling.”

Though she is most famous for her abstract paintings, “I fell into abstraction purely by accident,” she said.

Early in her career she painted scenes of African masks. Then she received feedback from painter and poet Danny Simmons, who became a mentor for her. He told her she could do better than that.

His comments made her realize “I was doing work based on what I looked like, based on what I expected my audience to be,” she said.

His advice to her was to “‘figure out who you are as an artist and find your voice and paint from within.’” She felt a pull to paint abstracts, but she “didn’t feel a connection” to the form and did not know of other artists like herself who worked by that style, she said.

It was at an exhibit for black abstractionist Norman Lewis that opened her eyes. “I was blown away by his work,” she said. “It resonated with me.”

Inspired, Smith tried her hand at abstract painted and showed the results to Simmons. “He said, ‘This is by far the best work you’ve ever done,’” she recalled.

Smith’s career and reputation as an abstract expressionist grew, and her paintings have been exhibited in several states.

By 2007, however, Smith was “beginning to feel a bit stifled by my work,” she said. “I didn’t know what that meant. It was kind of scary for me.” She felt like “something else needs to happen,” but she did not know what direction to take.

Meanwhile, she went into a residency at the School of Visual Arts. There, contemporary artist Gregory Coates confirmed, “‘clearly, you are a master painter. You’ve got this. Let’s change your wrist motion and see what you can do,’” she said.

He told her to paint with any tool other than a paintbrush, and use any surface other than a canvas. “Me, loving a challenge, went to the dollar store ... and got all kinds of squishy things,” she said. She painted in new ways on the floor and walls.

Her next experiment was to use rice paper. However, it wasn’t working out for her, so she threw it aside in frustration. That’s when everything clicked for her: It landed in an “interesting formation” and had her seeing the possibilities of 3-D work through draping, she said.

“Beautiful forms came out,” she said. Those draping projects became her exhibit for that month at the residency.

Next, she entered a phase of furniture creation. A dealer asked her to paint a table, but she decided to make one instead. It was daunting in the beginning, she said, because she never had done that type of work. She ended up making two, “which sold off the gallery floor immediately.” Then she built a desk upon request. That was when “I realized I could construct things,” she said.

Smith said she always hangs on to things that should be thrown in the garbage,. It just seemed wasteful to throw away potentially useful items. She attributes that partly to her childhood spent in Belize. People did not have much, and they carefully reused all they could.

While preparing to host a big Thanksgiving dinner, she began picking up some of those saved items, fashioning them together and hanging them on the walls. That’s when her most recent art form was created. That is the form most on display at Piedmont Arts: wrapped totems and other shapes, using strings, twines, fabrics, papers and more.

They are done in strong vertical shapes, twisted shapes and free-standing. Some are bound tightly in twine, string and yarns; other are of melded pieces of fabric loosely hanging. “I do what the material calls for me to do,” she explained.

Smith said her work is what the viewer makes of it. The shapes, colors and objects in it evoke memories and feelings.

Although working with found objects “fits into the Green movement,” it also ties into her cultural and lifestyle legacy from the years in Belize, she said.

Furthermore, her creations and their origins suggest further themes.

“All of these things melded together got me thinking about race, class, identity, how we purchase things, why we find value in these things.”

A tall, vertical piece of strips and pieces of blue fabric is titled “Cross-Cultural Negro.” It features denim as well as fabrics Smith bought on her voyages to Milan, Africa, the Caribbean, Paris, London and Germany. She noticed that everywhere she went, “black people were always wearing denim or asking about denim,” she said. “There’s just something about the denim,” she said, “our connections to black people across the world (yet) such a part of American culture.”

Piedmont Arts Director of Exhibitions Brandon Adams said, “Her work really comes from a deep place. It starts from within the viewer, looking at what it means” to him or her. He described her paintings as “mesmerizing.”

Within Shadows Cast

“Within Shadows Cast” is a special installation Smith created on site. Its main material is butcher paper, rolled, twisted, entwined and woven along the walls, surround and leading to a centerpiece. The contrast of light and shadows dances with the varying forms

“Butcher paper is a way to speak to the spirits of enslaved Africans” of history “as well as African-Americans today,” she said. “It embodies strength and also has fragility.” Bunching it together is reminiscent of the way slaves were packed tightly together in slave ships.

She pointed out that “no one talks about how New york was a major slave port,” with 20 percent of the population being slaves, she said.

Lynwood Gallery: “Earth, Sky and In-Between”

This collaboration of works by Bill and Susan Moore of Reidsville, N.C., features raku, stoneware, clay, sculpture, stained glass and fused glass, color photography and batik.

“This is almost like a mini-Expressions because it’s in all different media,” said Graham Parks of the Lynwood Artists, who helped set up the exhibit.


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