Quilts and old photos have their rightful place – but Grace Smith enshrines mountain heritage in a more fanciful format.
Her delicately illustrated books are very process-oriented. Their departure point is old folk sayings from this area, such choice morsels as: “If you bite the head off a butterfly, you will get a new dress the color of the butterfly’s wings,” or “If you have white dots under the nail of your little finger, you will go on a journey.” After Smith selects the adage, she makes a drawing loosely based on the saying. The drawings are not specific: Smith leaves room for interpretation. She then mails each drawing, with a letter, to someone she knows, requesting that they make up a story about the saying and send it back to her. Next, she says, comes the hard part: She waits.
When she began the project, she mailed drawings to only one person. But Smith eventually realized she wanted more takes on the idea, and so she re-sent the work to two more writers.
These originals are drawn on thin, brown paper bags, folds and all.
And Smith takes the same unassuming attitude toward her other materials. The paintings are done in crushed colored chalks mixed with half-and-half; though the method is destined to become a conservators’ nightmare, it gives the works a wonderfully soft, mellow look. “If the books and drawings disappear,” says Smith, “the stories will still be there.”
The books themselves are almost casually made. They are bound (or, more accurately, wrapped) in irregular pieces of leather. Some of them contain imaginative renderings, others feature skillfully cut-out silhouettes of the stories’ characters. Smith says she’d never heard of Kara Walker and her controversial work with silhouettes of African-American slaves and their owners – but she recalls that her mother had silhouettes cut of her and her sister when they were children.
She will acknowledge Black Mountain College mail artist Ray Johnson as an influence: “I must have watched that video seven or eight times” she admits, referring to the biopic How to Draw a Bunny. Her drawings, however, have little in common with those of Johnson, who was interested in the popular culture of his day, not in legends from the past.
In the envelope she sends out, Smith puts her drawing and a letter that urges: ” … just think about what is happening before, after, and during the scene I’ve given you. You could even base it off some of your own experiences.” When the stories arrive, Smith combines them with her own interpretation and produces the book.
To illustrate “Before going to sleep, eat a thimble full of salt and walk to bed backwards and you will dream of the person you are going to marry,” Smith drew a man snuggled peacefully under the covers in bed, while a pensive young woman in a see-through nightgown stands, facing away from him, brushing her teeth. We are left to wonder – who was in her dream? Smith’s figures are distinctive, drawn with apparent ease and the confidence of one who’s done the work required to develop her craft.
“To speed up the labor of a birthing woman, toast chicken feathers in a pan beneath her from photographs of her own parents.” Here, the protagonists are looking up at the full moon, another indication that birth is imminent (the stories for this one came from Smith’s father and grandmother). The book for “Never bake a cake while menstruating” shows drawings and silhouettes; the pages are doubled and stitched with X’s at the corners, sewn with hot-pink thread. One page holds a woman with a measuring cup, and the end page reveals a cupcake with a big bite taken out.
Smith says she realized late in the project that most of the sayings related to women and women’s work.
“You can see more in the bodies of women. Their bodies tell stories. I grew up around lots of strong women: They preserve the stories.”
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer. Her work can be seen at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, La.]
Grace Smith’s chicken feathers, mustard seeds, and a thimble full of salt opens at Phil Mechanic Studios in the River District (109 Roberts St.) on Friday, Feb. 24 with a reception at 6 p.m. The exhibit runs through Friday, March 10. 255-0066.