Artistic rebirth in shades of pink Exhibit: Clipper Mill survivor takes a new approach to her work.

April 13, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Jo Smail's paintings are pink, but that doesn't mean they are all the same color. Her works depict, for the most part, squares, but that doesn't mean her designs are limited.

There are pinks cast with yellow. Cherry blossom pinks. Pinks with a bluish hue. And there are small boxes lined up in slightly uneven rows like bumper-to-bumper cars, or bigger blocks crouched on the canvas, just off-center. The squares nudge each other; sometimes they overlap. They line Smail's studio walls, turning the room into a cocoon spun of pink and white.

It is in the pink of these 70 or so works and in the process of creating them that Smail, a painter and teacher at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, has experienced a rebirth of sorts.

She was among the nearly two dozen artists whose studios -- and works of art -- were destroyed in the fire that ravaged the Clipper Mill Industrial Park on Sept. 16, 1995.

An example of her new work, created after the disastrous fire, is on display through April 30 at Goucher College in an exhibition called "Out of the Ashes: New Works by the Clipper Mill and Hollins Street Exchange Artists."

On the night of the fire, as she stood and watched the flames sweep through the giant warehouse, she knew the fire had stolen the life of a firefighter. She knew that the blaze had reduced to ashes her work -- and that of the other artists. But she didn't understand the enormity of what else had been lost.

In 1985, Smail came here from Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband, Julien Davis, a biochemist at Washington's National Institutes of Health. In South Africa, she already had established a career and been featured in a number of one-woman shows. She opened her studio at Clipper Mill and began teaching at the Maryland Institute in 1988.

A week before the fire, the artist decided to repaint her home, and temporarily transferred her favorite works of art -- those she had chosen to live with -- to her studio.

Already, she had stored there any unsold works completed over the last few decades, including hundreds of paintings that she'd finished while living in her native South Africa. There also were thousands of sketches that she had scrawled in pencil or ink while sitting outdoors, as well as pages of notes about her efforts.

Everything lost

All of this burned. But it was not until the morning after the fire that Smail realized that she suddenly was an artist without history or context. "That's when it hit me: It's like committing suicide, but unfortunately you have to hang around," she says.

"I stood there just watching this funeral pyre, with its slow smoke rising and it dawned on me that it all -- all of it -- was really gone. It's every artist's worst nightmare."

It helped that there was an immediate outpouring of sympathy and support from the community business leaders and residents, she says. Nonetheless, she found herself dealing with a range of devastating emotions: guilt that she was saddened by the loss of her art when she knew that the firefighter's family was mourning his death. Bewilderment because she wasn't sure what to do next. And grief, because she missed her art. "It's like missing someone. You just start thinking about them at the most inappropriate times."

Perhaps most importantly, however, the fire forced Smail to confront the question "why?" I am an artist without art, she would think. No one can see my art. So why do it?

"I had to rethink why I painted. If I painted at all, it was clear my art had to be much more of the moment. I think of all those hundreds of drawings gone, and it's dreadful. But the part that was the gift of the fire is: Now you've got nothing left to lose."

By January 1996, she and a half dozen artists had rented spaces in another warehouse on Ostend and Wicomico streets.

Faced with a huge empty studio, Smail felt an urgent need to re-create her work, to fill her space with art.

So she hastened to start painting as though nothing had changed.

Almost in a frenzy, Smail began several new creations that resembled her previous work -- and couldn't finish any of them. "I realized this was not going to be a matter of just picking up and going on. I thought: 'I need to start over in a more radical way with absolutely no preconceptions of what I was going to do.' "

Before the fire, most of Smail's paintings were large and extroverted. They were painted in powerful colors -- reds, greens, blacks -- and her designs often were based upon nature. "At the time of the fire, I was working on a series of about 50 small paintings," she says. "They were of large flowers. They were aggressive, assertive."

Making it simple

She began again. But this time she began by pondering the idea of the "simplest possible thing with the simplest possible color," the artist says. "I needed to take tiny, tiny steps."

Finally, in March, she painted a "little pink painting."

"Pink was a noneventful color," she says. "It was silly: a baby little girl color. Slight. So I thought, 'OK, pink.' "

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