Artistic Give And Take

Collaboration is important to the creative process. Just ask Jo Smail, whose works are part of an exhibit at Evergreen House.

December 18, 2003|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Early Monday morning, before other visitors arrive, artist Jo Smail introduces her students to the striking, often mysterious, results of artistic collaboration. They have gathered in the gallery at Evergreen House, another stop on Smail's own artistic journey. Her work is part of Conversations, a show which gathers the fruit of dozens of creative alliances between past and present faculty members of the Maryland Institute College of Art and artists outside that community.

Some paintings grew from an exchange between a teacher and student, or between artists who are related to one another. Others are cross-disciplinary works: Words of Joyce Carol Oates paired with a photograph of Gregory Crewdson; mixed-media images of Howie Lee Weiss paired with the sounds of musician Lisa Weiss. One work is what you might consider a "found" collaboration: A canvas abandoned by painter Grace Hartigan finished, with her permission, by her assistant and friend, artist Rex Stevens.

These visiting students, all seniors at MICA, are learning that artists aren't always solitary creatures but also enjoy sharing creativity and celebrating their influences. Take this class, for instance. Usually Jo Smail uses this time to critique each senior's work. Today, however, they are learning about hers.

Smail, who now lives in Baltimore, describes the history behind four delicate and cryptic mixed-media works she created with fellow South African artist William Kentridge. The process worked this way: She would travel to New York, where Kentridge was in residence at Columbia University, taking him a page with her ink drawing. Later, he would add a collaged figure which she would return to pick up along with a piece he had begun for her to complete. Each step suggested the next. The series in the exhibit reflects this subtle and intriguing duet.

Student Nathlie Provosty finds its inner rhythms deeply satisfying.

"My first impression is just how harmonious it is ..." she says. "It's very exciting to look at things that aren't nameable."

But, like the others, she wants to know the stories behind them. Smail's delicate drawings have the strength and power of spring's most fragile blooms.

What about the tiny squares ... what about your use of the color pink?

Such questions open up Jo Smail's personal history: A childhood during apartheid in South Africa ... the move to America in 1985 when her husband joined the biology department at Johns Hopkins ... the 1995 fire in the Clipper Mill studio that devoured her entire life's work as an artist ... the stroke three years ago that temporarily robbed her of speech ... her slow, deliberate recovery.

Her stories show creation as an act of hope, of determination, of gratitude.

"After the fire, I came to rethink everything," she tells them. "I changed course completely. I thought, `Well, I've nothing to lose. [When I realized] there ain't going to be a retrospective, it gave me a freedom to do anything.

"One of the things that was important, that I could literally hold on to right after the fire, was the inside of my husband's arm - the soft bit." She demonstrates by blocking off a square piece of her wrist. "That's when I started painting these little pink squares ...

"Then I had the stroke. That changed my life completely as well. After my stroke, I was completely silent. So now, in my mind, the squares are also [alternating] images of silence and speech."

She tells them she appreciated her period of wordlessness.

"I'm a great dreamer - most of you are! You're probably never bored because you can dream. I spent a lot of time in my head and that was wonderful. ... Even though I couldn't talk, I didn't lose my ability to see relationships. I could draw a line and judge whether I made another line closer to it or farther from it. So that's all I did. I would just use up sketchbooks and people would bring more. I would do these little things. And so [the squares and geometric shapes] probably come from that, too."

Barry Nemett, the show's curator and chairman of the painting department at MICA, seizes a teachable moment.

"When I first visited Jo in the hospital, she had just one syllable [that she could utter], but showed me a whole lot of drawings she did in her sketchbook," he said. "What we teachers are always hoping for is that we can excite you regarding the language of visual expression."

Someone asks if Smail was comfortable with the idea of collaboration.

"I did these drawings, and I hung them in my studio. When Richard Kalter [philosopher in residence at MICA] came to the studio, he said `You can't let anyone touch these because they are perfect.' I said, `I'm just going to do this and hope for the best.'" So she proceeded with her collaboration, and was glad she did. "William's response was so caring and intuitive that he made them even better than they were originally," she said.

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