This week we’re delighted to be featuring Ali Smith, a painter who lives and works in Southern California. She is the mother of two children, and runs an art club for kids at their school. Smith earned a B.S. in Studio Art from Skidmore College and an MFA in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach, and has since had solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Houston, among others, and has work in various private and public collections. She has also been featured on a number of important lists such as The Los Angeles Times’s “45 Painters under 45.” Nashville people take note: Upcoming shows include the exhibition “Dream for Light Years,” a show of new work with a musical composition by Michael Alec Rose at Vanderbilt University, opening Spring 2020.
What is your art like?
I make large scale, colorful painting that are quite built up with oil paint and have areas of detailed drawing merging with thick oil paint. Some take years to make because of all the layers.
What are important motherhood contexts people should know about you?
In many ways, I have a fairly happy situation—I’m very fortunate to have a husband who teaches art in college because he can often be at home in the afternoons, though we still haven’t figured out how to avoid piles of laundry taking over our house. My kids are four years apart and I’d say the most challenging years were when they were 3 and under. I especially felt a lot of angst when my first child was born about somehow proving that I could still be a successful artist, and maybe pushed a bit too hard at times to work, but I felt I had to. The previous generation of female artists were often told they couldn’t have kids if they wanted to be successful and I thought that was ridiculous, that somehow a man could easily have children and continue to be an artist, but that a woman had to sacrifice having children in order to continue to be productive. Happily, I think things have changed a great deal in the past decade.
How has your creative life changed since motherhood?
I have had to figure out how to get the most out of a couple of hours of studio time. I don’t have the luxury of going to the studio for ten hours a day anymore, nor do I really want to. Somehow being with my kids and filling up on life is a happy balance and if you put too much pressure on yourself to work all the time, I think the work can suffer. As long as I’m actively thinking about the work, often doing drawings at home, it’s easy enough to feel present in the work.
I think having a studio that is separate from our house has been key in a lot of ways. Although the 15-minute drive isn’t ideal, it gives me time to think and I have those few hours to myself to really focus and be alone. Now that the kids are in school it isn’t as much of an issue, but I think to be happy as a parent, you have to find those essential ways to fill up, to remember who you are again.
What’s been most challenging about having a creative life in motherhood?
You do have to sacrifice a lot, but it’s okay. The first few years are so tough physically as a mom, your children need you so much with nursing, sleeping—I think I aged so many years from lack of sleep, and it sometimes feels like you’ll never be able to be productive again.
It’s certainly tough to get to openings and remind people that you exist as an artist. I suppose Instagram is a tool for letting people know what you’re working on, but you also need to get out and socialize to make things happen in the art world, which is something I’ve never been great at but need to do more of!
I always go back to the work if I start to compare myself to other painters who are doing well. Being satisfied and challenged with your own work is all that ultimately matters, and you have to let go of that ego a lot to get anywhere.
I’ve had to figure out how to focus on what is essential, which is family and painting. I miss traveling to different countries but am hoping to do that soon with the kids. You realize what matters most once you have kids, and maybe sometimes a whole week is lost because one of your children gets a fever, but that’s okay. Some years have seemed extra challenging but it certainly helps you to appreciate it all even more! It was easy to get caught up in certain directions when my first daughter was little, like why did I spend so much time doing crafts that have nothing to do with who I am? Why did I try to sew? It’s easy to get sidetracked and feel unsure of who you are, how you want to be as a parent when you hear so much conflicting advice, and you have to let go of all that pressure and guilt and just do what is best for you and your family. I think children happily fit into who you are as a family, and it’s important for me to drag the kids to openings and galleries. It’s healthy for kids to be flexible, to do things they might think are boring, and that took a few years to figure out.
I have been grateful to work with Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami for about 7 years. Mindy has four children and is a terrific, supportive person.
What’s been the best surprise about having a creative life in motherhood?
My kids are now 6 and 10, and they inspired me to start an art club at their school four years ago. I bring a wide range of materials and we have about 30 kids who all have such fantastic ideas–we draw, do sewing, work with clay, build things out of recycle materials, do beadwork and jewelry, and they really come up with so many fantastic, inventive ideas.
Are there other artist mothers who inspire you?
I tend to look everywhere for artistic inspiration, at both current painters but also anywhere in art history that might be interesting to me, so I’m not consciously thinking about other artist mothers, though early on as a student, it was great to look at women like Louise Bourgeois and Nikki de Saint Phalle making work about the female psyche, motherhood, and to also see images of them with their children.
What’s been the your most source of inspiration as an artist mother?
My kids are WHO inspire me to continue to paint– kids are just so naturally creative and brilliant with how they see the world. I want to show them that their mom can be both an artist and mother, and maybe it is often challenging, but always worth it. I have to let go of certain ambitions right now, and that’s okay. I’m still concerned with
why they are still not an equal number of women in galleries and museum collections, and why male painters can charge more for their work then women.
My older child told me the sweetest thing yesterday: “I can’t believe the world doesn’t like your paintings yet. They’re amazing. Even better than the Mona Lisa. Well maybe the Mona Lisa deserves a five-star review for best figurative painting but yours is the best abstract.”
To see more of Ali’s work:
Gallery: Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, Florida
Also, if you are in the Southeast, look for Ali’s upcoming show at Vanderbilt University in March 2020, with musical collaboration by Michael Alec Rose.
A couple of years ago, Michael, who is a professor of music at Vanderbilt, contacted me about somehow working together. His compositions are often inspired by art, and so it evolved that we are going to have a show together in the fine arts gallery at Vanderbilt, and I’m really thrilled. His piece will be performed opening night and there will be a recording of the piece playing in the gallery of for the duration of the show.