Author’s Note: Gail Smuda and I had planned to meet at Gibson’s bookstore in Concord for this interview, but as luck would have it, we met up unexpectedly at Twiggs in Boscawen, sat down in the comfortable Student Corner, and enjoyed chatting for well over an hour in the midst of Laura Morrison’s work on a changeover of exhibits. Laura is the Gallery Manager at Twiggs and frequently collaborates with Gail on art projects. At one point this became somewhat of a three-part interview.
How did you first become involved in art and how long you have been teaching?
Actually, my first serious experiences with art were through an adult education class when I was living in Florida. I was taking an adult education drawing class offered through our town. I had always done crafty things, but had never taken formal art classes. A few months later I took a painting class offered by the drawing teacher in her home. While painting at the first class, someone asked me how long I had been painting and my answer was, “About fifteen minutes.” From that point on, I became involved in pursuing a formal course of study as a nontraditional (I was thirty years old at the time) undergraduate. I also began teaching during my final year, even though I hadn’t finished my degree, because an instructor was needed at a local college and they thought I could do it, and so I did.
Are there particular artists who have influenced your work or way of working?
Three that come to mind are Susan Hiller, whom I actually met once, Renee Stout whom I was also lucky enough to actually meet, and Robert Rauschenberg. I admire the way each of these artists both work and think on a conceptual level. My work is conceptual. I recall experiencing a Hiller exhibit at MOMA and having an “Ah, ha moment.” I also remember admiring work by Renee Stout that I saw at the Smithsonian about twenty-five years ago. It was very much idea-based in earth tones, as is much of my own work. There is a certain respect for old and used objects that certainly carries over into my own art. Rauschenberg, of course, had an eclectic sense of putting things together. I admire that as well. It’s a process that might be referred to as an “educated” instinct.
What are the dominant themes that interest you most?
Anything to do with history and especially women’s history—particularly with women and women’s work from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
How long have you been involved with WCA?
I was a member of the WCA Boston Chapter for several years before I co-founded the New Hampshire Chapter in 1995.
I have noticed you have done some commissioned work as well as collaborative work. Do you plan to pursue both in the future?
Probably not commission work because at this point in time, I am more interested in pursuing my own immediate interests rather than going through all the changes that it often takes to “get it just right” for what those who are commissioning the work have in mind. But I look forward to pursuing more collaborative work with fiber artist Laura Morrison. The level of trust and respect we have for each other’s work and way of working is amazing! (Author’s note: At this point in the interview, Laura paused her work and was invited to join in. She enthusiastically concurred with what Gail was saying). We never try to convince each other about a certain idea or way we think a project should go, but rather we listen to each other and go with what will work best for the project. Our latest collaboration is called Saw Mill and is about a saw mill run entirely by women in Concord during World War II, following the 1938 hurricane that left many downed trees to be harvested for lumber throughout the state. The first showing of the original piece was at a juried exhibition on Rosie the Riveter in Chicago. We then had the book edition of Saw Mill at Twiggs Gallery during the November 2016 NH Open Doors weekend.
Has your teaching experience influenced your own art?
Most definitely—always! A recent example is a student who for the first half of the class accomplished very little, and then once she had had sufficient time to absorb information and gather her thoughts, ended up producing a great altered book. It was a reminder to me that everyone processes information in different ways. This is an important concept to keep in mind when teaching.
Of your solo exhibitions are there ones that stand out as most satisfying?
There are two in particular. One was at New England College (NEC) about fifteen or twenty years ago where I was interested in telling a story using selected quotations from women’s diaries found among work donated to the New Hampshire Historical Society, where I worked for a time. Since the journals were all handwritten, I wanted the quotations from them included on the walls of the exhibition using actual handwriting by women. They were handwritten on the walls by female students at NEC. The director at the time, Inez McDermott, was very supportive of this idea and it turned out to be a perfect way to incorporate student participation and interest.
Another memorable solo exhibition, titled “Historical Fictions,” was a more recent exhibit at AVA Gallery in Lebanon, NH. I have been a long time member of AVA and have AVA executive director Bente Torjusen to thank for this show, that was based on my personal views of history. That in itself was memorable, but the most amazing experience was when a long time collector showed up (during terrible winter weather) for the opening and made a good number of purchases. It definitely is worthwhile continuing to send anyone interested in your work show cards of all your upcoming shows—even if you haven’t heard from them in quite some time!
What are some of your plans for the upcoming year?
In a way, I’ve come full circle. My primary interest during the 1980s was political, and I am returning to that because of what is happening to us politically as a nation. I’m returning to an interest in photocopy work that will create a type of “broadside” that is easily reproducible. Book works that I am currently working on are about the subject of injustice including the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the Japanese interment in World War II, and, of course, the Suffragettes. A recent photocopy work is called “Leaving the Ship of State” and has specific commentary on our current situation. I had the idea about the Titanic and found I had all of the parts I needed even though some of the images had been found months and sometimes years ago.
Featured Image: Gail Smuda, Leaving the Ship of State, mixed media, 11 x 8.5 inches