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What inspires Kiki Smith

Celebrated artist speaks at CFA about what is interesting and art that works

Sculptor Kiki Smith has a romance with the physical world.

Frogs, paper lanterns, human organs, and the moon are just a few of the things that inspire artist Kiki Smith, who gave the College of Fine Arts’ second annual Tim Hamill Visiting Artist Lecture on the evening of March 29. Smith entertained a crowd of more than 300 with a talk that was sometimes fanciful and sometimes down-to-earth.

Poised and smiling in dark-framed glasses, curly gray hair well below her shoulders, Smith shared a series of slides and tried to explain how inspiration finds her and how she makes it work for her.  

“All you are in the end is what you make,” said Smith, who titled her talk My Preoccupations. “It’s what preoccupies you. It takes a long time and it changes, but you follow what is interesting and you just sort of find what works.”

Smith, who was born in Germany and grew up in New Jersey, is the daughter of sculptor Tony Smith. She has created art in several media, but like her father she is known most widely for her sculpture, and particularly for her depictions of the human body, which often serve as metaphors for social inequities with regard to race and gender. Pieces include depictions of the human heart and lungs and the female reproductive system, as well as faces, hands, and other organs and external parts. Smith’s work is in many well-regarded collections, including those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  She received the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 2000 and has participated in the Whitney Biennial three times in the past decade.

The artist’s talk, which she admitted was not prepared, swerved gracefully from the flighty to the profound and was built largely around folded copies of one of her works, featuring small black birds and the words, “The stars shined all day and all night. And a little bird called, ‘Follow your preoccupations and eat plenty of worms.’”

“It’s a French fold,” Smith told the audience. “I learned it from Ben Franklin, and it’s a good thing to learn if you don’t know what else to do…. Making things is a kind of romance with the physical world. I’m living my fantasy life every day.”

Smith’s romance with the world sometimes seems a strange one. One project, Noah’s Death Barge, sprang from her thoughts on animal extinction. But even as she describes the world as a “murder planet, a death planet,” a place that is filled with dead crows and black tears, Smith seems positively bubbly. Noah’s Death Barge, she said, “was a nice exhibit.”

“I’m just trying to meander around in a garden and have a lot of experiences,” she said. Her audience would agree that in that she has been successful. Smith’s final remark concerned a comment from the cab driver who drove her from Logan Airport to BU.

“The cab driver told me that you have to follow the black sheep to get around fastest in the city,” Smith said. “I thought, that’s important! I’m going to tell that to the students.”

The CFA lecture series, named for Tim Hamill (CFA’65,’68), presents artists whose work crosses boundaries among artistic disciplines.