Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Barbara Lee Smith: Mapping the Mystery

I'm having loads of problems getting any image to load at this point. I'm frustrated and left wondering whether or not I can even post words. I guess I'll find out in a minute.

I have no images of Barbara Lee Smith's solo exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Birmingham, England. Photography in that area, like most of the artistic display spaces, was prohibited. It is understandable. I saw several people, however, snapping a few illegal shots using their cell phones! I resisted the urge.

Instead, I sat in one of two provided folding chairs and watched the video of Barbara Lee Smith making her various series of wall hanging textiles. She uses a medium-weight Lutrador, a fabric made in North Carolina generally for the upholstery business. It looks like an interfacing material. It is strong, nearly impossible to rip, thus it doesn't distort at all and is very durable. Barbara Lee Smith paints the white surface using watered down acrylic paints. She sprays the paint from a plastic bottle. Acrylic gesso is used sparsely as a resist. Her palette is quite pastel, even a bit grayed. WonderUnder is ironed on to the back of the painted pieces intended for collage. The large pieces she selects as a "painting" or base for collage is also backed with WonderUnder and approximately two more layers of plain Lutrador. This provides a nice, thicker substrata on which she can work. She uses a soldering iron to deckle the edges.

Then, she cuts from the large stock of painted Lutrador for collaging. Some have transfers on them, but the video never mentioned the process used. The images she creates are nearly abstractions but would really be closer to impressionism. Water is a big influence, so are leaves and sky. Repeated motifs include two thin strips of Lutrador ironed down in a cross formation. Once she has completed the collaging, she machine embroiders the piece, mostly from the reverse. She calls the free motion work a "drawing". It really is. Unlike me, she is very, very precise in her speed of execution and her ability not to cross over her own lines. As a result, her stitching very much resembles a contour map.

She also includes four panels down the side of her seascapes. These are part of the more abstracted work. Sheviews these small rectangular pieces as if "keys" on a map. Some of the work has a few hand stitches. Some even have mercator lines. The overall effect is most pleasant, in fact, very soothing to look at.

This was one of the areas in which Mathias and I spent more time. I had already watched the video on Friday morning, so on Sunday Mathias and I just looked. There really weren't very many men at this trade show, a few elderly husbands carrying their wives' purchases and two male textile students stitching. Thus, Barbara Lee seemed to notice us. She introduced herself and immediately heard our accents from the States. A conversation quickly started.

This was the most charming part of the day. It seems that Barbara Lee Smith used to live in Chicago and regularly attended performances by Hubbard Street Dance Theater and Alvin Ailey! Now that she lives in Washington State, we sees Pacific Northwest. In college she'd seen Merce Cunningham. Mathias and Barbara talked dance for several minutes. Both seemed impressed with one another. Maybe I should be said that Mathias was the only US male to have won a medal in the Moscow International Ballet Competition. Maybe I should have bragged about his recent gold in Varna. I didn't. It really didn't need to be done; besides, I really couldn't hold my own in the conversation!

Barbara Lee Smith is worth looking up on-line. Of course, the Knitting and Stitching Show has examples of her work and statements at

Another website that deals with the current body of work is:

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