After years of tenaciously applying, Brooklyn native Alexandria Smith got the news she’d been waiting for—the mixed-media visual artist had been accepted into the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts residency program. Her patience had finally paid off.
“Jurors change every year, as does your work,” Smith says. “It’s important to keep pushing forward.”
Following the trek halfway across the country, Smith settled in on May 18. Her impression of Omaha is it’s “a pretty calm, laid-back city with a growing investment in contemporary art.”
She would know. This is her second visit to Omaha, though she says she didn’t get to explore it much during her first visit in January of last year. She was here to install her piece, “The Pleasure Principle,” at The Union for Contemporary Arts. Smith was the inaugural recipient of the Wanda D. Ewing Fellowship, and the first to mount a solo exhibit in the space. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to experience much of the city since I was installing the majority of the time,” she says.
Smith’s dreams of becoming a professional artist started when she was 3 years old. “I don’t think I chose art, it chose me. There was never anything else that I had as much love and passion for as I did towards creating.”
“I was always interested in cartoons and comics and initially had goals of being an animator,”
she says. That interest is evident in her work.
Through her art, Smith aims to put a spotlight on femininity, race, sexuality, and cultural diversity while exploring the many transformative experiences she’s had as a young, black, middle-class woman.
Although Smith says she’s influenced by a rotating list of different artists, she’s currently inspired by the work of Cuban printmaker/calligraphist Belkis Ayón and illustrator Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
“I find Belkis Ayon’s and Aaron Douglas’ command of narrative and their use of a minimal color palette has resulted in a powerful body of work,” she says. “In both of their works, color is another character that transforms the viewer’s experience and relationship with the work.”
Like Ayón and Douglas, Smith pours every ounce of herself into her art, providing her the emotional and spiritual support she craves.
“For me, creating consumes every part of me,” she says. “It sustains me emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. When I am not creating, I am filled with anxiety and discomfort. So, painting grounds me in ways that nothing else can.”
Smith is most proud of the collage installation she completed last year at The Union. It was an ambitious undertaking in terms of content and scale, considering it was a massive 10-by-40-foot piece.
“The challenge of working on a site-specific commission provided me with an opportunity to conflate, in a more direct manner, my varied research interests with my work and that of another artist,” she explains. “It was the first time that I delved into the concepts and aesthetics of another artist’s work that had so many similarities as my own.”
However, she adds, “The biggest challenge of all was completing this work for a space that was still under construction, creating it in pieces in my studio and ultimately, seeing it in its entirety for the first time on site during the installation. The team at The Union was incredibly supportive and made the experience a positive, memorable one that I am eternally grateful for.”
Smith, who normally splits her time between the Big Apple and Boston, is hoping the more isolated Midwest environment will give her the kind of stillness that provides more focus.
Her bio on the Bemis website says her plan during her residency is to put her energy into an “immersive installation that incorporates freestanding mixed-media cutout paintings on wood, mixed-media sculptures, and large mixed-media paintings on canvas that employ various printmaking techniques such as monoprinting, silkscreening, lithography, and
“I look forward to having an extensive amount of time working away from external distractions,” Smith explains. “I am excited to have access to sculpture facilities, and I look forward to embarking on ambitious projects that have been on hold due to limited equipment access.”
She adds that the Bemis and The Union offer valuable support and opportunities for artists.
“Without the support of institutions like these, many of us would not be able to thrive as practicing artists. I hope that the local Omaha community and others continue to support both institutions for decades to come.”
Once Smith’s residency at the Bemis Center is completed on Aug. 10, she’s having a solo exhibit at the Stone Gallery at Boston University where she’ll debut a new series of paintings and sculptures, as well as a multimedia installation. While she admits “rejection” is the most challenging aspect of being a professional artist, she finds comfort in her rich creative community.
“The hardest part about being an artist is holding onto your goals and remaining persistent in the midst of rejection,” she says. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to trust yourself.
But rejection is certainly easier to handle (and move past) when you have a good
“It’s really important to develop a community, which can look like many different things, but ultimately it’s important to surround yourself with positive people that believe in you just as much as you believe in yourself.”
Visit alexandriasmith.com to learn more about the artist.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter.