A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I were visiting friends who are notable (among other reasons) for buying art. They have a Bryan Mark Taylor for instance and they had two other pieces on the wall near their computer that I found quite striking. They were the work of Casey Jex Smith, whose name I suppose I should have recognized as I had seen it often enough. For instance, he was the driving force behind the now defunct Mormon arts forum Head of Shiz.
Our friends then set me in front of their computer to look at his site, and also that of his wife, Amanda Michelle Smith.
I’ve since been nosing around a bit, reading up on them — reviews like this and gushing like this — and I must say, of all the Mormon artists I know, I have a hard time imagining a more in-your-face journeying than some of the stuff they’re sticking in galleries.
So of course I ran them down.
Theric: Last Saturday after I saw two of your paintings on a friend’s wall, Casey, I hopped online and spent a while perusing your work online. I was struck by how intentionally religious so much of your work is — specifically in the names of works, bits of temple iconography, images from old Church clip art and 1970s Bookcraft picture books — I’m curious how the greater art world reacts to your defiant Mormonness?
Casey: Half of the art world is intrigued by the mysterious iconography of small, quirky population residing in Utah. The other half dismisses my work outright. I try to work with people who are the former but have had the displeasure of working with many of the latter. However open-minded the art world pretends to be, they are not as a whole.
Theric: I wasn’t surprised to see that you have a 2003 BFA from BYU. Your style was something I saw a lot in BYU galleries at the time — the seemingly random images bleeding into each over a plain background — I’m glad to finally be able to ask this of someone from your generation of BYU artists: what was so compelling about that mode of composition and how did you distinguish yourself from your peers?
Casey: When I was at BYU I wasn’t making that kind of art at all. I did two shows that were conceptually based on the question of male violence and where does it come from. A nature/nurture thing and reaction to 911. For those shows I did large reproductions violent boy drawings on canvas, sculptures of melted GI Joes, projections of war video games on the XBOX, and canvases with ironic stills taken from the GI Joe Cartoon. It was very mediocre work. I didn’t start having the overlapping imagery on a white background until my 2nd semester of grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. I started using drawing as my primary medium again. With that I think comes a natural tendency to draw what is important and leave the background unfinished. In drawing as opposed to painting, it’s more accepted to do that.
But I do remember well the work you are talking about. The printmaking department had a big influence on that kind of work. I remember lots of map fragments, drawn lines, sacred geometry, and almost no color.
Theric: Amanda, I see your work and I think immediately of Henry Darger, only with the addition of ceramic flowers. (I might as well add now that while I like Darger quite a lot, I like your work better. Just don’t tell the people dropping tons of cash on Darger.) Are you intentionally referencing him? And if so, to what end? (And if not, how did you come by your blond girls in not-quite-normalland?)
Amanda: This is actually a question I’ve been getting for years. Funny thing is, and maybe this is a little embarrassing to admit too, but I didn’t even know who Henry Darger was until I was in graduate school and I got this question for the first time. At that point I sought out his work, became familiar with it and came to love him. I’ve even shown at his gallery in NYC, but he’s never been a direct influence on my work. While Darger has created a fantasy world spirited little girls fighting for their lives, I feel like his narratives are very different from mine, which are mostly stories from my life. I grew up with three sisters and my mother, my dad not being around very much and not very involved in my upbringing. I lived in this hyper-feminine household and so these little girls just became my mouthpieces for telling stories. They’re characters I feel comfortable speaking through.
Theric: One thing I like best about your work is how most pieces flit back and forth between painting and sculpture. Could you comment on what you’re trying to accomplish by melding the second and third dimensions?
Amanda: I think at first that this was just unintentional. I started college as a psych major, and then I was a visual technology major, then I was a painting major and ended up being forced to take ceramics as an elective. I found out then that you could paint on clay and when I discovered that it became only natural to want to take advantage of clays three dimensional nature and get the best of both worlds. I love reliefs. I’ve been looking at the work of the della Robbia’s and wanting to get even more 3D lately.
Theric: Since Casey had a book published by the Mormon Artists Group, I assume you’re tapped into some of the Mormon artist communities. What sort of relationship do you have with the community / communities and what value do you find therein?
Casey: Glen has been a huge supporter of my work. He has purchased several pieces, published the drawings I make during church meetings on Sundays, come to my openings in NYC, and put me in his newsletters. He has been a great friend as well and we have had many wonderful conversations about what it means to be Mormon and creating art. This kind of feedback is really important to me because my work most of the time exists outside of Mormon Culture and is purchased and seen by a secular audience. I am fine with that, but half of my original intent is to help push the definitions of what “Mormon Art” is for Mormons. Glen has helped my work circulate within the Mormon art world.
Aside from the Mormon Artists Group, there is a small group of BYU graduates (Jared Lindsay Clark, Todd Chilton, Sean Morello, Jared Latimer, Adam Bateman, Trent Reynolds, Allan Ludwig, Daniel Everett, Ryan Browning, Susan Krueger-Barber, Chris Lynn, and others) that have stayed in touch and supported each other in navigating the art world. I wish there were more women in that list. My biggest support of course has been my wife Amanda who is dealing with the gallery system too.
Amanda: I love Glen Nelson who heads up the Mormon Artists Group, but I’ve never worked with him directly, I’ve only met him through Casey. I have a lot of friends who are Mormon artists though and I’m married to one as well. I feel like there’s definitely a community there and I feel like it’s incredibly valuable to have a group of people you can bond with over faith, career ambitions and common experiences. The Mormon art world is so small and comfortable.
Theric: Getting narrower in our definition of community, do you ever create work together?
Amanda: I love to collaborate with Casey. We’ve been so busy lately in our own careers that we haven’t made a lot of time for collaborations, but we have grand ideas and we’ve done some in the past. I feel a little insecure working with him just because I think he’s a genius and a brilliant draftsman. Ceramics is technically very challenging for people who aren’t familiar with the medium so usually our collaborations tend to be drawings. I always end up feeling like my portion of the work looks clumsy inserted next to his impeccably rendered pen drawings.
Casey: She’s insecure but in all honesty she is a better draftswoman, especially when it comes to the human form. My figures are always awkward and stiff and hers are graceful and full of expression. I love to collaborate with her but it’s hard to just make enough solo work to supply the galleries I work with and her as well. We will collaborate in the future when we hit a slow spot.
Theric: How did you two meet, anyway? Did art play a role in that?
Amanda: Yes, I think art’s played a role in everything we have since the beginning. I moved to the Bay Area about a year after Casey started grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. From the minute I moved out here I started hearing about Casey this and Casey that. I’d never even met this guy and he had a girlfriend at the time and yet at least four different people tried to set us up. Long story short, my friend was dating his roommate and she brought me to one of his art shows. It was kind of like a blind date. I was so impressed with his work not only because it was technically impressive and beautiful but because it had so much integrity and substance, plus he was cute, so I fell for him.
Theric: Creating as a couple — no matter what it’s like now — is a particularly Mormon pastime in the sense that someday, the goal is, you will be Creators. In that sense, how does your work reflect your faith (and vice versa)?
Amanda: Well to be honest I’ve never thought of that before. I mean, I think creating artwork has given Casey and I a special kind of bond that I’m very grateful for. As far as my work reflecting my faith, most of my artwork doesn’t revolve around Mormon themes, but my values are absolutely imbedded in it. While the trend in contemporary art seems to be moving more in the direction of the edgy and the abject I find myself going in another direction. I want my artwork to be rated G and I try to make it “virtuous, lovely and of good report or praiseworthy” although that’s up for debate.
Theric: I think it’s safe to say you’re both still at the beginning of your artistic careers. So how do you balance art with concerns like rent and family planning? And how is success changing your approaches to art?
Casey: It’s hard. Part of me does feel like I’m a pathetic musician holding out to be a rockstar. I have a writer friend that ditched his writing career to go back to law school and get a proper job that could support his family. But I just don’t have a fall back. There is no plan B. Luckily we’ve had a bit of success to keep us going and help us feel that we’re not wasting our time. Having a baby in August might change some things. We’ll see.
Amanda: It is hard to balance our love of art with provident living and family planning. Both making art and living the gospel are labors of love but if they’re ever at odds we try to make living the gospel priority number one. If it wasn’t, I think we’d both be unemployed starving artists, making art all day everyday. It would be our only priority, our religion. Instead, we go to work, come home and go to work on our art when we’re not too tired. We’re expecting our first baby in August, so we’ll see how that changes things. I have a feeling it will slow us down even more.
Theric: What advice do you offer Mormon artist couples like yourselves?
Amanda: I think sometimes the pressures of the art world make it easy to lose sight of what’s important. There’s not a lot of room for faith in it, so I guess my advice would have to be that you can have both. Keep your testimony strong and keep working hard on your art. I also think you have to sacrifice for each other because it’s not an easy career choice financially or emotionally.
Casey: You can be an artist and good member at the same time. You can tackle difficult questions in your art without turning your back on your faith.
Theric: Any question I should have asked, but didn’t? Any upcoming shows or suchlike that you want to plug before you close? Anything else at all? Favorite sandwich?
Casey: Favorite sandwich is an italian sub with everything except mayo. I have a show at Galerie Polaris in Paris right now and I’m working on a show at Allegra LaViola Gallery for October that will have a live performance of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure that is based on a drawing of Lehi’s Vision.
Amanda: Favorite sandwich… does a burrito count? Upcoming shows, I have a group show in NYC at Allegra LaViola Gallery coming up in June. It’s called “Off the Wall.” That’s about it right now.