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April 12, 2002

Joseph Smith: "My Job Is to Make People Notice"

This is the second in a series of articles about Mount Holyoke's three soon-to-be-tenured professors.

"My work is minimalist and materialist," says sculptor Joe Smith, assistant professor of art. "I depend on my interaction with the materials to give me ideas about where I want to go. It's a dialogue. I hate to use that word because it's been walked on so many times, but that's what it is. I don't like to do much to things. I like them to have a voice as strong as my voice. Rather than having an overwhelming monologue—cutting this stuff up and putting it all together—I like for the material to do something without me, something that I notice, but not that I do. I just pay attention to it. My job is to make other people notice it, too."

Trained at Rhode Island School of Design, Smith was originally a cabinetmaker and carpenter. While he continues to employ wood in his sculptural works—with a particular affinity for "unsung" varieties like exterior-grade yellow pine—Smith makes use of a range of materials to explore landscape and architecture, as well as ideas of permanence and impermanence.

Widely shown and reviewed, Smith's work appeared most recently at the First Street Gallery in New York City (2001); the 55 Mercer Street Gallery in New York's Soho neighborhood (2000, 1999); the Saul Kofler Gallery in Providence, Rhode Island (2000); at Dartmouth College (2000); and over the last three decades in galleries from Long Island to Los Angeles. The New York Times has characterize the sculptor's work as being "about relationships that seem at the same time provisional and inevitable… quietly whimsical, seriously perverse." Citing Smith's media-mixing style, his "flexibility in playing with scale," and his "tremendously dry sense of humor," Anthony Lee, associate professor of art, says "Joe's work meditates on a modernist inheritance, but it goes far beyond that."

Table (red oak, steel, sticks), 2000, by Joseph Smith

That sense of humor and explorative temperament is apparent when the artist lists his influences: "Dadaist, Russian constructivist, surrealist, cubist, pop, and outsider; storytellers and writers, but (I hate to admit it) mostly painters; sleight-of-hand artists, good design, bad carpentry, ceramics, furniture makers, tools, science illustration, and certain collections of objects for no apparent reason."

Students in Smith's Sculpture I and II classes appreciate the professor's willingness to play with ideas and push them to use their "artistic voices" in new ways. Hilary Kern '02 says that Smith "encourages his students to see the physical space we inhabit daily as a canvas or stage." Highlighting the professor's ability to get students to collaborate and share ideas, Magdalena Rios Metcalf '02 notes that Smith advocates "interplay" and "idea swapping" that results in "something twice as cool."

Awarded tenure by Mount Holyoke's board of trustees in March, Smith finds among MHC faculty and administration a "cordiality" that he values. "It's democratic; the place is incredibly porous," says Smith. "You don't see that at other liberal arts colleges. [Usually,] there's a hierarchy and the hierarchy is enforced and wielded." What does joining the ranks of Mount Holyoke's tenured professors mean to the sculptor? "Tenure is supposed to allow academic freedom," says Smith, "a kind of permanence and stability, [so that] you can feel unfettered to do what it is you envision doing. I think, in the long run, that's going to be true. But, I don't know what it means yet. I imagine I'll find out in the next few years."

That academic freedom could be the liberty to explore new areas of art making. Says Smith, "At base, I'm a formalist [placing emphasis on form, or structural qualities, instead of content or context]. And that's a chilly place to be. I keep seeing work that lacks, sometimes, a kind of humanity. God! I can't believe I said that. But I can't put it any other way. I'm interested in trying to deal with sentiment in a way that's not maudlin or theatrical or way over the top. That's a dangerous place to be, but I think there is some place for emotion where it has a presence but it's not primary; it's there along with all of the other things."

On the third floor of the Art Building, Smith's office is a study in postmodern insouciance—clearly, the sculptor spends more time behind a table saw than a desk. These days, Smith is working on his first outdoor sculpture, a monumental piece that will be installed temporarily at the McDuffie School in Springfield this summer. He is creating an outdoor bench and site for MHC's art museum. And, from April 27 through May 19, a group show at the Washington Art Association Gallery in Washington Depot, Connecticut, will feature Smith's work along with that of sculptor Tim Segar and painter Torild Stray. For the last three years Smith worked with architect Nicholas Garrison to redesign the College's sculpture studio. Says Smith, "We've knocked down a few walls and taken out a lot of old equipment, so we have a big open space for people to work in. Before, the spaces were dedicated to certain activities, but now it's much more flexible. It's one of the best studios I've been in. So, I'm really happy."

Joe Smith is a native of southern Illinois. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in fine arts from Rhode Island School of Design. His work has been exhibited in New York, Providence, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. To learn more about the Washington Art Association exhibition, call
860-868-2878 or visit

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