Published in ‘..the lives we live..’, Grangegorman Public Art in December 2020
Drawing a rich metaphorical word.
We draw water
draw things behind us
draw things to us
draw attention to ourselves
We can withdraw from a person or place
We can become withdrawn
We can withdraw to a drawing room
We are drawn to certain people and places
We are drawn to activities and objects
As people we are drawn together
People have been hung, drawn and quartered
We draw pictures.
What is happening when we draw?
To draw implies movement, a shift from one place or way of being to another, a transition from one state or function to another.
The water moves from the well or river to the bucket and becomes a liquid to drink or wash with. The curtains extend across the window and block the light, provide privacy. Air moves from outside our body to inside and becomes part of us. We remove ourselves from others physically or emotionally. Our focus, attention and physical being shift when we are attracted to new places, people, objects and activities.
The act of drawing embodies movement; a pencil moving across a page, a stimulus transformed into marks, information and ideas being sifted, sorted, processed. The source material from which we draw can be visual, conceptual, emotional, it can be a clear idea or a ‘niggling’ thought. Drawing transforms this source into another state, in a specific place, giving it form and function. Some ideas will never be realised or generated if not worked out through drawing. Drawing is searching. It is a way of thinking. It makes ideas visible.
Drawing is an intrinsic part of human existence. Drawing goes back through time and form, from a luminous example such as the Lasceaux cave drawings of 20,000 years ago, to ipad sketches of the present day. Everyone, with few exceptions, has drawn at some stage in their lives. We start drawing at an early age often before the age of one. Drawing is non-discipline specific; architects, cartographers, engineers, and all designers draw to capture, develop and visualise ideas, to communicate. Drawing has a role in medicine, maths, the sciences, and communications. Drawing is not the preserve of the artist.
Drawing is both a verb and a noun. To draw is a process. A drawing is a product. All drawing takes place somewhere on this continuum from process to product. In early childhood children are involved in the process of drawing with little concern for the look of their drawing. Teenagers become concerned with the look, wanting to get it ‘right’. Where anyone’s work lies on this continuum is dependent on the person, the discipline and the context in which the work is happening. Some people will work exclusively on one end or the other of this continuum, others will, in exploring an idea or over the course of a project move back and forth along its full length. No two people draw alike. No two people see in the same way.
Drawing is a quiet word. It has an intrinsic psychological component. It operates in a private sphere and requires concentration, attention with an openness to chance. It is a unique way of interacting with the world and with oneself. It is an embodied activity that necessitates the moving, distilling, arranging and sorting of information from, potentially, many sources into new ideas and knowledge.
This above talk was given at Drawing Together, a public seminar which took place in St Laurence’s Church, Grangegorman, 12 October 2019. Curated by Conor Sreenan GDA, held in association with the Irish Architecture Foundation Open House Dublin.
Drawing Together launched a series of City Drawings by plattenbaustudio. The drawings, commissioned by GDA, marked the 10thanniversary of breaking ground at Grangegorman, following the masterplan for the site drawn by architect James Mary O’Connor.
The event gathered architects Valerie Mulvin, James Mary O’Connor, Jennifer O’Donnell, Jonathan Janssens, moderated by artist Dorothy Smith, to discuss the role and value of drawing in city-making.
Drawing is a Slow Process in a Fast Moving World
This is a piece I wrote for Droichead Arts Centre Programme in 2018. Part of their ongoing series ‘Voices’. I include some of the paintings of neighbourhood windows I refer to.
You start on a path not knowing where it will take you. An interest in painting and art leads to encounters with many elusive, previously unknowable places and ideas. A move to a specific geographic location leads to experiences that deepen interest and expand knowledge.
Paintings of images seen during night walks in my locality mark the start of paying closer attention to the built environment we construct. Glimpses into the lit windows on residential streets, images of interior lives filtered through and semi obscured by curtains, blinds, potted plants; rich colours, texture, light, warm and cold; the front window representing how we present the public version of our private spaces.
The business of Phibsborough, Dublin, where I live, the complex business of fitting so many moving things; people, cars, busses, bikes, prams, wheelchairs, trucks, vans, scooters into a space first laid out centuries ago. The corresponding underutilisation of other spaces; vacant sites, empty premises, top floors; the difficulty of getting from A to B, of crossing the road. Over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban settings. How our cities and built spaces work matters.
Drawing as a methodology of exploring these spaces may seem incongruous in this linked and digital age. Drawing is a slow process in a fast moving world; in a fugitive space such as a city, constantly evolving and never ‘finished’.
My work includes drawings of urban structures and infrastructures, incorporating many urban topographies including those temporary, permanent, functional, abandoned, those undergoing change, the iconic and the demolished. Drawing has helped me explore my own neighbourhood and my experience of it; it has made me think about the importance of the places in which our everyday lives unfold. I have been surprised by what I have discovered, what it has made me notice; how deeply layered are the places we create, how stimulating it is to look and draw.
Catalogue essay by Emmett Scanlon, Land Marks, RHA Ashford Gallery, Dublin 2, 16 March – 8 April 2018
One moment, please hold
“Thinking happens live”, Dorothy Smith replies. I have asked her how certain she is of what she is drawing and where on the page she is drawing it before she marks the blank white sheets with the grey-black graphite. It is a brilliantly blue December, Dublin morning. She is showing me the drawings contained in this exhibition and we are in her new studio. The studio is large. A not quite white room, but it is bright, with a pair of doors looking back to her house, through the garden, to the dozing cat. It is rather tidy for a studio because it is new I imagine, it is not yet itself, it is still in between.
“Mistakes are ok”, Dorothy continues as she shares further drawings. I am beguiled with her drawing process. It is a process that looks tightly controlled but one that Dorothy assures me is rather freely – albeit patiently – employed. What kind of pencils are used I ask? It seems it is just the ones you pare – light, common, ordinary but clearly heavy with intent and purpose once held in her right hand and lead is led to make line.
On a wall, leaning, close to the doors, there is one framed and finished pencil drawing. It is outlined in walnut, exquisite as the sun finds it. It is an explicit sign of something finished, a deadline reached. Yet it too is also something about to move, neither of the studio nor of the gallery but somewhere in between. No, no, no but how, when do you begin to draw, I ask – “I just start”.
This work begins though, well before it starts. Smith does not deliberately leave her studio or home and set out on an expedition to find the fragments, the ruins or the spaces of the built environment that clearly intrigue her and whose portraits she presents in Land Marks. Rather, she notices these things as she is doing those things, cycling here or walking there, with an entirely other destination and purpose in mind. The housing block on the Canal (Encounter)was cycled past several times before it was fully noticed and eventually drawn on paper. This kind of active, accidental awareness of the world around her, the alignment and overlap of her necessary interests or preoccupations with whatever crosses her path on any routine day, lends the work an immense temporal charge on the one hand and a compelling spatial potency on the other.
The larger drawings, made with ruled, repeated layers of black-grey lines, are clearly showing some thing at one moment in time, a year, a day, an hour in the life of the thing portrayed. Often isolated from context, the state of the thing is not always clear however, they each feel very in between. Is the thing drawn being constructed or taken apart (Capital series)? Is it happily occupied or sadly abandoned (Encounter)? Was the thing once useful but now redundant (Port Structure)? This can, at times, make for uneasy viewing as our instinct to resolve and to be sure about things is subtly challenged. What these drawn things clearly are however are parts of our constructed world, bits of building. Very often drawings of that world feel frozen and devoid of life. Smith’s momentary drawings however, show us that in between things are in fact restless, moving and dynamic. Like all great portrait artists, Smith captures the elusive characteristics of her subjects. In the large drawings of Land Marks, she succeeds in capturing the most elusive of all because she shows us that while indeed made of rigid, hard materials buildings are not really fully static or ever immutable. While not alive like you or I, buildings most certainly do have lives, finite lives which begin and end. As buildings ‘live’, their lives overlap and intertwine with the people who build, use, occupy or simply notice them and if only for a moment or for months, such overlaps leave buildings and people forever altered.
Of course, in order to build at all, we seek to control the future use and life for the things we build. However, life does not always go according to plan. Smith, in her Other Landscapes series, draws our attention to the neglected edges, corners and resultant, awkward spaces that surround us. In these square drawings, drawings which make deliberate reference to the tradition of Western landscape painting, Dorothy Smith close-notices the unplanned or the seemingly erratic and spontaneous occupation over time of otherwise formally planned and constructed spaces as people pitch their tents, drop concrete barriers or add another piece of visually chaotic signage, perhaps intended to restore order.
A front garden (Other Landscapes – Stone Circle) is drawn close up, reminding us that nature too is an active, purposeful participant in our built world. People and plants appropriate space and not always appropriately. In each drawing, the observed tension between planned intent and unpredictable outcome is beautifully expressed somehow in each hatched and busy pencil line, worked over and under and through.
In Land Marks, by taking her time and having the wit to notice, Dorothy Smith decidedly draws for us an arrestingly radical yet utterly vital reading of the world we inhabit. By isolating constructed fragments that may or may not yet be part of some greater composite and by respecting the spaces that emerge from an often accidental gathering of peculiar companions, Smith invites us first to consider but then to accept that the built world is something that we, as humans, do indeed construct and alter but that this built world, in turn, has a profound effect on us as we occupy it. A widely acceptable truism, within architectural discourse it nevertheless remains rather unclearly demonstrated that the social and spatial lives of people and buildings are inextricably connected.
In Land Marks, in the end, one is left curious as to why, how and, critically, who has made the things drawn, where does each thing fit in to our wider social and spatial stories and to when does each thing belong. As these are much the same questions that preoccupy humans, Smith has, in this work, optimistically offered a common ground, a space between in which the interconnectedness of people and built-place can be more substantially, productively and ambitiously discussed. It is a space we should enthusiastically occupy.
Emmett Scanlon is an architect focused on the social purpose of architecture. His practice is focused on finding new ways to describe the relationship between people and their built environment through building and spatial design, drawing, research, writing, education and exhibition curation. He is co-ordinator of the MArch program at University College Dublin and Architecture Adviser to the Arts Council. In 2018 Emmett will complete the public art project Home on the Grange and participate in Engaging Places, a collaborative art and architecture project led by Create in association with Heart of Glass and in collaboration with Tate Exchange / Tate Liverpool.
MADE AND CONSIDERED
Foreword by Architect Denis Byrne exhibition Made and Considered, darc space, 26 Nth Gt Georges St, Dublin 1, 20 May – 17 June 2016
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ Philip Larkin ‘I remember, I remember’
For an understanding of the city – a construct that we consider to be the supreme work of art – we must necessarily be aware of the many invisible forces – political, social, cultural, legislative, etc – that caused it to be and continue to shape it into what we actually see. Dorothy Smith is an artist who works back from this ‘what we actually see’ in order to ask questions of and about the forces active in city creation. Her work interrogates and critiques the city while also delighting in the sudden beauty of an objet (or scène) trouvé. These moments of intensity, or urban epiphanies, are captured – generally separated from context – by her unsentimental eye and rendered with superb technique. These are matter-of-fact images that knowingly dance between the dichotomies of local/global, memorable/forgettable, ordinary/extraordinary – images that thoroughly celebrate inherent urban ambiguities.
One is reminded of the broader cultural context within which the work resides – from the Situationists (Debord, etc.) with ideas of the spectacle and dérive, or urban drift, to the Psychogeographers (Sinclair, Self), profound proponents of place and locale, to the painters and photographers of the mosaic that is the modern city (Georges Shaw and Grosz, Eugène Atget, Bernd and Hilla Becher, among many others) – and furthermore, is struck by how well it holds its own in this company.
This is the work of surfacing urban moments, of focussing on the things in cities that we don’t see because we see them everywhere or we see them every day. This focus and subsequent representation prompts a ‘seeing for the very first time’ reaction that causes a visual re-evaluation about the objects that surround us; some of which are temporary and functional (Arrangement), others of which are temporary but abandoned (Made and Considered), others again are permanent but about to undergo change (Underpinning), while others still are permanent but fragmentary (Procession). All of these urban conditions, and more, exist within the small area of Dublin’s north inner city that is the focus of Smith’s intense scrutiny. We are all indebted to her for collecting so assiduously, and we can say almost scientifically, this evidence of the wealth of local urban taxonomy.
darc space was set up in the dark days of 2009 as a forum for discourse on the built (and unbuilt) environment. We set it up in part of our office – we are mainly architects – initially with a focus on architecture (drawings, models, talks, etc). This later expanded to include exhibitions and events concerned with the related arts of painting, photography, etching, movies, even, on occasion, fashion; but always centred within the evolving constellation of environmental issues.
We are happy that Dorothy Smith is exhibiting her work here at darc space – ‘placing it in an architectural context’, as she told us. This art has many things to say in many contexts and we hope that it will have additional resonance and reach from within these walls.
Denis Byrne, darc space gallery, 26 North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1, May 2016
Tom McGuirk writes on the exhibition Made and Considered.
[The artist] is bending over his table, darting on to a sheet of paper the same glance that a moment ago he was directing towards external things, skirmishing with his pencil, his pen, his brush, … He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call modernity … it is much easier to decide outright that everything about the garb of an age is absolutely ugly than to devote oneself to the task of distilling from it the mysterious element of beauty that it may contain, however slight or minimal that element may be. By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. Charles Baudelaire (1863)1
Looking at these drawings, Baudelaire’s words come to mind because it is immediately apparent that these works, drawn from the gritty urban environment, are a distillation, a refining. The drawings have the kind of formal quality that often characterises the best kind of ‘realist’ interpretation. Take Made and Considered, a drawing of a “large derelict plywood sign on an empty plot, part of the Mater Hospital site”.2 The precision of this large drawing and its evident intricate methodology, is not at the service of a mere rendering of surface texture, rather it is a translation of this multi-layered, ad hoc structure into a refined formal language of repeated graphite lines. This language is also employed in works like Underpinning and Come and Go. So that rather than a simply mimetic response, we encounter interpretation, re-presentation, invention.
Looking at these drawings we recognise the “garb of an age”, or more precisely its under-garb. Smith’s subject is the messy, fugitive, contingent, stuff she describes as an “almost invisible part of our infrastructure”, 3 disregarded but nevertheless the stuff that literally underpins our built environment, something to which Underpinning, a highly formalised intricate drawing of ‘rebars’ also attests.
Smith’s interpretations make us look at these familiar yet ephemeral things and spaces differently, newly. The utilitarian nature of these spaces is acknowledged in some of the titles such as Come and Go, an anonymous Brutalist stairwell, while a similar piece, Procession, presents a nondescript flight of concrete steps, each describes a terrain vague brought into telescopic focus. It is the banality of these spaces, their neutrality that gives Smith license to reinvent so freely.
Smith’s perambulations around her Phibsborough neighbourhood, and elsewhere in Dublin’s north inner city, recollect Baudelaire’s modern artist “ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert”. 4 Her modus encompasses that rich tradition of the flâneur, the Situationist and the psycho-geographer, as narrated by Baudelaire, Joyce, Benjamin and Debord. Baudelaire insists that the artist has a “loftier” aim than that of the “mere flâneur”, in pursuit of “the fugitive pleasure of circumstance.” It might be suggested that the artist searches for something equally fugitive, a kind of knowledge.
These drawings literally draw our attention to “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”, the verso to the corporate grand façade’s immutable recto. Baudelaire opposes these two distinct registers, worldviews that are reflected in our built environment and our psychophysiological responses to it. Worldviews invariably have a political dimension and the longing for immutable beauty and eternal truth is a profoundly conservative impulse – a grain that these drawings run against.
Smith sees her work as ’embedded’ in both the “geographical and social space” in which she lives, and she sees this embeddedness as significant on a number of levels: her social and environmental activism are of a piece with her art making, they are a “continuum”. 5 There is another aspect to this embeddedness, one that she recognises as touching upon the idea of drawing as a means of knowledge generation. The title of the exhibition Made and Considered is significant in this regard. The artist is aware of this aspect, and sees her drawing as “a way of thinking,” the kind of thinking that is situated and embedded within the environment.
This “situated cognition” view of knowledge 6 sees cognition as “embodied” and “embedded,” reliant on both the body and the environment (both physical and social). This pragmatic, situated and enactive approach challenges conventional western conceptions of knowledge that regard it as something static and immutable. John Dewey characterises (1916) this view: “truth exists ready-made somewhere” and he regards it as essentially conservative and antidemocratic. For him, knowledge must involve action, and it must be of use: “only that which … enable[s] us to adapt the environment to our needs and to adapt our aims and desires to the situation in which we live is really knowledge.” 7
The exhibition title also brings to mind Giambattista Vico’s verum-factum principle, employed in defence of the humanities and the arts. Vico argued (1710) that, “the true is precisely what is made.” 8 Here we find the idea that we, as human beings, can only have true knowledge of that which we have made, whether individually or collectively. The significance of this point with regard to these drawings of the built environment is twofold. These spaces and structures were originally drawn by architects and made by builders. Now they are made and considered anew through Smith’s drawing process. On Vico’s view drawing might perhaps be seen as the means of knowing the constructed world par excellence.
The knowledge embodied in these drawings and generated through them represents the antithesis of what Dewey condemned as a “scorn” for the kind of situated knowledge that deals in messy stuff, in the physical, the particular, the fugitive and the contingent, that regards knowledge as “high and worthy in the degree in which it deals with ideal symbols instead of with the concrete.” 9 He is referring to the idealist metaphysics of eternal and immutable truths alluded to by Baudelaire. Against these, Dewey asserts an “enactive” and “situated” approach to knowing.
There is a thread that runs through the fabric of Smith’s work. It is not just the content of these drawings; the ends if you like – motifs from the fabrication of public spaces – but also the means, the acts of drawing, that have a political dimension. Dewey tells us that in the conservative view “means are menial, subservient, slavish; and ends liberal and final … Thus the identification of knowledge with esthetic contemplation and the exclusion from science of trial, work, [and the] manipulation … of things.” 10
Both Vico and Dewey’s ideas contribute to the rehabilitation of species of knowledge represented by the arts, and they both saw such knowledge as ultimately benefitting and democratising the civic sphere and the public space. In this centenary year of the proclamation of the Irish Republic we might remember that the res publica originally referred to things and spaces held in common, as opposed to the res privata, the private sphere. These drawings emerge from a complex multi-layered engagement with that public sphere. The artist sees the various layers and dimensions of that engagement as a continuum that encompasses social, aesthetic, epistemological and, yes, political dimensions.
Tom McGuirk, April 2016
Tom McGuirk is Senior Lecturer in Art Theory/Critical Theory at the University of Chester.
Baudelaire, C., (Mayne. J. trans.) 1964. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon Press. pp. 12-13.
2 Correspondence with the artist.
4 Baudelaire, C., (Mayne. J. trans.) 1964. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon Press. p. 12.
5 Correspondence with the artist.
6 Aydede, M. and Robbins, P. eds., 2009. The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
7 Dewey, J., (Boydston, J.A., ed.) 2008. The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 9, 1899-1924: Democracy and Education, 1916. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 344-354.
8 Costelloe, T., 2016, “Giambattista Vico”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), E. N. Zalta, ed., URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/vico/
9 Dewey, J., (Boydston, J.A., ed.) 2008. The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 9, 1899-1924: Democracy and Education, 1916. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 274.
10 Dewey, J. 2000. Experience and Nature. Enlarged, Revised edition. Dover Publications. p. 124.
On the Persistence of the Analogue Ethnographer
Vagamond Reviews on Walking/Drawing – Dorothy Smith’s and Kathy Herbert’s residency in Draoicht Arts Centre, Dublin 15, July 2014
‘We learn a place and how to visualize spatial relationships, as children, on foot and with imagination. Place and the scale of space must be measured against our bodies and their capabilities.’
Gary Snyder “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking”, in The Practice of the Wild, 1990
Drawing can be a meditative act. It requires concentration and attention to detail in the careful act of looking. We tend to think of it as a solitary process. Yet the recent series of drawing projects by Kathy Herbert and Dorothy Smith working individually at Phizzfest (2013 and 2014) and collaboratively at Satellite Studios and the Draíocht Arts Centre, suggest something different.1 These projects point to an opening out of the drawing process. They represent a deliberate move beyond solitary studio practice in order to bring the act of drawing out into the public domain, into the everyday rhythms of the street and into the neighbourhood. Most recently, with Walking/Drawing, Herbert and Smith have brought their public and collaborative drawing explorations to the somewhat unlikely terrain of the urban shopping centre complex. Vagabond Reviews caught up with Dorothy and Kathy at the Blanchardstown Town Centre in the north west of Dublin during an intensive, five-day summer residency at the Draoícht Arts Centre. In the main gallery, the artists were developing an eight metre collaborative drawing.
Read more Walking/Drawing Vagabond Reviews
On the Tightrope
Modern World pencil on paper 38.5 x 38.5cm
Foreword by Mick O’Dea, RHA, Aosdana, published in the catalogue to accompany On The Tightrope exhibition Gormleys Fine Art June 2014.
To download PDF of catalogue click here
At a time when the definition of drawing is wide open, when any type of mark making is drawing by definition, it is refreshing to encounter the work of artists who have built up a significant body of individual, sophisticated and intelligent drawings, drawings that have been honed from years of careful observation of the world around them. Tentative inquiry, firm resolution, coupled with a thorough knowledge of past achievements by masters of the art, have brought the careers of Sahoko Blake and Dorothy Smith to their present level of accomplishment.
Sahoko Blake, originally from Tokyo has a distinguished career as an underwater camera woman, teacher and artist to her credit, she has been living in Ireland for the past twenty years, always beside the sea which competes with terra firma as her natural habitat. Her drawings of sea creatures and animal skulls have many of the characteristics of the drawings made by artists who accompanied the great explorers when seeking out new habitats, plants and animals. They are made in order to describe and understand as fully as possible. The images in these works have emerged, teased out carefully from the surface of the paper with the nuances and textures of the subject subtly and firmly realized. There is a sense of wonder in the encounter by the artist of her subject, she is amazed by what nature has presented to her for contemplation, her translations into drawings communicate that sense of wonder. We encounter highly tuned work, drawings that are made on the tightrope, demanding the full concentration of the artist whose considerable gifts bring her vision of the fabulous world that surrounds her directly to us.
Dorothy Smith is an artist with a long established career in Ireland. She has been successfully involved in arts administration from the perspective of a trained artist before devoting herself full time to her art. She has organized exhibitions and events while participating in residencies and showing in many of the major national exhibitions. Her approach to drawing is analytical, she is fascinated by structure and construction. Apart from her ongoing exploration of the human form and the portrait, an area of activity that she shares with Blake, Smith has made a lifelong study of the built environment that she is exposed to everyday. Currently her attention is focused on her Dublin neighbourhood, in particular noticing spaces such as traffic islands; those places that offer sanctuary to the pedestrian as they negotiate our shared public space. She is drawn to the structures that people blur out, that stand forlorn, such as a derelict freestanding electric advertising board, the size of a building, just being there. In Smith’s world, they step forward, while the more established street scape recedes. Smith knows that we are shaped by our environment and that we have developed highly sophisticated ways of editing what intrudes into our personal narrative. The language of drawing becomes the subject as well as the means of inquiry for Smith, her box drawings and crumpled paper studies observe patterns and dislocations in line that are very beautiful and revealing. These are ground breaking works.
Blake and Smith met at the drawing sessions that were held at the RHA Studio back in 2000. Both artists were invited to partake in the formative drawing sessions with interested Academicians that led to the present stage in the revival of the Academy School. Many connections were forged at that time between artists who were passionate about drawing and what drawing can do. It is the great communicator, transcending language barriers and touching people deeply and profoundly. The Academy School continues to provide a forum for artists to meet and exchange ideas. Sahoko Blake and Dorothy Smith have been intrinsically linked to the school since it’s formation, the idea for this exhibition has its genesis there, words can only say so much about drawing, the drawings presented by these two colleagues say a lot about us and our world because their authorship is by clearheaded observers and artists with insight.
Mick O’ Dea RHA Aosdána
In Conversation with Kathy Herbert and Des Kenny
Conversation about Walking/Drawing on the Draiocht blog July 2014. Read more here.
The Allegory of Place
Silvia Loeffler profiles Kathy Herbert and Dorothy Smith’s project ‘Open to the Public’, which was shown at Satellite Studios Project Space, Dublin during October 2013.
Dorothy Smith, Pencil on paper, 30 x 20cm
To download PDF of article click here
The character of buildings and the economic realities of an area are all factors that can colour our perception and experience of place. The rhythms of a city, along with its smells and sounds, create emotional impulses, ranging from a sense of well being to repulsion. A focus on emotional and visual responses to space was at the heart of Kathy Herbert and Dorothy Smith’s recent ‘Open To the Public’ (9 – 19 October 2013) project at Satellite Studios Project Space, Dublin.1 In doing so, their work stresses the private and intimate relationship we can have with our environment. Their joint work is a search for possible alternative interpretations of public space.
Both Herbert and Smith have an ongoing interest in taking art out of formal studio and gallery frameworks and a keen interest in forging more dynamic relationships between the artist and the audience. As the title of their project emphasised, their concern was to expand on public experience and involvment with the creative process.
Drawing is central to both Smith and Herbert’s working methods. Prior to ‘Open to the Public’, the artists undertook individual drawing projects as part of Phizzfest (Phibsborough Community and Arts Festival), Herberts’s Drawing Conversations and Smith’s weareallinthistogether. 2 The artists’ projects for Phizzfest used drawing in public spaces to investigate issues of communication and audience interaction and formed the basis for their work in Satellite Studios.
After working at Phizzfest, the two artists felt the need to take their project one step further and exhibit the work made. This process would also provide a documentation for work which, in Kathy Herbert’s case in particular, was extremely ephemeral. With this in mind, they spoke to Roisin McNamee in Satellite Studios, who invited them to use the Project Space, which they had just acquired from the landlord. Through meetings and emails, the dates were fixed and also the cost. The complete project was run and funded by the artists. The ground floor project space of Satellite Studios, Dublin is a highly visible space, with large windows facing onto Upper Dominick Street. Kathy Herbert and Dorothy Smith were invited to create work to address this context for 10 days.
The roots of Herbert and Smith’s joint project go back to 2011. Herbert had just finished her MA in Sculpture at NCAD and was looking for a way to create some kind of connection with the audience for her work. Herbert also had the idea that she wanted art to be part of everyone’s everyday experience. The artist decided to keep it as simple as possible and started to draw in public and invite passers-by to come over and converse with her. As this proved successful, Herbert then started to apply to make this work in arts festivals, being accepted first for ‘Earwig!’ at the Tuam Arts Festival in 2011 and the following year for Phizzfest, where she met Dorothy Smith. Where Herbert’s practice is concerned with art and ecology, Dorothy Smith’s work is focussed on the built environment and how experience of the everyday is shaped, often in relation to overlooked or empty premises. As both Smith and Herbert had interelating ideas and aims for their work, they decided to team up. They then worked with Draiocht for National Drawing Day and with Phizzfest.
‘Open to the Public’ may be related to the Situationist International movement, operating out of Paris in the 1950s and 1960s – specifically their famed collage-based maps which sought to chart psychological influences on space and other playful associations. The Situationists called for new modes of interpretating the city, based on an exploration of the ‘emotional’ realms of urban space, whilst conducting their ‘psychogeographic’ explorations. This idea, and the Situationists’ call for exploring the concept of an ‘intimate and tender mapping’ of public spaces,seems particularly apt in relation to ‘Open to the Public’. 3
It is important to note as well that the Situationists’ maps were not an exercise in gaining dominance or control over a domain, which may often be the motivation for ‘official’ charting of space. Rather they sought to highlight how our interaction with urban space could mirror our internal landscape of emotions. And more radically still, these ‘tender mappings’ sought to transcribe our bodily and mental movement in space, as it is emotions that ‘move us’, literally and metaphorically, from one place to another, with every journey consisting of encounters and actions like departing, meeting, staying.
Word Tree was a key work made by Kathy Herbert for ‘Open to the Public’. It comprised a large-scale wall drawing, created in-situ at the Satellite Studios project space. The piece was part of a body of work entitled Drawing Conversations that Herbert has been developing since Phizzfest earlier in the year. As part of the process, passers by were invited to converse with the artist while she was drawing.
Herbert sees this as a way of bringing drawing into the public domain – both in terms of its making and reception.4 There is an emphasis on the live and unique nature of these exchanges, as no photgraphy or video recording is permitted. Following these conversations, the artist incorporated notes into the drawing about what was said. A crucial part of the process involved the work’s ultimate erasure and removal – Herbert washed layers of the drawing away until nothing was left. This was a work that celebrated the power of the ephemeral: a kind of anti-monument.
Smith presented weareallinthistogether, the composite drawing that featured 30 portraits of members of the public, each of whom had sat for 10 – 30 minutes to be drawn during the course of the September 2012 Phizzfest festival. The work fused representations of this group of people, both as a community and set of individuals. As the drawings were built up over time with each portrait layered over the previous, individual sitters are not recognisable, but a pattern emerges that recognises both individuality and commonality. The drawings were photographed after each sitting and these images were then animated allowing the slow build up of each work to be viewed. All sitters were emailed the finished animations – a gesture acknowledging their role in the collective creation of the work. These animations were looped and screened on a monitor in the project space but also in another ‘offsite’ venue – McGeogh’s Public House in Phibsborough, where the videos were visible from the street.
In the Project Space, Smith also worked on a series of drawings of ‘Phibsborough Tower’, the tower above Phibsborough Shopping Centre – which she saw as a particular urban landmark. Commenting on the process of working in the ‘open studio’ situation of the ‘Open to the Public’ project, Smith emphasised how important the “quality of the process” was in informing her work, which explores the fabric of urban space.
‘Open to the Public’ explored the implications of navigating the city in visually and emotional terms as kind of hybrid mode of transit – and one especially sensitive to in-between zones, thresholds and the shifting cultural identity of parts of the city. Overall, both artists used their drawing-based practices to explore our relationship to public space as a kind of allegory for all human relationships and experience. In doing so, ‘Open to the Public’ also raised questions about use – relating both to the role of artists documenting the community and how communities themselves inhabit and make use of the buildings that comprise their locales.
The sensitivity of Kathy Herbert and Dorothy Smith’s ‘Open to the Public’ project to its context served to counteract all-too-common experiences of urban space: alienation and lack of ownership. In opening up the solitary and private process of drawing to public interation, ‘Open to the Public’ stressed an individual and human relationship with place.
Herbert and Smith navigated these questions in a non-didactic and open-ended way. Their mapping processes were based on following rather than leading, and attempted to reflect the lived and felt experience of a place. Both artists utilised novel approaches to drawing in order to offer an alternative survey of the infrastructure and inhabitants of a particular area. In this way, ‘Open to the Public’ introduced new possibilities for the interpretation of place.