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Kiki In Wonderland
Text by Maria Louis
Published: Volume 15, Issue 1, January, 2007

She has been called the Queen of Arts and anyone who has seen her creations may nod in agreement. With tattooed rings and stars decorating her arms and setting off her dazzling mane, American artist, Kiki Smith is almost like a work of art herself, says Maria Louis, who met her on the eve of her exhibition in India

I remember seeing Van Gogh's Starry Night and Picasso's Guernica when I was a child. Though I was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1954, I grew up in New Jersey. Artists like Barnett Newman and Richard Tuttle came by our big Victorian house in South Orange, N.J., and contemporary art was as commonplace for us as air. I enjoyed visiting the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and loved puppet shows and those of performance artists like Meredith Monk and John Jonas.
My mother, Jane Lawrence, was a Broadway actress and opera singer before she married my father, the well-known sculptor, Tony Smith. Her friend, playwright, Tennessee Williams, was best man at their wedding. Later, she returned to her stage career. My father trained and worked as an architect. He painted and fabricated large geometric sculptures from steel.
We were the local weirdos until I was a teenager... when it suddenly became cool and exotic to have an artist father. I have vivid memories of a childhood spent working for my father. After school each day, my younger twin sisters and I would make paper models of octahedrons and tetrahedrons for him to use for his sculptures. Though I did not appreciate the work then, I became interested in craft because of that. I am privileged to live my life around artists. My younger sister, Seton, who makes large photographs, mainly of architecture and landscapes, decided early in life that she wanted to be an artist...but I was still struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. I studied baking for a while, trained as an emergency medical technician...then at 24, I decided to be an artist.
Coming from an art family, I knew what it involved - having experienced the dedication, discipline and devotion it takes. I went to art school in Connecticut for a year and a half, then moved to New York and tried to make it as an artist. I did other jobs to support myself. I worked as a cook, a waitress, an electrician's assistant, and even did demolition work!
My first exhibited works were all based on human anatomy... In 1988, 10 years after I moved to New York, I showed works created from a variety of materials and included sculptures of a terracotta rib cage and a cast iron version of the digestive system. The genesis of that show was a book of anatomy that I was given.
My art is instinctive and intuitive, as I am largely self-taught. Over the years, I have experimented with ceramics, glass, paper, bronze sculpture, drawing as well as printmaking. The fantasy-driven imagery in my work does not represent my fantasies...I'm just playing with cultural fantasies that pre-exist.