Learn how artist Shinique Smith transformed an LA Jazz Club frequented by Miles Davis and John Coltrane into a highly enviable studio

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When Shinique Smith moved into a new studio in Los Angeles last year, she didn’t opt ​​for only a light-flooded space with towering ceilings and panoramic mountain views. Instead, she opted for a studio with all of the above, and which also happens to be housed in the old It Club, a legendary jazz venue where Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis often played in the 1960s.

It’s a more than suitable environment for an artist who regularly explores black history in her work. There, Smith dyes and bleaches fabric, paints canvases, bundles fabric into sculptures, and otherwise transforms materials with complicated histories — like indigo cloth, once a cash crop like cotton — into nuanced visual languages. For a recently opened exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas, Smith is showing a series of large-scale works she made while blindfolded during the Black Lives Matter protests.

We chatted with the artist about her inspirations in the studio, her must-have tools, and the video production she’s working on next.

Can you send us a photo of the most essential item(s) in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without them?

My most indispensable tools are my hands. I touch everything: building, drawing, packaging, grouping, painting, all my work is impregnated with my sense of touch.

The hand of Shinique Smith.

Also, next on the list is natural light! The shadows, reflections and colors projected in space influence my palette and my mood. It fills the air and affects the energy of all my work.

View from Shinique Smith’s studio window.

What is the studio task on your calendar this week that you are most looking forward to?

This week, I’m looking forward to my artist talk and reception for my new exhibit, “Stargazers.” Also, I can’t wait to plan my next video production, because my play Breathing Room: Journey Marked by the Moon evolved into a series. When I return to the studio, I will storyboard and speak with collaborators who will film with me on location in South Carolina and other places important to me, indigo production, and ancestral flyways.

Installation of sculptures by Shinique Smith Divinity Mitumba II (2018) and Grace stands by (2020) at his new show “Stargazers” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. “I had never seen them together before,” the artist said. “It was a moment for me to see how they resonated in close proximity to each other.”

What atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

I mostly keep it quiet in the studio when I prefer to listen to my own thoughts and inner music. Otherwise, I listen to non-fiction. I don’t listen to much fiction because I don’t want to be swayed or caught up in a manufactured emotion. I want to be as present as possible when I’m working, and if my mind wanders and emotions come up inside, they come from my own experience. One of the latest books is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Shaped the World. It reaffirms what I have always believed: that fabric is one of mankind’s greatest and most important inventions.

Shinique Smith selfies with colored water while making body prints for her exhibit at the Nerman Museum.

Who are your favorite artists, curators or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

I follow over 2,000 pages dedicated to friends, art, science, cute animals, and more. I haven’t been on social media much lately, but here are a few I checked out on Instagram today: @the.black.gaze, @cerebral_women, @friendswithyou, @geometriasagrada and @thehoodwitch .

Is there a photo you can send of your current work in progress to the studio?

Work in progress in Shinique Smith’s natural light-flooded studio: smoke dancersto the left and mutual butterflies.

When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get out of it?

I draw; new ideas or thoughts related to what I’m working on. I write or work on something else and then come back to the piece with new thoughts and fresh eyes.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you despise the most?

I admire honesty (candor/openness), and scholarship in application, composition and thought is key. I hate visual brutality, when something is illustrative without further internal dialogue, or when the painting relies too much on photography, might as well create a photo edition.

What images or objects do you look at while you work? Share your view from behind the canvas or your desk, where you spend the most time.

Studio inspiration wall, featuring sketches and images of past works involving jewelry and line and spiral geometries.

What is the last exhibition you saw that marked you and why?

Saw the Whitney Biennale as I was passing through town for a brief visit. It was overwhelming because I had to leave and there was so much to absorb in a short visit. Although I only saw part of it, the works I saw were provocative, so I can’t wait to go back.

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