Susan Smith, “The Passage: mourning cloth.” Smith made this piece hand-stitched fabric piece for performance at site of Paso del Norte International Bridge. Photo courtesy of Susan Smith

Susan Smith traces her evolution as an activist-artist to President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border this past February. She had been moving toward activism for many years, but until then was reasonably content making paintings and prints that reflected her feelings. After Trump’s declaration, her art became urgent and universal.

“I just started to get more and more angry,” said Smith, 62, assistant director of the intermediate master of fine arts program at the University of Maine. “And as I got more angry, it seemed in some ways no longer enough to paint about something. I started to feel that action was as important as the artifact, or the object that I might make. There is a need to be in a place, doing research, to experience a place. It wasn’t enough anymore to make a piece about the refugee crisis, where I am making prints in my studio at UMaine. I need to witness. I need to show up.”

Susan Smith, “The Passage: Canteen.” Water canteen, recycled textiles from the Texas-Mexico border. Photo courtesy of Susan Smith

Since February, Smith and her husband, Derek, have traveled extensively from their home in Dover-Foxcroft to the U.S. border with Mexico, and visited refugee detention centers in Florida and Texas, where children and others are being held. She has created art at those facilities and won national recognition for her work. A fabric piece from El Paso, called “The Passage: Mourning Cloth,” received the Juror’s Award from the Surface Design Association for its upcoming International Exhibition in Print in the fall.

She is motivated to act because she objects to the government’s treatment of refugees, and thinks it’s inhumane to house kids in facilities that look and function like jails. Bearing witness is her way of taking action and pushing back against the government, she said.

INTEREST IN IMMIGRATION

It was Trump’s declaration that caused her to head to the border, but her artistic practice moved toward activism as she became tuned into the importance of place in her art and committed to the inclusion of natural materials – flowers, weeds and the dirt under her feet – in her work.

By reclaiming the earth and reinforcing her relationship with the land, Smith expanded the scope of her art to include issues of displacement and loss and tackled those issues from a local, regional and global perspective while using sustainable methods and materials. She has made art about the exodus of people from Dover-Foxcroft, including a series of prints, “This Is Piscataquis County.” She also coordinates a series of collaborations under the name #uprootedcollective, focusing on our issues of class, labor and the refugee experience.

Her interest in the border began in 2016, when immigration became an election-year issue. She and her students attempted various projects to get at the issue, including spending time on the Canadian border and then collaborating with a European filmmaker who was documenting the wave of migration across Europe. One of their projects involved collecting shoes and displaying them en masse at the Capitol in Augusta. In 2017, Smith completed an artist residency with Maine Farmland Trust at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center in Jefferson that enabled her to work on a project about migrant blueberry workers in Maine.

The Maine Farmland Trust residency helped her connect her interest in the natural environment with the kind of art that would lead to her activism. She began linking the disappearance of local industry in central Maine – “where homes and farmland sit empty and fallow,” she says – with the importance of place, physically and socially. She made prints from plant materials, took rubbings from olden wooden barns and reclaimed gardens long overgrown.

Anna Witholt Abaldo, co-director of the Fiore Art Center, said of Smith’s time in Jefferson, “She roamed the fields for plant materials, dug around in the old barn for rusty bits of old tools, couldn’t help but put her hands in the dirt of the neglected flower garden and left traces of her everywhere for others to find.”

Abaldo sees Smith’s evolution as an activist artist as a naturally occurring thing. “Susan cannot help but be an activist artist. Current issues move her to make art, raise her voice through her work, and in the process, engage other artists, students and communities. This is the common thread between the work that she was doing here at the residency, related to farming, environment, and the loss of connection to place, and the work she is doing at the border,” she said.

Susan Smith, an activist artist from Dover-Foxcroft, has spent many hours on the border with Mexico this year, bearing witness. Photo courtesy of Susan Smith

In 2018, Smith created the solo exhibition “The Botany of Sacrifice” that grew from her residency work with migrant farm laborers in both Maine and Texas. The work addressed issues ranging from invasive weeds, immigration, borders, fences and community power structures. She showed the work at Waterfall Arts in Belfast and the Portland Media Center.

As a native of Texas, she couldn’t stop thinking about the U.S. border with Mexico. The discussion felt personal, she said, and she felt compelled to go when Trump declared an emergency at the border.

FROM TEXAS TO MAINE AND BACK

Smith is a member of the graduate faculty in the intermedia MFA program at UMaine, where she also coordinates exhibitions at the Lord Hall Gallery. Her specialty is socially engaged art, which is a requirement of second-year MFA students, said Owen Smith, director of the intermedia program and no relation to Susan.

Socially and politically engaged art has been part of the curriculum at UMaine for many years, he said, and has taken on more urgency in recent years with the impact on local communities of such global issues as migration, displacement and climate change. Some students pursue it as a major, others set it aside, “but it’s certainly part of a range of ideas that any contemporary artist needs to be aware of,” he said.

Going back to her days in Texas, Smith made her living as a landscape designer. She owned her business and depended on migrant workers as employees. “They were willing to work, and they were standing on the corner. Today, they’re afraid to stand on the corner,” she said. “The link to what I am doing now has its roots in teaching community art, as well as my link to those people I hired. Had it not been for them, I would not have had my landscape business.”

Smith came to Maine in 2000 and enrolled as an undergraduate art student, studying painting. Owen Smith was among her early teachers and remembers her engaging the natural world in her work from her earlier paintings. “As a painter, she did a lot of work that responded to plant forms, growth and in some cases she used plant material in her working process,” Owen Smith said. “As she has evolved, one of her primary concerns is socially active arts but she still holds that interest in the natural world. The name Uprooted Collective refers back to her environmental interest, and she is doing a lot of work using natural dyes and organic materials. That is all part of her social practice.”

Smith’s art at the border involves photography and videography, as well as installation and performance. It’s less about creating something tangible to show people back home or elsewhere, and more about being in the moment and finding a way to bring personal meaning to the experience. When that happens, a social media post is the best tangible result. “I consider a post a piece of art,” she said. “As my husband says, just showing up is the art. The artifact that I might exhibit takes a back seat to the experience.”

For inspiration, she cites photographer Joanne Arnold, who works with Portland’s homeless population and others in town who have been displaced by Portland growth. Arnold impressed on Smith the value of showing up every day to witness and engage, and Smith has invited Arnold to speak to her students about practicing those values. Smith also draws inspiration from Maine performance artist Deborah Wing-Sproul, who encourages empathy by creating performance pieces that require endurance, commitment and a willingness to withstand discomfort.

SHOWING UP

Susan Smith, in a performance of “Sweeping Away the Shadow” at Paso del Norte bridge, between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, into the United States. Her performance is a futile attempt to erase the shadow of the border wall between countries. Photo courtesy of Susan Smith

In El Paso, Smith placed 75 prayer beads, made in Maine, along a bridge connecting the United States and Mexico. In Juarez, Mexico, she and her husband carried “The Passage: Mourning Cloth” through a sea of people. On the street outside a holding facility in El Paso, where the sun cast shadows of the razor wire on the surface of the border bridge, she methodically and ceaselessly attempted to sweep those shadows away with a simple broom. “It was an exercise in futility,” she said. “It was all about futility.”

At the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, Smith joined other activists who have stood vigil for months outside the fences and pledged to stay until the kids are released. “They bear witness every day. They have said to the kids, ‘We will stand here until you are free,’ ” Smith said. When the fence is blocked so witnesses cannot see into the facility, they stand on ladders. If the fence is raised, the activists get taller ladders.

“However high they make the fence, they just raise the ladders,” Smith said.

During a recent trip to Texas over the Fourth of July holiday, she posted photos of a dozen holding facilities that she visited over several days, usually getting close enough for a few quick shots before she was chased away. She is working with the poet Sharif Elmusa on a body of work related to the border that will be displayed at the Jerusalem Fund in Washington, D.C., later this year, and is planning her next trip to the border in the fall.

Owen Smith appreciates the depth of concern his colleague has for her communities. As an artist, she embodies “what it means to be someone who cares and someone who is willing to spend significant time and energy helping other people and working to raise issues of concern and really pursuing an agenda that is heartfelt and, from my point of view, deeply needed in this political atmosphere we are in.”

Adele Drake of Winterport has taken several classes with Smith at UMaine and participated in many collaborative projects. This summer, Smith invited students to her home in Dover-Foxcroft to show them how to make paint pigments from plants. “I see her as someone who is involved in her craft at a very deep level,” said Drake, who lives in Winterport. “She is always coming from a place of compassion, support and understanding – for her students and others. … The energy that she puts out showing up at these places and witnessing what is going on is amazing and inspiring.”

Martha Piscuskas, co-founder and former executive director of Waterfall Arts in Belfast and currently interim director of arts education for the Maine Arts Commission, said Smith’s work at the border is important because she is able to frame large, complicated issues in terms of local impact. “She’s been involved with the issue of migration and the resulting uprootedness for years,” Piscuskas said. “She ties together what is happening nationally with what is happening on our doorsteps. She digs into communities, working with students, other artists, community groups, social service agencies, schools, businesses, you name it.”

Smith does not consider herself to be a political artist. She sees herself as an activist-artist responding to important social issues. “My end goal is not to move the issue through lobbying or legislation,” she said. “Art is the end goal, and to make art you have to show up.”


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