Sometimes, during a walk in the woods, a leaf is all it takes to inspire fiber artist Vicki Smith. At other times, it’s the walk itself.
For Smith, life is interconnected with nature, and so is her art. Smith, 54, creates handmade paper bowls and collages from plant material and found objects. She says her pieces tend to develop themselves.
“It becomes a dialogue between me and the piece,” Smith says.
From flowers and cut leaves on the interior to silk and strung beads on the exterior, Smith’s delicate and lacy bowls take on many forms. Her resourcefulness in the molds she uses contributes to the bowls’ variety. Household items, such as ceramic bowls and lampshades, and various-sized plastic balls, have all been tried. A measuring cup also has Smith’s approval as a mold, but her family doesn’t like the idea as much.
“They get mad when I use it for art instead of pancakes,” she says with a smile.
No matter what shape Smith picks for her bowls, a general theme runs through all of them. They all incorporate natural material, which is an important aspect to Smith.
“I like taking something from the natural world that’s very important to me and bringing it inside,” she says. By bringing nature indoors, Smith says her work is a way to share “some appreciation for the natural world.”
Take Smith’s piece, “Wood’s Edge,” for example. Inside the light-brown, hemp, fiber bowl is a patch of green moss and pale yellow Queen Ann’s Leaf resting atop two crisscrossed Eastern red cedar strips. A curled red leaf lays between a small stone and a snail shell in the center of the mossy floor. Smith found inspiration for the piece in the work of fiber artist Polly Adams Sutton. Smith was impressed with Sutton’s adventurous process for gathering materials on the upper west coast. So Smith decided to use the same principle in the wooded areas of Boone County. Like many artists, Smith says she finds her work spiritually rewarding. She cleans houses for a steady income, but says “being an artist is the only thing that feels right.”
Working with fiber also feels right to Smith. Besides being a papermaker, she’s an experienced spinner, weaver and basket maker. Smith enjoys the physical aspects of fiber art and isn’t the type who will sit at a desk or in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. But her work is more than something to keep her busy. Smith says fiber art gives her a better opportunity to explore the materials she uses.
“I can experiment more with fiber art,” she says.
Collage is Smith’s latest endeavor in fiber art. Smith recalls elementary school when everyone made collages with colored paper.
“I never got to do that. I was never in the right class,” she says, then adds with a chuckle, “so maybe I’m working out that frustration.”
Smith says her collages help her create a mood.
“They show the harmony between the human spirit and the natural world,” she says. One way Smith demonstrates this connectedness is by incorporating bars of sheet music in many of her collages. She also likes to use gold thread to symbolize nature’s importance in her work, using it in both her collages and bowls.
Smith makes her bowls in a studio provided by a friend, but she works on the collages at home. Both spaces have their advantages, especially with a husband and teenage daughter in the mix.
“It’s convenient to work at home,” Smith says. “However, there are distractions at home. Everyone walks through my studio.” So Smith finds solitude in her studio away from home. “This is where I come so no one can get me,” she says.
Smith’s studio is tucked away in a quiet corner of a residence near Hinkson Creek. Windows offer light and a glimpse into the woods behind the house. Strips of tree bark, ceramic and glass bowls, and plastic balls of various sizes lay on several small tables. Yellow and white tubs contain plant fibers, such as mulberry, hemp, ramie and flax, submerged in water. The studio is much like Smith is as an artist — quiet, thrifty and peaceful, with an appreciation for the natural world.
Smith’s interest in the environment goes beyond her artwork. As a member of Friends of Stephens Lake, Smith fought to preserve the lake in 2000. More recently, Smith helped gather signatures to put the renewable energy initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot. It passed.
Along with her involvement in environmental issues, Smith is a member of the Columbia Weavers and Spinners Guild, Columbia Art League and Missouri Fiber Artists, all whom she exhibits her work with regularly. Her work has won numerous awards, including the piece “Three Begging Bowls” in the fiber category of the 44th Annual Boone County Art Show (2003).
Whether it’s with nature or with art, harmony is important to Smith. Her art may look simple, but she says there’s plenty of meaning — and work — behind it.
“I put a lot of thought into it,” she says.