By Leon D'Souza
There had to be something she could work with. She was searching for a trinket, anything small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. A spoon perhaps, or a keychain.
It would have to be something interesting, an object that would lend itself to distortion. After all, there's nothing exciting about art that doesn't tease the mind, she thought.
Greg Shulte's previous assignment had been incredibly challenging, but she had managed to set herself apart. The Utah State University art professor had instructed his Drawing II class to work on a really small drawing, "no bigger than 9 square inches." The idea was to get the group to think about detail and delicacy.
Smith was pondering the assignment at home when inspiration came. There was a window in front of her, and a light bulb resting on a book just ahead. In the bulb, she could see a vague image of the room.
It was mundane, yet special. It was art, or could be.
She put pencil to paper, producing a drawing Shulte now displays in a showcase outside studio 201 in the art building on campus, where he teaches his class.
Now, she was back home, where all her art begins. The new assignment was exactly the opposite of delicate.
Shulte's instructions were simple: Consider how an enlarged depiction of your subject will offer a potential viewer a new perception. You could focus on revealing interesting visual subtleties, such as distorted reflections in the bowl of a spoon. Or, the enlarged depiction might suggest a new connotation. For example, a harmless staple remover might be perceived as some huge menacing machine, capable of inflicting great bodily injury.
This was to be a gargantuan drawing: 36 x 42 inches exactly.
So what was so commonplace that it would be thrown to the trash heap under ordinary circumstances, but still possessed an absorbing quality when blown up larger than life? She didn't know.
She'd searched the place more than once.
Enough for now, she thought, as she gathered up her backpack and jacket. It was early morning, and she had the whole day to mull over possibilities. She decided to take a few of the items from her drawer to class.
All packed and ready, Smith was almost out the door when she felt some stuff move around inside her pockets.
She stopped. Somehow, her pockets had gone unchecked. They were always filled with odds and ends.
It's where she keeps her keys, lip gloss, credit cards, a list of things she shouldn't forget, and of course, her chap stick. But that day, there was something else, something with the intriguing characteristics she'd spent so much time in search of.
A foil gum wrapper. It was a eureka moment.
"That's it," she said.
Shulte chuckled when Smith mentioned the wrapper. However, he was quick to catch her vision.
"He talked about all the reflective surfaces," she recalled.
The reflective surfaces were the source of her enthusiasm. They had caught her interest when she fished the tiny wrapper out of her pocket.
The drawing was to use livestock markers as a medium. These are paint sticks, quite like jumbo crayons, hard as plastic on the outside, but greasy on the inside. They are commonly used for marking cows.
The paint sticks seemed to bring out an array of colors in the wrapper when held against it. There were shades of pink and blue, light and dark grays. This was going to be a thrill.
Smith began to think compositionally.
How did she want to place the wrapper? "Part of the assignment was when the object was enlarged, it had to be cropped off on all four sides," she explained.
"I decided to arrange it diagonally, left to right."
She was going for a deceptive look. "I didn't want people to recognize it immediately.I wanted them to ponder it awhile," she said.
Smith was now ready to create.
Studio 201 is on the northeast corner of the Fine Arts Visual building. It is a large room filled with artistic clutter.
On its east wall, a cork board is crammed with photocopies of pencil illustrations, with at least one depicting a woman in a suggestive pose. There are posters and photographs of illustrations pinned to another cork board on the south wall of the room. A long blackboard covers the rest of the wall. A large air duct hangs from the ceiling and stretches across the length of the south wall, above the cork and black boards, imparting an almost industrial feel to the place.
Students' paintings line the north wall, hidden from view by long, brown drapes.
Blobs of color along the edges of the drapes seem to mock an earnest request taped to them, which reads: "Please keep the drawing lab clean. Clean up any mess you make. Pick up any other trash you see."
Easels, tables, stools and chairs are scattered everywhere.
This is an artist's paradise.
And it is here that Smith will breathe life into canvas.
She begins at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning in early March.
The wrapper is arranged diagonally on a stool next to her easel, standing near a window on the north side of the room.
Smith lays out the object on paper with a pencil. She's doing a light sketch of the image she sees in her mind's eye.
She says she's excited about working with the "cattle markers," so she's going to get past the sketch very quickly. She picks up the black paint stick first.
"With the reflective surface, I want strong highlights, and lights and darks throughout the painting," she explains.
She draws over the outline with the marker. The dark background will cause the image to "pop out," she says.
Three days into the process, Smith is ready to experiment with color.
She'll play with black and white, shades of gray, red, pink and a host of other hues. But she'll move ever so gradually.
"You model an object slowly so that you can see contrasts. That way, you never have too much of any one color," she explains.
She enjoys the color. It makes things interesting, she says.
Smith works on a part of the background, next the inside of the wrapper, then the outside.
Fifteen hours and almost two weeks into the project, the wrapper resembles waves on an ocean.
Smith is working swiftly now. She's not going to have much more time. Shulte is talking to the class about a guest address the previous night.
"That was an interesting lecture last night. I hope some of you had a chance to attend," he says.
Smith isn't paying attention.
"I just listen for a few things," she says. She picks up on key words. So, if he were to say "due," she'd be all ears.
He doesn't, and she presses on.
She's working with what appears to be a dark gray waveform on the top right corner of the canvas.
She strokes the wave with her gray, white and black markers, and then rubs the colors into each other with her index finger.
Steeping back for a moment, she purses her lips, returning to massage the paint into the canvas with wild abandon.
A second finger joins in the motion. Smith is moving with the music.
From a boom box on the east end of the room, Taj Mahal is belting out 20th century blues. Shulte has three CDs in the player today. There's also Sheryl Crow and a sampler of 1980s music, mostly blues and soft rock.
Smith takes three steps away from the canvas, cocking her head slightly to the left.
She rushes at the wave again with her gray marker.
The geometry of different elements in the wrapper starts to become apparent. There's an obtuse triangle in the center. It is colored red, but not for long.
Smith rubs some black paint into the red. Now some gray. She's merging the two colors in with one finger. But she doesn't go back and forth like before.
The finger moves gently, from right to left, lifting at the end of each stroke like an expert pianist playing a staccato note.
The paint on her fingers is beginning to get in the way. She stops to rub them against a sheet of notebook paper lying on a chair. There's some green, black, red and white on them now.
How long does it take to get the paint off completely? "We have that orange goop stuff," she says pointing to a plastic container that looks like a bottle of orange juice, "It takes it off pretty good.
Heidi Ethington, who's working nearby, disagrees.
"Some of it stays under your cuticles for a week," she puts in.
Smith nods. "Yeah, it's pretty messy, but it's fun," she says.
The wrapper is full of character at this moment. There's red, white and gray on the lower corner, black and white in the middle and brilliant white with splotches of gray near the top. There's also blue, fading slowly under some white paint. Smith is near the end of her design.
With only finishing touches left, she allows herself a brief distraction, glancing momentarily at Elizabeth Olsen's easel to her left.
Olsen's drawing is threatening an oversized blue stapler, stylized to look like a shark, with gills and teeth reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Ethington is grooving with the music.
"Is that what they're singing about? Big black beauties back inside again?" she asks, laughing quietly.
Smith has gone back to work. "Yeah," she says, without taking her eyes off the wrapper.
Olsen stops to admire Smith's work. "I love the color, I just love the color. It is so subtle," she says. She's on her way out.
Smith appears more relaxed.
"It's looking good," she says. "I'm just trying to make the reflection more interesting."
Her work is almost finished.
On the morning of March 27, there is a semblance of order in studio 201.
The drawings, mounted on easels, are arranged in a semicircle in the middle of the large room. Together, they constitute a dazzling display of color. There are oranges, blues, yellows, light grays and dark grays.
The array of objects portrayed is eclectic.
There's a hook and a chain, a shell, a pencil sharpener, bunches of grapes, a gum wrapper, keys and lipsticks.
Laura Johnson, a professor of art at Depauw University in Indiana, is conducting the critique. Johnson is a candidate for a teaching position in the art department.
She's not quite sure what to make of the display. She hasn't worked with livestock markers before. Her eyes settle on one painting with comparatively brighter colors.
"What kinds of colors were used here?" she asks.
She is told the cattle markers came from a different store.
The students are instructed to nominate works they would like to discuss.
Caress Bergado points to a black and white portrait of a horseman resting on a thumb and index finger.
"I like the horseman on fingers," she says. "It looks really sad. It's emotional. It looks really small and fragile."
"It is beautiful in that you see the still life object like a real person," she says.
Both want to know what motivated Eric Westover, the artist, to make the fingers a part of the composition. "I put the fingers in to give it more interest," he says.
Other drawings are nominated. Smith's isn't one of them.
Then Shulte poses a leading question.
"Is there anything in here that you were wondering about?" he asks. The gum wrapper is an obvious choice.
"The beautiful part about foil gum wrappers is they really pick up the colors," Johnson points out.
Still, she isn't entirely satisfied with Smith's work.
"I think you can go further with it," she says. "I like the pink in the center. A warm color would really add some dimension to the piece."
Smith offers no reaction.
She stares at the wrapper.
"It makes me feel a little uncomfortable," Johnson continues.
"Would it help to add something else down in the corner?"
The discussion ends there.
Smith is a little confused, and slightly disappointed.
"I had hoped for a better critique," she says later.
"I know there are things I could do, but nobody usually says anything. I guess I could have changed the arrangement of the planes of the wrapper."
She can't understand what about the piece made Johnson ill at ease.
"The bit about it being uncomfortable was weird to me," she says.
But she's quick to move on. She's almost forced to. Shulte has already handed out another assignment.
"This one deals with texture. He wants us to draw anything from the texture of hair to the texture of spaghetti, up close," she explains.
She has no ideas yet. However, she's quite certain about one thing.
"I might try the cattle markers again," she says.