‘We Were a Bit Like the Addams Family’: Artist Kiki Smith Explains How Her Unusual Upbringing Inspires Her Work

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Kiki Smith in New York. Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images.
Kiki Smith in New York. Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images.

Artist Kiki Smith, daughter of the American sculptor Tony Smith, had an unorthodox upbringing in New Jersey. “There was a gravestone with our name in front of the house,” she said in 2003. “The kids would say I was a witch.”

Her father’s fascination with death, combined with her upbringing in the Catholic church, had an impact on her career trajectory as well: instead of elaborate, abstract forms, which were the hallmark of her father, she gravitated toward storytelling and began to develop complicated narratives for her work.

“I had this vision that I was supposed to make another Noah’s ark, but it was full of dead animals,” she told Art21 in an exclusive interview. Animals, both dead and alive, are a huge part of her practice, as metaphors for human relationships and harbingers of mythology or biblical stories.

Installation view of “Kiki Smith: Murmur” at Pace Gallery. Photo: Kyle Knodell. © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Smith uses drawing, printmaking, and sculpture to investigate the body and to tell stories about its place in the natural and metaphysical worlds.

A suite of new works, along with a selection from the past few years, is on view in “Kiki Smith: Murmur,” a solo exhibition open now at Pace Gallery in Chelsea. The show highlights the full range of her multidisciplinary approach, and includes bronze sculptures and print etchings.

“Art is something that moves from your insides into the physical world,” she said in 2003. “Basically, I think art is just a way to think.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Kiki Smith: Murmur” is on view at Pace Gallery in Chelsea through March 30. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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