MEET: Artist Kevina-Jo Smith

MEET: Artist Kevina-Jo Smith

Photographer: Louisa Clayton

Kevina-Jo Smith’s art is rubbish. Literally. The Blue Mountains artist works with found objects to prevent waste from ending up in landfill. String, bottle tops, bones and fabric scraps…little is spared the braiding, painting, knitting, embroidering, sewing treatment involved in Smith’s art practice.

We chatted to her about her upcoming Katoomba show and about making art in her Blue Mountains home. 

What’s your background?
I moved around a lot as a kid, my favourite thing was to build cubby houses and create fun, safe spaces with my siblings. I studied painting for 6 years in Melbourne; I went to both TAFE and the Victorian College of the Arts. It was an excellent mix of learning practical skills and developing conceptual thought. Sometimes I put those skills to work making costumes and props for film and TV. But mostly I am concentrating on developing as a practicing artist. 

You create a lot of site-specific art. What’s the process for creating something that works within an environment? 
I love the challenge of unusual spaces, whether it is inside or outside, tiny or monumental or even someone’s body. I guess it is a form of problem solving, I like to fill spaces in an unexpected way, play with the positive and negative space in a way to make people look where they wouldn't normally or make them aware of something that they wouldn’t notice otherwise.

You now live in the Blue Mountains. Does your art have a sense of place?
Being in the Blue Mountains has afforded me to continue pursuing a career as an artist, it has definitely allowed me a period of intense concentration and a higher production rate.

I don’t think what I do is related to being in the Blue Mountains, I have made art in many places around the world. Every project or exhibition is a development from the last; everything that I produce is connected to my thoughts and concepts, not really a specific place. But the air up here is really nice, the views are incredible and I have stumbled into an incredibly supportive and active group of artists and actors to have a beer with after work.

You’ve described yourself as a bit of a Bower Bird (best birds!). Where do you fossick and find your materials and what are they?
I am! Most of my materials come from trying to save things from ending up in landfill or the ocean… When I visit friends now they often have collections of string, bottle tops, bones, bits of fabric etc for me. People are becoming more conscious of what they are throwing out and often check to see if I will use things or pass them on to someone who will.

I also collect when I travel, usually things that display skills and craft from that particular region, these things inspire me and often eventually end up in my work.

I am always collecting from nature as well, so my ‘nest’ (my shed) is full of natural and found objects with a similar ratio to a Bower Birds collection.

Have you always used found objects or was there a particular turning point for you where you no longer felt comfortable using new materials?
Both. I have always incorporated found objects into my work for as long as I can remember, but there was definitely a turning point. In 2009 I started little experiments with myself… I decided to challenge myself with not throwing anything into the recycling bin. Nothing. With the idea of finding a new use for every item within my work and life in general. The real life situation of bottles and tins piling up on my bench top immediately changed what I purchased. I think it took about a week for me to stop buying bottled water. Not buy single packaged items. Stop buying take away food (a completely unconscious regular, daily event when you live in built up areas where its cheaper and easier to get take away than cook) this totally and immediately changed me forever.

I was living in an apartment in Kings Cross, Sydney, where there is obviously super regular garbage collection. It was just too easy to put things in the recycling bin and never think about them again, you just kind of hope someone is doing the right thing with all that waste.

Around the same time I also implemented not buying a single item of clothing for 1 year (underwear excluded). This completely changed the way I buy clothes. Forever. I am extremely conscious about supporting handmade, small ethically run clothing labels. Or buying second hand.

Buying new art materials often comes with the problem of un-recyclable, single use packaging…

Describe an average day for yourself...
At the moment I have been non stop making work. I have been fortunate enough to have a run of shows. So I am braiding, painting, knitting, embroidering, sewing and answering questions that I am trying to get better at answering!

What do you listen to while you work? (music, podcasts, silence, the birds?)
I mostly watch a lot of environmental and political documentaries until I get too depressed about deforestation/animals/ocean/single use plastic etc My work is really about creating awareness, so I am fuelled by facts. When I am really stressed and nearing a deadline I will get into a trashy series because my brain can’t take any more actual information at that point.

I live with my partner who is a musician, so when he is in writing/composing mode I really enjoy the repetitive rhythm to work to.  I get kind of mesmerised by his making process and it works when I am doing meditative things like weaving.

What can people expect of your upcoming solo show?
This project brings a microscope over my practice. Woman and Rhythm is an exercise in processing the strength given to me by women, mostly very new friends who were around me after my mother passed away, the invaluable strength gained over shared experience and mutual understanding. I have been thinking about the skills and knowledge that women have the power to impart or the choice to withhold as mothers and as teachers.

I am intrigued by the way women adorn themselves, the fascination with colour, texture and symbolism is evident in cultures all over the world. The way women encompass history and modernity, tradition and invention, sometimes without even being aware.

I have been thinking about the power women hold in everyday acts such as cooking, dancing, dressing and storytelling. These activities are the way we learn, or don’t learn, about our personal history and culture. 

I would like to offer people an environment of approachable and awareness building conversation, to provide the strength to investigate history and culture, to encompass or develop traditions. Whether it is as simple as sharing recipes or passing down life skills or as complex as breaking down misunderstandings between cultures, continue to educate yourself and each other with an open mind.