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2020 Bermuda Biennial

Interview: Dr Edwin Smith

Transience

Transience, by artist and educator Dr Edwin M.E. Smith, is a striking installation produced for the 2020 Bermuda Biennial. The artwork, which is large in scale (144 x 96 inches) was created by applying duct tape directly onto the wall of the Young Gallery. The painstaking installation process took over 24 hours to complete. Yet the work, by its very nature, will be destroyed when the exhibition closes.

We caught up with Dr Edwin M.E. Smith to discuss the intricate technique behind his work, the importance of fleeting moments and his pride at seeing former students included alongside him in the exhibition.

BNG: Transience marks a change in direction for you, having predominantly worked with acrylic, charcoal and chalk prior to this. What is it about duct tape that attracted you as a medium?

ES: The decision to use tape for this installation is not as new or even as dramatic as it may initially appear. I have used duct tape in my work Culture of Entitlement 2 (2014) to reference Bermuda Day traditions and the usage also resembles the linear approach used in previous instances of my work such as Paper Boats (2009).

Culture of Entitlement 2 by Dr Edwin M.E. Smith (2014)

Last year I created a tape installation I Shall Only (2019) in a gallery in the John Macintosh Hall in Gibraltar during an art residency. This recent use with limited materials and time made me consider the medium for more developed possibilities and was quite timely as I turned my attention the 2020 Bermuda Biennial.

Duct tape easily replicates the forms, lines and monochromatic values that are characteristic of my image making. However, along with the aesthetic consideration, duct tape, as a non-permanent medium excellently contributed to Transience as this is an installation that is also intended to be non-permanent.

Paper Boats by Dr Edwin M.E. Smith (2009)

BNG: What were the challenges of working with this medium?

ES: Compositional manipulation in my effort to highlight focal points, create balance and say what I want to say are the most challenging aspects of my work. This remained the case even as now used duct tape as the primary medium. I am a planner and try to anticipate every possibility. Having said that, duct tape definitely has unique considerations!

I searched for appropriate colour, widths, lengths, textural surfaces and tack characteristics. I also needed to have a surface that I could draw on. Importantly, I had to ensure that the tape remained on the wall for the duration of the Biennial, although I knew that the work would be in a climate controlled environment. I even produced a maquette to assist with my experimentation and to visualise the plan for the jurors.

I was happy with my calculation choices and the installation was completed without much excess. My son, and fellow artist, Micrae Smith assisted with the installation which took approximately 25 hours, not much longer than originally anticipated.

There were happy discoveries in addition to these considerations. I did not anticipate that the underlying masonry and the gallery lighting would cause the grey tape to have a stainless steel or metallic finish. I believe the result positively contributes to the work.

Installation begins on Transience.

BNG: Could you please talk us through the installation process?

ES: I digitally separated my composition into two parts – an underlying grey layer and a top black layer. In turn, these were projected onto the gallery wall and sized to meet my desired dimensions.

Starting with the grey layer, I applied the tape to the positive areas of the projected image. I chose to do this with horizontal strips to maintain a textural consistency. I outlined the image onto the tape with a white acrylic marker and even made additional drawing adjustment to assist with the intricate cuts I had to make.

Finally, I trimmed the excess tape and went over the whole installation with a brayer and my palms, pressing to ensure adhesion.

The work was created using contrasting layers of grey and black duct tape.

BNG: Transience is an ephemeral work. When the exhibition comes down the piece will effectively be destroyed. How does this add to the work?

ES: The fact that the work will cease to exist at the end of the exhibition is extremely important and reinforces my concept of individuals participating in a fleeting moment. I want my viewers to grasp and take away the concept – which is, the importance of the moment.

On another note, the fact that this work only exists for now increased my enjoyment of the design and creation process. In the process I was totally freed from the concern or interest in producing art that would eventually sell.

The artwork begins to take shape.

BNG: This is your 7th Bermuda Biennial. How has your inclusion in the exhibition over such a long period of time shaped your practice?

ES: I feel fortunate to have been selected for inclusion as often as I have and I continue to enjoy my participation in Bermuda’s visual culture and in the exhibition. Inclusion in the Biennial may have had some influence on what I do, but I believe that time and my total life experiences are really the shaper of my practice.

I am the first to recognise that I am not the same person that I was yesterday and, without a doubt, the times are not the same as before either. I believe change should be reflected in my work as well. I enjoy my explorations and, as an art educator, I emphasise that sameness may reflect limited creativity. Without a doubt, the Biennial has served an excellent avenue to document the journey.

The finished piece measures 144 x 96 inches.

BNG: As the Senior Lecturer of Art and Design at the Bermuda College you have seen a number of your former students exhibit in the Biennial. What does it feel like to see former students, such as Naimah Frith who is showing for the first time this year, included in such an exhibition?

ES: I am happy to see my former students getting involved and taking advantage of opportunities. It should be , and remains, a natural expectation for me that my students will want to be part of the art world that supported their artistic development. Hopefully, their participation signals that they regard their perspectives as valid and an important contribution to be shared and added to local discourse. I am glad to remain connected with them even though increasingly I am simply one of the old guys!

Inclusion in major exhibitions such as the Biennial provides recognition and assists in personal growth but also provides relevant documentation through inclusion in prestigious catalogues and possibly, at some point, inclusion in the canon of Bermudian art history. Their work becomes part of the tapestry that will in time provide a future audience a glimpse into the realities, conversation and values held within this island home.

BNG: Sarai Hines, one of your former students, is leading a digital programme for the BNG Youth Arts Council this term. How does it feel to cross paths with some many of your former students as they establish successful careers of their own?

ES: Miss Sarai Hines and others are creatives who are making their career choices work for them. This is never easy as they are often times when significant others encourage the pursuit of other paths. I want to see them succeed!

I often reflect on when they were in the classroom and I remember their enthusiasm and approach not only to their own art making but also their critique of the art world they were entering. I am excited to see their maturity but I am more excited to see that their passion and work ethic has not wavered. I am proud of them and will continue to support them in any way that I can.

BNG: The Youth Arts Council students studied your work for their first module. They interviewed you and have also produced their own artworks inspired by Transience. How was the experience for you?

ES: I enjoyed the experience, as I expected I would! I am always happy to engage young people who have an interest in the arts. Now I am looking forward to seeing which aspects of Transience appealed to them. Their points of view are as important to me as are analyses and reviews received from other individuals who may or may not be immersed in the art world.


Artwork by BNG Youth Arts Council student Tcherari Nu Kamara, age 15

“My piece is about how time, while it facilitates growth and learning, can also be something that traps us if we pay too much attention to it. Inspired by Dr Edwin Smith’s piece Transience I used tape to create part of this artwork. I decided that the watches would work as handcuffs to represent the feeling of being trapped by time. The watches are made out of tape with bold, geometric print to provide a contrast against the more organic forms in the rest of the artwork.”
Artwork by BNG Youth Arts Council student Nae’ Zori Weeks, age 14

“I choose to do a big healthy tree mixed in with trees that have perished. To me, trees symbolise life. The dead and cut down trees in the background symbolise how humans have killed the earth. The sky is dark with thick grey smoke because factories are polluting the air that we breathe. I added clear tape to the ground to make it look as if there are plastic bags and bottles. I wanted to incorporate the tape as a reference to Dr Edwin Smith using tape in his work.”

The BNG Youth Arts Council, aimed at students aged 13 -17, produces art activities relevant to the teens of today. Registrations is free. For further information contact education@bng.bm.

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BNG Kids

Youth Arts Council

Inspiring teens

We have launched a dynamic digital programme for the Bermuda National Gallery Youth Arts Council in association with artist and educator Sarai Hines.

The free programme, which is aimed at students aged 13-17, provides opportunities for creative and independent thinking by engaging with the arts and culture of today.

We sat down with Sarai to discuss her vision for the programme and how the BNG Youth Arts Council can meet the needs of teens today. 

BNG: You graduated with a BFA in Fine Arts with a minor in Child Development from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University in Boston. Did you always want to be an art teacher?

SH: I always knew I that I wanted art to be a part of my life. I didn’t consider being an art teacher until high school. After going on the Spirit of Bermuda at school, I had the pleasure of working closely with Adam Goodwin. The amount of knowledge that he instilled in me in such a short period of time was incredibly inspiring. Unfortunately, he passed away right after our voyage, but his funeral that allowed me to see the true impact that he left on young people and this is when I started to think about being a teacher.

BNG: What role did art and art making play for you when you were growing up?

SH: Art was my voice and my thoughts. After skipping a year at primary school I faced many challenges, mostly bullying, which brought on mixed emotions growing up. Learning art skills grounded me as it required a deep amount of focus to always try and get it right. Later on, I was able to apply those techniques to create imagery that meant something to me and from there it became my form of self-expression.

BNG: As a practicing artist, you have exhibited across the island. How does this affect your approach to teaching?

SH: After both organising and exhibiting in art shows, I’ve grown to understand all of the work that goes into producing an exhibition. The skills that it brings – self confidence, organization, and public speaking to name a few – are things that I like to help to build in each art student that enters my classroom.

BNG: As an educator, you focus on mindfulness and team building. How does art allow you do this?

SH: I am interested in how I can help to grow the whole child and so I plan projects that asks students to use a piece of themselves. Team building allows for the students to feel a sense of comfort and belonging which leads to them being more open in class. It creates an atmosphere of respect. Mindfulness builds on that feeling by allowing students to begin to understand themselves and their experiences. It creates a pause in their day to reflect and put the focus on them.

BNG: You’ve taught both primary and middle school. In what ways have you seen art benefit children at different stages of their development?

SH: Art brings out a form of excitement in youth. In primary school I noticed that art was a form of emotion to the students, it allowed them to express how they were feeling regardless of whether it was a positive or negative emotion. This allowed me to truly get to know my students in terms of their life experiences. In middle school students show a love for the skill in art as they take pride in what they have been able to accomplish. It brings out amazing self-confidence in students which allows me to challenge them to higher expectations because they are eager to learn!

BNG: This is your first time leading the Youth Arts Council. How have you structured the programme and why?

SH: The BNG Youth Arts Council allows me teach a programme that will develop a range of skills to encourage Bermuda’s next generation of creative talent. I have structured the programme to build various skills that will help each student to grow: self-expression, creativity, leadership, public speaking and self-confidence. Through art students will learn to think and do, combined with understanding who they are or who they want to be. I have created a structure that scaffolds a student’s way of thinking but also challenges them to go outside of their comfort zone.

BNG: What do you hope to leave students with when they graduate from the course?

SH: The hope is that the Youth Arts Council allows students to see art in a different way from the traditional school setting and to learn other skills that focus on growing them into who they wish to be as an artist. I hope that students leave with a new perspective on what art means to them. Their growth in their new understanding of both themselves and art will hopefully encourage them to understand that art is life and that their life can be their art.

Registration for the BNG Youth Arts Council is free. For further information please contact education@bng.bm.