Final Analysis: Kiki Smith on Creative Struggle

International artist Kiki Smith talks about how letting go of ideas and visions can open up a new world of perception and art.

By Kaja Perina, published July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

No internal organ or bodily fluid is beyond the pale for Kiki Smith, the internationally acclaimed artist perhaps best known for her depictions of female figures trailing viscera in their wake. Smith remains focused on the human and animal form. She spoke to PT about the artist's will—in conflict and in concert with the work he or she produces.

What was life like as a young artist?

[Life was about] being completely miserable and suffering, and seeing the deep necessity of making your own work, even in the face of it not making the slightest bit of difference to anyone else and having no choice but to throw massive quantities of it away.

Is the art world less radical than when you entered the scene?

All mediums are venues for radical expression. My iPhone has changed my life—I spend hours taking photos of the sidewalk as I walk down the street. I like the casualness, that it's low-resolution.

What's your advice for struggling artists?

Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn't, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I'm given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one's own vision.

Did you always want to make art?

As a child I prayed that my calling be revealed—but not with expectation and not with a destination. I became an artist because I didn't know what to do and I thought it was really fun to make things.

So your prayers were answered?

It's on a daily basis. I'm always taken care of by my work. You let go of your own idea and let the work go where it needs to go. And that's sometimes very uncomfortable. One learns to linger in discontent and not be judgmental, but to have faith.

What are you working on now?

I'm drawing man, that's a new animal for me. I got into animals by drawing hair follicles. I liked drawing hair, and from that I got into feathers and fur, then into images of animals. The patterning is the same, but the proportions of the body change from one animal to the next. A lot of it is just geometry and consciousness.

Do you consider yourself social?

Yeah. I'm endlessly fascinated by [other] artists. Because they are people who can hold their business together and be in freefall their whole lives too. Art forces you to submit to the world's reality rather than to your own fantasy of reality.

Is there a question you've never been asked that you wish you'd been asked?

I am happy to remain completely opaque.