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Artist and educator Allison Smith shares her thoughts and library of books about art made in adverse circumstances. Featured are Vladimir Arkhipov's project Home-Made, archiving Russian artifacts made during Perestroika, and Trench Art, or art and objects made during armed conflict, highlighting works from Trench Art: An Illustrated History by Jane A Kimball.

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Hi everyone.  My name is Allison Smith and I am an artist and educator and Dean of Fine Arts at California College of the Arts and I am here at my home and studio in San Francisco, sheltering in place like so many other people around the world due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

When I was an undergraduate art student, it was at the height of the AIDS pandemic and I'll never forget the day that my teacher (?~0:29) showed up to our painting and drawing class just after his partner Billy had passed away from complications from HIV/AIDS earlier that day, wanting to speak with us about death, the afterlife, and the power of art.  

Teachers like Ken taught me that artists are visionaries and healers and activists and that artists have an incredible role to play, especially in times of great adversity.  Teachers like Ken inspired me to become an educator myself and I'll never forget in the days just after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York how I, as a young adjunct professor, showed up for my students wanting to speak with them about their own collective and individual responses to events at such a moment of scale, so I wanted to share with you some things from my personal library that have really inspired me over the years in my practice and in my teaching so that we might begin to think about what it means to be making art in times of COVID-19 and social distancing.

A contemporary project that inspires me to think about what it means to be living in times with restricted access to goods and services is the project Home-Made, documented in these two books by the artist Vladimir Arkhipov.  In this project, objects made by ordinary Russians inspired by a lack of immediate access to manufactured goods during the collapse of the Soviet Union are collected and featured with stories by the makers about how the objects came about, their functions, and the materials used to create them.  The archive includes hundreds of objects created with often idiosyncratic functional qualities made for both inside and outside the home.

For example, this object by (?~2:29) includes the following description: "I was at the dacha in the village.  There aren't any shops there.  The nearest shop is in the next village.  There was nothing there except what people brought with them, mostly food, and I think that was rationed, too.  Remember, there was nothing at all then.  Everything had just suddenly disappeared.  It was called perestroika.  Anyway, there wasn't any point in making an extra trip to the shop, so when we needed a ballpoint pen, I went and made one.  I had the inside of a pen, but the cover of the pen itself was broken.  I must have broken it in my bag by accident when we were driving to the village.  I found a twig, I think it was (?~3:08), and dug the pith out of it.  It's soft in (?~3:10) twigs.  I lacquered it with nail polish that I got from (?~3:15) and added this decorative stripe."

(?~3:19)'s project is filled with objects that are practical, like this thread spooler, innovative like these aerial antennas, conceptual, like this street cleaner's shovel made using a street cleaning sign, and delightful, like these everyday things made into playthings or playthings made into everyday useful things, a bubble wand, a basket, a toy locomotive, and a caterpillar.

I have lots of books in my library that inspire me to think about what it means to be making art in wartime.  Although written about by very few people, one of my favorite subjects is the subject of trench art.  Trench art is a term derived from the trench warfare of World War I, but it's really a term that can be used for any object made in the context of armed conflict or its consequences. 

Three primary forms of trench art include first objects that are made by soldiers on the battlefield itself or at a slight remove in the down times using whatever is at hand, including expended bombshells, shrapnel, and other detritus as well as personalizing their military-issued gear.  Second, objects that are made by soldiers who are recovering from wounds in military hospitals.  These are works that are made from bed, things like needlepoint and pincushions and other sentimental love tokens, and third, objects that are made by soldiers who are incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps using things like soup bones to make beautifully carved vases or beads to make beaded snakes for trade on an alternate market.

I hope that some of the ideas that I've shared today are inspiring to you in thinking about the ways that individual people have responded with creativity and ingenuity to really extreme circumstances and I hope that in the weeks and months ahead as you navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and your own forms of self care that you continue to make art and to think of it as an ally in your process of understanding, of recording, of processing and healing through these incredibly uncertain times.  

So I appreciate the opportunity to share these ideas with you.  I hope that you and your loved ones are safe ad well, and thanks for watching.

Thanks to all of our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts, David Golden and Divide by Zero Collection.