MOWA’s Mona Boulware Webb Curatorial Engagement Fellow Brianna Cole talked recently with Cassandra Smith, exhibiting artist in Magic Wilderness, on view through January 15. Cassandra Smith is an artist and designer from northern Wisconsin, currently working in Milwaukee.
A 2006 graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), Cassandra Smith has shown her work at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, and the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. Her current body of work has been featured at Anthropologie and Bergdorf Goodman and in Better Homes & Gardens and Harper’s Bazaar.
Brianna Cole: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Cassandra Smith: I went to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and I studied Sculpture, but I took a semester off to focus on fiber-based classes in Portland at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I just dabbled in things. I was never into forging or welding metal into sculpture. I was always doing mixed-media work and soft sculpture.
BC: What does your practice look like now?
CS: I am a full-time creative. I have been doing this full-time for about 10 years now. I used to do small objects and sell them on Etsy. I still make some smaller objects, but I also do larger projects, like the painted deer and fish boards. A lot of the projects are commissioned through art consulting agencies, where interior designers source art for hotels, private residences, and restaurants. They will ask me to make something specific for the venue. Magic Wilderness is my first fine art exhibition in a while.
I have to stay focused. I spent most of last year not really making art, other than agency commissions. This exhibition has been great for me. I feel like I have a good groove going in the studio.
BC: How did you become interested in taxidermy and when did you combine taxidermy with other decorative elements?
CS: During my last year at MIAD, I was deeply engaged in my senior thesis and trying to figure out what I wanted my body of work to be. I had already been working with found objects, and being from northern Wisconsin, I was around taxidermy all the time. I asked my dad if he would put an ad in the newspaper to see if anyone had any taxidermy they would be willing to give away. I got some deer, a pheasant, a coyote pelt, and some other things from people in the area. I worked with those items to create my senior thesis.
I had always been into softer materials, and the fur and feathers were very attractive to me. The softness and natural feel of the animals juxtaposed with the materials I add to it—paint, sequins, and sparkles—create a contrast that I just love.
BC: What have you learned about working with this medium?
CS: My favorite thing about working with taxidermy and natural materials is that every piece is different. Right now, I’m creating another deer for the MOWA gift shop that is much smaller than the one in the show. The smaller size lends itself to something more delicate and intricate. Having to approach each piece knowing this deer or antler is not the same as any other one I’ve done allows me to get creative with each one.
BC: Where do you get the taxidermy from?
CS: As a former vegetarian, it felt really good to use taxidermy that people were already trying to get rid of, but logistically, it stopped working because a lot of the pieces were old and not well taken care of. With taxidermy, you have to take care of it like a piece of art. Now I get all my pieces from a place called the Taxidermy Store. They have a huge online presence and a giant warehouse full of taxidermy. This way I can ensure quality. I know it is going to last as long as it’s taken care of.
BC: What is your creative process like when working on the deer heads and fish boards?
CS: With the deer heads, I try to plan ahead but not too much, because I want to see where the pattern takes me. I think: “okay, what shapes do I want to use” and “okay, I’m going to want this pattern over the eyes and this pattern over the ears.” It’s a slow process of building out a pattern that works well. Sometimes I don’t know what to do next, and I’ll spend a day staring at it, trying to figure it out.
The fish board needs a little more planning, because it’s a flat symmetrical surface. I try to make patterns that are a bit ambiguous, because I know pattern-making can easily steer into different cultures. I do the pattern on the board first. Then I put the fish on. My husband created a special tool to mark the pattern on the fish, so it looks like a proper circle. If you try to make it by hand, it gets a bit skewed and uncentered. It’s very technical and tedious, whereas the deer are more freeform.
BC: How do others respond to your work? Have you had negative feedback regarding the use of taxidermy?
CS: Well, not everyone loves taxidermy, though generally the response is positive. There are people who don’t want a dead animal around. Some taxidermy enthusiasts say “Oh! Why’d you do that? The animal is beautiful as is.” The people at the taxidermy store love my work and are happy to give me old pieces to experiment with. So, that’s cool.
BC: Are there other artists or influences that inspire your work
Well, it is funny to be at the museum right now, with Jennifer Angus’s work on view just down the hall. She is one of the artists who inspired me when I was a student at MIAD. I saw her 2004 show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and I was blown away by the pattern-making with bugs.
I think, maybe, that’s why I got into taxidermy. I’m also inspired by anything that is over embellished. After college, I traveled to the Kremlin Armoury in Russia. Everything there was encrusted in jewels and so shiny. I just love anything ornate and adding jewels to everything.
BC: Is there anything else you’d like to add here?
CS: I work well with deadlines and concepts being thrown at me, which is why I love working with art agencies. Magic Wilderness ended up being a bit like that experience. One of the curators brought a concept to me, and It was awesome to feel confident in the direction I was going. I’m really happy with the show and It’s been amazing to be included.
“I was immediately enamored with Cassandra Smith’s work. To me, few things scream ’visual magic’ more than glittering points of light, and Smith’s sequined creatures do just that. Taxidermy lives next door to the uncanny valley, placing a familiar animal in an unnatural configuration mimicking life, and I enjoy the complicated range of feelings it evokes from viewers. Particularly in Wisconsin, where the white-tailed deer and the walleye are commonly seen adorning walls of sportsmen’s homes.” – Exhibition Co-Curator Ally Wilber