Jo Smail’s Visual Poetry

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BmoreArt’s Picks: September 29 – October 5

Jo Smail, an exceptional artist, thinker, and teacher who has been based in Baltimore since she left her native South Africa in 1985, is the subject of a retrospective, Jo Smail: Flying with Remnant Wings, that I organized for the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show opened in early March.

Neither Jo nor I ever imagined that a pandemic would interrupt the retrospective just weeks after it went on view. We have known each other since the late 1990s when I included her pink paintings—made after a 1996 studio fire destroyed decades worth of her previous work and loaded with vulnerability despite their minimal compositions—in a show at the University of Maryland, College Park. In a sense, the BMA retrospective was decades in the making, as I observed and admired the inventiveness and optimism of Jo’s ongoing practice. To have the physical encounter at the museum with the gathering of twenty-five years of her work suspended so suddenly and indefinitely was difficult, to say the least. And yet, as always with Jo and her work, there was a consolation.  

Jo, whose faculty for visual poetry is matched by her perceptive and radiant use of language, had produced an artist’s book. Although it shares its biographically evocative title with the BMA show, the book features collages that have inspired a series of prints now on view in the exhibition Jo Smail: Bees with Sticky Feet at Goya Contemporary Gallery, which published the volume. At a time when many familiar sources of connection and comfort have been cut off, quietly turning Jo’s thoughtfully composed pages has been therapeutic, particularly because the volume addresses the ways in which she has met adversity and flux with unstoppable creativity and an unflinching capacity to love.

Because of the uncertainty of the fate of Jo’s museum exhibition when we were invited to develop an interview for BmoreArt, we decided to focus on this book, which is available through Goya Contemporary and the BMA store. Happily, the BMA has since announced a reopening date of September 30 for its exhibition, which will continue through January 3, 2021. Bees with Sticky Feet is available for viewing by appointment through October 20 at Goya Contemporary. 

Jo Smail in her studio, photo by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 02
Book in Process
Book finished
Untranslatable (Page 103), 9 x 9 inches, ink, collage, and photograph on paper


Kristen Hileman: For those who don’t have a copy of your book in front of them, could you talk about how you structured it? What is the relationship between your texts and the collages that are reproduced alongside them? You start the book with a list of “Thoughts and Instructions to Myself,” which includes directions like “Begin with emptiness,” “Want small things intensely,” and “Be kind to loss.” Did you follow those instructions as you composed the book? 

Jo Smail: First of all, I have to acknowledge the role you played in making a book to accompany the show at the BMA. It was your idea. At first, I have to admit it scared me! I had never made an artist’s book before. And secondly, I would like to recognize Goya Contemporary for taking a leap of faith and publishing it. And it would not have taken the form it did without the role artists Zoë Charlton and Tim Doud played: For a 2017 group show at ‘sindikit, the alternative space they founded, they challenged me to do something I had not done before. They thought it would be hard for me because they believed I did whatever I liked anyway. I had collected African cloths for years, using them for curtains, tablecloths, and clothing, but I had not used them in my work before I decided to use them in response to Zoë and Tim’s challenge. 

For the collages reproduced in the book, I used a pile of remnants of African fabrics leftover from The Mongrels, the series of mixed-media works that began with the ‘sindikit show and are now part of the exhibition at the BMA. I began with a sketchbook in which I had made ink contour drawings derived from Matisse around the same time that I was making The Mongrels. I then added the fabric. I have always loved Matisse, and adorning shapes derived from him with my passion for African fabrics seemed right. 

Next, I drew upon texts that I had previously written. These were things I would jot down occasionally, which suddenly became relevant when I started working on the book. Without thinking too much, I slipped some of them alongside the images. They act as hints or possibilities, in poetic form, as to what the collages could be about. All in all, the book took about three months to make, and it happened quite organically.

And “yes” is the answer to your question about “Thoughts and Instructions to Myself.” 

This was my first attempt at an artist’s book, so it seemed totally appropriate to return to the same methods I used to start painting again after the studio fire consumed all my previous work—methods I wrote down shortly after the fire. But I would use much more color. I would work intuitively, impulsively, and playfully. Ready to discard quickly, not thinking too much about what I thought an artist’s book should look like. I mention HD’s [avant-garde American writer Hilda Doolittle] working method in my “Thoughts.” In a little book titled Notes on Thought and Vision, she expresses her idea that sexuality and spirituality are entwined—brain and intuition are one! 


Is it fair to say that for you, the way one fosters creativity and navigates life correlates to the ways in which one reacts to the unexpected? I’m thinking of a passage in the book that refers to an ambiguous “it”:
“…seems to happen on its own
Has a mind of its own
You can’t force it
You can’t search for it

Is the “it” art?

Yes, the “it” is art. The book describes my creative process. When something feels right, it happens before understanding. 



Many pages later, you observe:
“Waking life
Some people think it is all a deer in the headlights”
How have you overcome a sense of helplessness in the face of the incomprehensible or unexpected in art or in life?

Perhaps we all are inherently full of contradictions? I have not overcome helplessness! Even now as we speak, I feel terrified. But I do think because it’s almost my perpetual state; fear is a terrific motivator. And once I get in the zone of making or writing, I forget the terror. I am a painter. So, I had better get on with painting regardless of my limitations and disappointments incurred on a bad day. 

And life—my husband and my children have been a great source of strength. During my stroke in 2000 and the subsequent period of recovery, I think they suffered more than me. They were initially told I had three months to live because the stroke was misdiagnosed as multiple brain tumors. I was so doped up that I was blissfully unaware. Quite a relief that turned out to be—regardless of being unable to speak!


Tuft of Grass (Page 37); 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper
Only One (Page 69); 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper


In much of the writing done on your work since the 2000s, there is an examination of how those two very sudden and difficult events that you’ve referenced above—the fire and the stroke—impacted your work. While these events are alluded to in this book, I found that your experiences with your homeland, South Africa, were emphasized to a greater extent both as part of your biography and an influence on your work. To list just some references, you mention African fabrics, the San people’s (also called the Bushman) myths and artistry, elephants, a Johannesburg store, the preacher Wilson Chima, and, of course, your family.

How has living life so far away from the place of your birth influenced your work? And is that influence different than the influences that have occurred from sudden and unintended life events?

I think people who wrote about my work in the past focused on those events because my work shifted dramatically after both occurrences. My art tends to be autobiographical. What’s happened to me, where I’ve been, that’s what my art is about.

At the beginning of last year, my husband, Julien Davis, and I returned to Africa after being away for many years. We were privileged to live in a house in the untamed wilderness where animals roam wild, which we call “the bush,” for two weeks.  That affected me greatly. I grew up living in cities. Only after meeting my husband did I experience the bush.

Seeing animals in the wild is an extraordinary experience. In a book about our 2019 visit to the bush that I made together with Julien [The House in the Bush], I end with the words: “We soak up the mutter and murmur of the bush for the last time, and feel a bit closer to ourselves.” I think that experience of living in a place where wild animals roam freely re-awoke in me a deep love of our oneness with nature. 

Warthog taken from the porch of the house in the bush.

Other travels have influenced my work as well. On safari in Botswana several years ago, we met some of the San people. In Botswana, their rock art paintings date back over 70,000 years. They are a nomadic people. They move seasonally. They seem to live their lives tuned in to water, nature, and animals. I purchased ostrich beads that I have used in collages on view in the BMA show directly from them. 

I remember reading a book, Affluence Without Abundance by James Suzman. It is about the disappearing world of the San. It tells of how little we need to be content. I reflect on that when thinking about the materialist culture in which we live now. And, looking back now, I think it might have influenced my use of cardboard, such a basic material, when I made The Mongrels.


A Bushman’s Tale (Page 87); 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper
Gaze up at the Moon (Page 131); 9 x 9 inches, collage and photograph on paper


And hearing the sounds of the various African accents on our most recent trip, memories came flooding back. I was reminded of Wilson Chima, originally from Malawi, who played a huge role in Julien’s life. Julien’s mother, Joyce Leonard, was a Professor of Fine Art at the Johannesburg College of Art and the University of the Witwatersrand, also in Johannesburg. When Joyce was teaching, Willie would care for Julien, acting as a companion and surrogate father. Willie was also a farm worker and a bishop for a church that gathered on the open land for Sunday services.

On a Cross in Africa (Page 25), 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper

Downtown Johannesburg is alive with street vendors and stores specializing in goods from all over Africa. I bought many African cloths from street vendors, and the Shweshwe cloths from a store just selling Shweshwe designs, which are unique to South Africa. Their patterns are smaller, not as vivid and wild as those of Nigeria or East Africa. I used Shweshwe fabric in the book’s collages, including Rock Bottom on page nine.


Shweshwe fabric downtown Johannesburg by Jo Smail
West African fabric in downtown Johannesburg by Jo Smail


I get breathless just talking about my experience of downtown Johannesburg. Please cut me off if I go on too long! We hope to return after the pandemic is over.

So yes, I now own my African past in my work. But I don’t live in my past. I feel so privileged to have ended up in Baltimore. We landed here because my husband, who is a biophysical chemist, got a job at Johns Hopkins University. We desperately wanted to leave South Africa and apartheid. We left before democracy occurred. We have beloved friends here… and not to mention Matisse! We live across the road from the BMA. I felt that Matisse’s paintings were in my own backyard before COVID-19!


Rock Bottom (Page 9); 9 x 9 inches, ink, collage, and photograph on paper
Downtown Johannesburg by Jo Smail


You’ve lived in Baltimore for decades, but would you step back in time and talk about what it was like to live under apartheid? In your BMA exhibition there are several works from the series The Past is Present in which you juxtapose abstraction with imagery of your family’s recipes, some of which are clipped from mid-century South African newspapers. The sense of domesticity, family, and comfort conveyed, however, is powerfully disrupted by the insertion of articles from the same newspapers, which describe the daily inequities and injustices of life under apartheid. Are these works an autobiographical view of what it was like to be white in South Africa? Does the theme of race manifest in your book as well?

Yes, my experience with apartheid is present in that recent series. We belonged to The Progressive Party, the party that was in opposition to apartheid. I can share some stories of events that motivated us to leave. Julien was shot at by an off-duty policeman. He survived, but his car was riddled with bullet holes. And also a university colleague, Sam Mokgata, an African, was pushed off the road by white thugs and beaten up on his way home from a party at our farm. In both of these instances, no one was held accountable for the violence. But it’s also important to realize that so many people suffered much more than us.

When Julien and I left in 1985, we had no idea that Nelson Mandela would enter into conversations with the Nationalist Government and apartheid would eventually crumble. That happened in 1994. 

I don’t address apartheid directly in the imagery included in my book, but I do acknowledge my history and influences when I write:

This mongrel person
Lives in the USA
Born and raised in Africa
Of an Irish mother
And a father of Scottish descent
Derived from a famous Frenchman (mostly)
With African fabrics
Shapes within shapes
Using divergent materials

I celebrate difference


Contortions (Page 101); 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper


You share an anecdote about being given ballet slippers as a child and then gathering the neighbor children so that you could teach them ballet. You explain that you:
“…asked them to contort themselves
To become other than who they were”
Does that approach hold true in teaching art?

I thought that it was a perfect way of describing the collage/drawing that I paired it with, Contortions on page 101. As a small child, when I started to teach ballet, I had only the vaguest idea of what ballet entailed.

On the other hand, in answer to your question about how I taught art—I think trying to be who you are without flinching is the goal of art. That is so hard! Owning up to our vulnerabilities, our eccentricities—the best art exaggerates them.

I found it interesting that after the ballet story, one flips the page to read your reflections on French theorist Guy Debord and German artist Joseph Beuys and their belief that “we can all be artists.” You continue:
“Acts of love (deeply)
Turn the mundane into ART”
Is universality and love part of your pedagogy as well?

Yes. Over the years I have collected quotations. I litter some of them around in the book, where they seem relevant. 

Debord wrote: “…the silence of the untranslatable… a moment beyond language not before it.” I’ve pulled that Debord quote from Chris Thompson’s book Felt: Fluxus, Joseph Beuys, and the Dalai Lama. For me it suggests that we can try and find words to describe what we see, but at their best, these descriptions seem to end up being a poetry of their own.

And Joseph Beuys—he was my first love! When I started art school, he was hardly written about. He was this outrageous figure who said anybody could be an artist. I was drawn to that—someone who upset the applecart of what was possible to call art. I met him at Documenta 6 in 1977, to which I traveled with my South African art school class. He had made an impressive piece, an installation called Honeypump at the Workplace

I say I met him. But I didn’t actually. I could have. I was in Germany, in Kassel at Documenta 6, but I was too shy to meet him! For three days, I attended the Free International University at Documenta. It was founded by Beuys and included lecturers on the media, human rights, energy, unemployment, and more. We watched Beuys write on blackboards—he was designing a better society in which ethics were more important than aesthetics. Here I go again, down a sidetrack. Memories are stirring, and a breeze, more like a mighty wind, causes me to veer off course.


Joseph Beuys in 1977 by Jo Smail
Getting Strength Looking Back (Page 39); 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper


But, no, I am not off track! 

Both Debord and Beuys were part of the group called Fluxus. They believed in a more just society. We could do with a Beuys now.

In 1982, at Documenta 7, Beuys did his 7000 Oaks project. Oaks would be planted with a rock alongside each. The project knew no boundaries, no countries. And in 2001, at the top of the Wyman Park Dell across from the BMA, artists and the community got together and planted 12 oaks. [Landscape architect Frederick Law] Olmsted had also planted oaks in that area when he designed the Dell. There is a plaque dedicated to this act. It says: “The symbolic relationship between the tree and the stone marks the passage of time and serves as a reminder to let our ideas take root, and to put our stones in motion.”

When the pandemic began in the spring, a stop at the Dell and the Beuys project became part of Julien’s and my daily walk. Ground covers and violets covered the earth. It was then that I photographed the plaque and the rock. That was five months ago. Hard to believe, so much has happened since then. Now we call out: “Black Lives Matter!”

Photographs of Wyman Park Dell and Joseph Beuys’ Tree Partnership by Jo Smail


Beyond a more contemporary figure like Beuys, one has the sense that your understanding of art has been deeply informed by looking at Henri Matisse’s compositions. Elements from Matisse’s work are re-thought in your mixed-media Mongrel pieces, as well as in the collages illustrated in your book. Let’s spend more time talking about these collages. The contours of heads, vessels, flowers, furniture, and presumably other components from Matisse’s compositions are drawn in a thin dark outline, while the remnants of African fabrics activate the negative space of these shapes. While looking at the collages, I jotted down a list of verbs that describe the ways in which the fabrics interact with the contour drawings. They drape, ornament, veil, penetrate, complete, etc. 

What do you think about this analysis? Are Matisse’s shapes the nouns, if you will, and the fabrics the verbs of the collages?

Oh, I love that description! In the BMA exhibition, someone made the comment that I was making a weird dialect of Matisse. In my book, I did exactly as you just said.

Bees with Sticky Feet (Page 23); 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper
Opposites (Page 105) 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper
Folding Sheets (Page 13), 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper


If your collages were part of a Rorschach test, I’d describe the goings-on in the image on page 13 as quite erotic, especially as the collage is coupled with a text describing you and your husband folding bed sheets—an evocation of intimacy and shared domesticity. Does the erotic have a place in your art? It certainly seems that love does, no?  I think the bodily, interior pinks in your paintings, particularly from the late 1990s and 2000s, could be brought to bear on this question, as well as your observation:
“Our bodies
Tune in
Everything comes from there

What art is”

I love that you saw something “quite erotic” in that little collage. Now I see it too. At the time I thought it seemed to be behaving like a tug of war between two forms. Often, we only understand what we have done much later.

I don’t think about the erotic when I am making work but if it’s there, so be it. But it is, perhaps, present in the image I spoke of earlier called Rock Bottom. 

Art has to be about commitment to whatever the drawing/collage seems to be about. It could be contradictions, stupidity, silliness—all the stuff that makes a life.

Tune in (Page 49), 9 x 9 inches, ink and collage on paper

In the text you mention above, before my words, “Our Bodies—Tune in—Everything comes from there—What art is,” I quoted Rudolph Arnheim [a German writer on perception, creativity, and psychology]: “The physical effect of gravity is perceived as tension in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body.”

I have always been enamored with Arnheim’s understanding of form. He maintains that form, abstract or figurative, is not something you learn. Instead, it comes from being aware of our own bodies… how our bodies relate to other bodies and the environments in which they find themselves.

And my use of the color pink evokes beginnings, new skin. After the fire, I had to think through what was really important. I was trying to paint love—a caress—intimacy.

Everything is about love. And the book is a love letter to all my past students and colleagues.


Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs by Julien Davis, Courtesy of Goya Contemporary Gallery.

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