After 35 years away, renowned mixed media artist Barbara Lee Smith returned to the NIU campus last month to spend a day meeting students, talking with faculty and reflecting on her time completing her Master’s in Fine Arts in 1979.

She spoke of how grateful she was that the faculty in the School of Art and Design at that time had an open mind as she structured her coursework.

“I earned my MFA in mixed media, because there wasn’t a degree course in what I was doing,” Smith said.  “The faculty committee decided I should be a mixed media major, even though at that point the only thing that was mixed media was working with film.  That changed over time.  Now it’s a sexy degree, as opposed to one that’s a catchall.”

Barbara Lee Smith provides feedback to NIU MFA student Jessica Bryant (foreground) on Bryant’s work displayed at NIU’s Gallery 214.

Smith said one instructor in particular helped shape her work.  “Barbara Krug allowed me to experiment with  paint on fabric and then stitching other elements on it,” Smith said.  “For me, that was new and I think my working process developed because of working with her.

“When I had my graduate show, it was the painters who were really very interested in what I was doing.  I just wanted to keep on doing some kind of painting involved with fabric.”

When asked to describe her style of art, Smith says that instead of describing the art, she prefers to observe how people respond to it.

“From a distance they think they’re looking at a painting,” she said. “Then they get closer and realize that it’s highly textured with collage and stitch and overlays all in the same materials. The details kind of pull them in, but then they have to back up to get the whole picture.  I love seeing that, because that’s exactly the way I work.  I go back and forth, and back and forth.  It’s like my dance is recreated by the viewer’s dance.”

She went into teaching, working mostly with adults.  “There was quite an underground movement for people who were working in textiles to do their training through local guilds and art groups,” she said. “I became part of that underground teaching movement and ended up teaching all over the world, plus doing my own work.

Gathering of Light - Barbara Lee Smith

“Gathering of Light, 49 x 37” Photo credit: Tom Holt, Tacoma, WA (courtesy of the artist)

“My rule for life is that you never know who is in the room, so you’d better be careful about saying what you want, because it might all come together.  I was teaching at a weaving conference in Chicago and an editor from Taunton Press came. She was cold-calling people who were teaching at this conference and she asked if I ever wanted to do a book.  I said yes, and that I wanted it to be for my more advanced students and I wanted it to be about the ‘why’ of the work more than the ‘how to’ of the work, which was typical of textile books at the time.  I just surprised myself.  I had no idea this was coming along in my head.”

The book, “Celebrating the Stitch” took three years for her to write, as she interviewed more than 100 different artists in the United States and Canada.  The book’s success led to an exhibition of work that traveled though the US, Canada, Japan and England, and Smith went along with it.

Smith had grown up in Cape May, New Jersey and earned her undergraduate degree from Douglas College, then the women’s college of Rutgers.  “This was the fifties,” she said.  “I had the choice with my family of either becoming a nurse or a home economics teacher.  I didn’t want to deal with blood, so I got a BS in home ec.”

After graduation, she married and eventually moved to the Chicago area for her first husband’s work.  In the ’70s, and remarried to her current husband Mel and living in Glen Ellyn, she commuted, driving “an old Firebird” to and from DeKalb to earn her MFA at NIU.

Until the late ’90s she combined studio work and traveling to teach.

“I think there was, in my head, a longing to be near water,” she said.  “I had grown up three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and I really feel I spent most of my life trying to get back to an ocean.  Living in Chicago, my husband had a boat in Lake Michigan, and while I’m not an avid sailor, I would go spend time on the boat.  At least I was on the water, but it didn’t smell right.  It only smelled when the alewives were dying.  Salty then, but pretty awful.

“When we moved to the Pacific Northwest we bought a place on a very small island on Puget Sound, so we were right on the water there—saltwater. It was like paradise as far as I was concerned, and we built a studio there that overlooked the water and as I was living in this absolutely beautiful part of our country, I was just gobsmacked by my surroundings.

“I really had no clue that I would do landscapes or seascapes. Anything that I did do, often involved natural color and I think there was in my head the longing, when I was in Chicago, the longing to be near the water. On Raft Island, though, I couldn’t avoid it, it was just there. All of a sudden I felt I must try this. I’ve got to see how I make sky, how do I make water, how do I make nature, how do I make marshlands, and, have them be believable, but not be totally realistic?

“I want people to feel like they are in a moment when they’re standing there and they’re looking down at whatever they’re standing on, and up and around. What does that moment look and feel like in nature?”

The return to the water helped Smith focus her work in a direction that had come to her earlier in an unexpected way.
Hull #1 80 x 80" - Barbara Lee Smith

“Hull #1 80 x 80” Courtesy of the artist.

“Shortly after writing ‘Celebrating the Stitch,’ I had a series of dreams about boats that were made of a rather lacy material,” she said. “These boats would sink, but somehow they were quite wonderful. The boats led me to a particular non-woven fabric that I still use. They led to painting and destroying some of the fabric; burning holes in it; melting the edges; layering; stitching back into the work. This was during a rough and busy time in my life, but I held on to the dream, and when I could begin to work again, I felt I owed it to the dream to see if I could make one of these fragile vessels. I did a series of boats at that time. (The Racine Art Museum has a couple in their permanent collection.) I’ve found that at certain turning points in my life, the boats appear again. Once we moved to Raft Island, the techniques I’d developed with the boats led me back to works for the wall.

“So it all really started with the dream. It’s how things change. It’s like the layering of life. It just keeps happening, and you sort of think, ‘wow, that’s cool’”

Top photo – “Reverse Selfie.” Smith in her studio in Durham, NC. Photo credit: Sam Selby, Baltimore, MD