Artist Mark Addison Smith shares his experience during the COVID quarantine. He explains how his practice was forced to shift from relying on close physical proximity to strangers into something entirely new.
1. How are you holding up?
I feel lucky to say that I’m holding up well. But, I miss talking with my students face-to-face. I’m a professor at The City College of New York and we just began our virtual teaching this week. Things that we ordinarily take for granted have left a big absence: chit-chat that happens in the hallways before class starts, overlapping voices in a studio critique. As an artist who thrives on public interaction and language, my goal for the semester is to not make the online experience so robotic. How can we make screen-based encounters charismatic and personable? This is such a strange time and we’re trying to troubleshoot so many strange dilemmas.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed during the pandemic is how short the days have become by just tending to things in our immediacy. So, in that regard, I’m thankful to spend the pandemic with my husband. We don’t have a car and haven’t yet hopped back onto public transportation, so we’ve gone for a lot of walks. We’ll open up Google maps and see where we can go on-foot in two or three miles. Walking to buy a doughnut suddenly makes the two-mile journey worth it. Right now, life feels very day-to-day, because we’ve all had to cancel the big plans on our calendars—no upcoming trip to Spain to get excited about. I now get excited about our weekend walks.
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
Since 2008, in a daily drawing practice called You Look Like The Right Type, I eavesdrop on conversations spoken aloud by strangers out-and-about in the world and turn their verbatim quotes into black and white drawings. Normally, I overhear conversations out in public: on the subway, at the gym, in the park, in my classroom—anywhere and everywhere I venture about. I’m the type of guy who purposely sits next to a chatty stranger in hopes of hearing something juicy.
When shelter-in-place abruptly happened in March, I started Zoom-calling strangers and talking with them about how they were adapting to life in a pandemic. I got bold and reached out to people that I’ve long admired, but have never met. I met and spoke with Elizabeth Stanley, the Broadway lead in Jagged Little Pill; Dahlia Maubane, a photographer and activist in South Africa; Debbie Millman, designer and Design Matters host in Los Angeles; Roxane Gay, author, and commentator at The New York Times; Smarty Pants, a balloon artist in Chicago; Dawn Okamoto, an antique dealer in Evanston; Lady Bunny, a drag performer in New York City, and many others. The chance encounters in my usual, daily practice, were suddenly replaced by a daily lineup of virtual conversions with fascinating and generous people who agreed to meet me and have their words turned into drawings. During the height of the COVID outbreak, I felt like I was booking my own private talk show to fuel my creative energy. Because no one was leaving their homes, most people seemed delighted to talk at length. I’d frantically type as they’d talk, and then spend hours and days turning their words into a set of drawings. It was a glimmer of light during such a dark time.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
Because I’m usually surrounded by great quotes out in the wilds of New York City, deliberately inviting someone to speak with me for source material wasn’t on my pre-pandemic radar. Now, it’s thrilling to boldly approach a stranger and ask them to talk with me in order to create a set of drawings—something that I don’t really do in person—and have them say yes! So, I want to keep this bravery.
My pandemic-edition You Look Like The Right Type drawings have become intimate character studies about people trying to survive during our collectively shared crisis. By contrast, the pre-pandemic chance-encounter drawings leave a lot to the imagination because they’re heard out of context and on the fly. The outcomes are different and I enjoy both forms of storytelling; but, the conversation-based drawings are especially satisfying because I know that a specific person is anticipating the drawings. They’re waiting to read their words and see their story and I feel an obligation to not disappoint them.
4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?
I’m currently watching these four artists who are using their studio practice as a way to both process and educate.
Veronica Corzo-Duchardt, a Los Angeles-based printmaker and designer, has turned her energies toward research, coming up with an exhaustive and inspiring list of resources—articles, books, videos, podcasts, links—to combat anti-blackness and white supremacy in Cuban communities.
Ben Blount, a letterpress artist in Evanston, has made a set of calming, candy-colored window signs that remind us to spread kindness, while also keeping safe, in our neighborhoods. His Black Lives Matter posters—rocking Helvetica—are all over Evanston.
Rick Griffith, a letterpress artist in Denver, has made a lively set of flash cards—featuring opinionated phrases typeset in gorgeous vintage type—to flash during a dull Zoom meeting.
Lydia Daum, a pin and jewelry designer in Chicago, is taking advantage of social distancing, open air, and great weather by holding pop-up sidewalk shops throughout Chicagoland neighborhoods. She has also just released a stunning and sobering set of earrings that resemble weeping eyes—the teardrops are dangling moonstone—which feel appropriate for our collective grief.
Mark Addison Smith’s design specialization is typographic storytelling: allowing the illustrative text to convey a visual narrative through printed matter, artist books, and site installations. Permanent collections include Brooklyn Museum Artists’ Books Collection, Center for Book Arts, Getty Research Institute, Guggenheim Library Special Collections, Library of Congress Special Collections, MoMA Franklin Furnace, Smithsonian American Art, and National Portrait Gallery Artists’ Book Collection, Tate Library, and Watson Library at The Met. Group exhibitions include Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection, Kinsey Institute, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and Ringling College of Art and Design. His work was most recently featured in Queer Holdings: A Survey of the Leslie-Lohman Museum Collection (Hirmer Publishing, 2019) and a solo exhibition, marking the 10th anniversary of his You Look Like The Right Type overheard-conversation drawings, at The Bakery Atlanta. He is an Associate Professor and serves as Design Chair within the Art Department at The City College of New York (CUNY).