Studio.Public: A Conversation with Lindsay Smith Gustave
“It wasn’t always the number one thing in my life, but it was always there. That need to create.”
This week I had the privilege of connecting and learning more about the life and the work of Denver-based artist Lindsay Smith Gustave. Meeting numerous times, I always had to be reintroduced to Lindsay, our lives kept crossing at different art events and through different people, and following the line of her practice, I needed to really sit down and focus on her to be able to create that solid memory of who she was. And man am I glad that we continued to connect. Lindsay’s work falls on this line of extremely beautiful and wonderfully kitschy on the surface, but holding deep wells of information and content should you choose to dive a little deeper.
We spoke background, family dynamics, and how her family’s medical interests have influenced her practice and I am so excited to be sharing Lindsay’s story with you this week. Be sure to check her website for further details of each specific piece and to see more of her work.
Growing up in North Carolina, Lindsay Smith Gustave was surrounded by the medical world. Coming from a family that was made up of a doctor and a nurse, Smith Gustave’s practice began at an early age starting with medical texts. She recounted, “As a little one I used to quiz my babysitters about my dad’s ‘bloody chest books’ as I called them, like a surgical manual, so I had a lot of nurses as babysitters … I would read all the medical texts with my dad when I was really tiny so it’s always been something in my life but never something that I wanted to pursue as a career because for me it was always art.”
Like most artists, the idea of making a living from art was far-fetched in the mind of young Smith Gustave, though as she went through school, every free moment was spent in the art room. All unused moments of her day were spent creating, and yet she was not able to justify making a life out of her passion from such a young age.
“Even though I went to college [in the arts], it was the same thing. I slept in my studio and would brush my teeth down the hall so I could be ready for 8am class. … But for me there was always that conflict of confidence. I was just like, ‘I love this, but can I really do it?’”
An interesting look at the growth of human confidence from a young age, Smith Gustave told me a story of herself as a child. The only job she wanted was to be a Disney animator, the dream for most artistic children, and she was no exception, drawing big princess sleeves and extended eyelashes on all of her figures. But after watching the 1990’s film Vincent and Me, her idea of an artistic life became something different, and as a seven year old “I looked at my parents and I said, ‘I can’t be an artist because it makes life really hard and he wasn’t famous until he died” … and in the back of my mind it was always like, ‘Oh no, that’s scary. That’s a tough life.’”
“Make it or not, I have to make art, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
With this thought in the back of her head, Smith Gustave still pushed herself to maintain a creative life, which eventually led her to Colorado where she began studying at The University of Denver, receiving both her BFA in 2007 and eventually her Masters in Art History and Museum Studies in 2014. Besides just a degree, she also met her husband while at DU, who has become a large part of her growth as a practicing studio artist.
“He has always been my number one champion. He’s amazingly supportive, and he doesn’t have any sort of art background, so I sometimes find myself, in the most jerkish way, being like, ‘Oh, you just have to say that because you love me … because you’re my husband,’ and he [says], ‘No, I’m saying that because I see what it does to you and does for you and that’s why you have to do this.’ Which is why when we look for houses or when we figure out our plan for our life, it has always, especially for him, involved me making art and having a space to do that.”
Taking on a more traditional ‘domestic’ role, Smith Gustave’s husband Brad has become a critical support in her studio practice, allowing time and space for her to create and make the work that she needs to make. The two also have a young boy, named after the great sculptor Alexander Calder.
“If I’m trying to raise a child to be strong in his convictions and choose something that he wants to do with his life, it is important for me to live that as well.”
Life as an artist and also as a mother has allowed Smith Gustave opportunities to share her interests with her son Calder from a young age. Scheduling her time between working at David B. Smith Gallery, working in her studio, and taking care of her son, she is able to experience Denver with him, taking him to cultural hubs like the Denver Art Museum and the Botanic Gardens, which has become both enriching for her as well as him in a process she dubs, “Mom-ing and being an artist at the same time.”
While I am making it sound like a dream vision of motherhood in writing, “It doesn’t always work out that way. There are Saturday nights where Calder goes down and I’m sitting in here [her studio] with Brad going off and doing his notes … and all of a sudden its midnight and the baby wakes up at 4 am and you’re like, ‘What the f*%& was I thinking?!’ … and not enough coffee in the world could make up for that mistake … it’s no longer ‘Oh man, I was out until 2 am at the bars’ it’s like, ‘It’s 10:30 … do I keep working or do I go to bed? Because I know my wake up call is going to be the same time, no matter what.’”
Having a child in the modern age also lends itself to documenting the growth of your child via pictures and videos, and while this is something that Smith Gustave does occasionally, her phone has become an artistic tool rather than a means to document life. Her current work revolves around specific spaces, moments, and maintaining that memory through painstaking detail. Having a family history of Alzheimer’s, the looming onset of this disease has been a driving force for Smith Gustave in her work.
Her drawing series Animal, Vegetable, Mineral “started as a way of categorizing the world around me in order to get this larger picture [as well as] understanding and maintain memories of my spaces. My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s and that runs in the family, so there is always this need to maintain my memories, and with computers and our smartphones … you just see all of that dwindling. So I use the act of drawing as a way of memory making … we take thousands and thousands of photos and they just sit on our phone.
That became the starting point for me … most of my source material is my own because each of these drawings I am working towards making a memory in a cross-section of a space, and then that way I won’t forget it opposed to the massive library that I will never look at again.”
Using a direct method of production, Smith Gustave works from her reference photos, and after drawing the image and creating the memory on paper, the image is rendered obsolete and discarded. Lightly sketched out, drawings that have yet to be created are added to a list which sits next to her work table. Making lists, rewriting notes, and working with incredible detail all tie back to her family and this history of Alzheimer’s.
“My grandmother used to do this thing called French beading … [and] when she passed away … I got all of her beads. I started with the casting process because I didn’t know how to do the French beading. That for me was the most immediate way to create this combination of the two of us … It's a way of honoring her legacy and my genetics and finding a way to be close to her posthumously.”
Starting with plaster casting, Smith Gustave covers cast human body parts, most consistently hands and fingers, in her grandmother’s glass beads. This process had led her to create a body of work called Culture, which is informed by scientific discoveries involving growing body parts in a lab. Not fully human and not fully object, these investigations allowed Smith Gustave time to work with the beads, which have now developed into a larger investigation that is based on the creation of spider webs.
“When we come across spider webs they are usually tucked into these places that won’t be torn apart, won’t be ripped down by something coming by, so they are in these little hidden corners. I just really love the idea of how that also lends itself to the little corners of our mind, and it becomes very literal in terms of the spider web, which is something I still struggle with, especially after seeing Jim Hodges at the FOG Art Fair … so I’ve been toying with going in a different direction, but I feel like they are still relevant to me, and I make them in a very different way. Taking the time to individually string and wrap and create these objects. It’s very laborious but also natural and I felt like that lent itself to the same type of idea as the spiders.”
We spoke about how spiders are genetically made to create and understand the structure of their webs. This laborious process is what they were created to do, inherently understanding the strength, size, shape, and location for each strand of web they produce. This inherent nature of creating is something Smith Gustave can associate well with, and following this intuitive creative nature, she plans to grow and develop the webs soon.
“I have these goals of making webs. Going from this idea of these forgotten moments in the corner to hanging them up in the ceiling or down low, to creating things that really intervene in the space. Making them less about peeking in the back of your mind [and more about] being in your face and seeing how you feel with that physical boundary.”
Allowing space to understand and develop her practice, we ended our conversation talking about the common thread of interdisciplinary work that ties both of us together. Going between drawing, painting, sculpture, and now thinking large scale in terms of murals or installations, has always been an area of critique for her. “There was always that push for you to find what your niche was … And that was always so frustrating. It never felt right to me … I have found that it is that meditative, tedious, slow quality to my work. It’s that kind of connection, but that then doesn’t mean that I can’t explore these different visual [ideas]. They are obviously very connected, but they’re not … It’s a constellation of things working in tandem.”
Lindsay Smith Gustave’s work is as complicated as it looks, and though on the surface it appears visually beautiful, slightly kitschy, and even fragile in nature, a look deeper reveals the familial nature of the work, the function of the art in her personal life, and the need for its existence. There are big things in Lindsay’s future, and I for one, am excited to see how she continues “visually navigate her physical journey.”