Q+A with Katie Smither

Katie Smither is an artist living in Marfa, Texas. She works as a teaching artist for Marfa Studio of Arts and volunteers at The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory.

Thao Votang: You left Austin pretty soon after you finished your degree at UT. ​​What drew you to Marfa and what keeps you there?

KS: I lived in Austin for a year after graduating with a BFA from UT Austin. I had an incredible job at the Harry Ransom Center and still miss exploring the stacks there. It was in that position that I became passionate about astronomy and the history of how humans come to know things. At the HRC, I could thumb through first editions of Newton’s Principia, Copernicus’ research on a sun-centric solar system, or Galileo’s gathered drawings of sun spots. I moved to Marfa impulsively, to live with the incredible night sky and to be near McDonald Observatory. Having these things nearby makes me feel connected to my scale in time, space, and history and fuels what I think about as an artist.

TV: Since you have been in Marfa, what changes have you witnessed? It seems like Austin is a new city every month.

KS: Marfa is consistently in flux and has been since long before I arrived, but yes, much is in transition currently. There are three hotels in construction, a house on the market for above $2 Million, and property taxes are skyrocketing—causing our public school to be a Chapter 41 ‘Robin Hood’ district. Marfa is in the middle of yet another gust of gentrification; hopefully, property taxes don’t continue to rise and push people out. There are few places to rent affordably, many second homes that stand empty most of the year, and few salaried jobs with benefits. The perception that Marfa is a desert oasis of art, culture, and taste can be frustrating when compared with the realities and what visitors to the town cannot see. Though, it is also this perception that fuels our tourism economy which improves quality of life for many.  It’s an awesome place with an awesome community; that’s the part I love and hope remains through the constant change. That and the dark night skies.

Field (Fluorescent and gold), 2015, aerosol paint and asphaltum on canvas

TV: I’m looking at your work online, (which leaves so much unseen!). Will you describe your process for your Fields series?

KS: The Fields series is an experiment with displaying layers of information. I suppose they are an attempt to reconcile the difference between what exists and what we know exists. The bottom layer of information is an uncontrolled field of “data,” in my mind. The top layer is a set grid system with evenly-spaced, measured points. I found the relationship between these two layers of information to be something like how humans experience the universe, if that makes any sense.

The Sun Today, 2015, ink and pencil on paper, 18 x 12 inches

TV: With A sun, the sun, your sun, our sun and The Sun Today I can’t help but laugh. The sun is such a big part of being in west Texas. Are you tracking the sun’s progress across they sky? What interests you about this cataloging?

KS: Yes, the sun is ever present. I never go outside without wide-brimmed hat and long-sleeved, collared shirt, even in the summer. The drawings I’ve been making are tracking sunspots as they move across the active surface of the sun.

This also goes back to my obsession with Galileo’s sun spot drawings. When I think about what art has been and can be in relationship to human knowledge…I think of telescopes and Galileo’s drawings of cosmic objects from the 1600s. That’s drawing! To look farther than the human eye can, beyond what has been imagined, into the reality of something never seen.

The titles A sun, the sun, your sun, our sun and The Sun Today refer to how ubiquitous and effortlessly transferable the sun is in culture and life. People often describe it as “our sun,” just as they call the Milky Way “our galaxy” or the solar system “ours.” A sunset is a romantic image, the sun smiles in children’s illustrations, the sun endorses many brands of orange juice. But when you watch the sun move and transform as it does on a daily or weekly basis eight light-minutes away from Earth, in the silence of space…it is a reminder that we cannot, in any way, own it. That reminder is incredibly valuable. It is valuable to me at least, and I think my attempt to find ways to share that value speak to some hope I have for humanity and knowledge. As Griffith J. Griffith, the builder of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles is quoted as saying:

Man’s sense of values ought to be revised. If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!

Coordinated Universal Time, 2015,  2:30 min, super 8mm film (low-res web version)

TV: When I emailed you for this interview to talk about your recent art projects, you wanted to talk about the Trans-Pecos pipeline. How are the local residents organizing and where does the situation stand now?

KS: Ha, yes, the fight to stop the proposed Trans-Pecos Pipeline has taken over much of my recent time. However, it’s worth it. I volunteer for Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), the non-profit organization leading the opposition. It is a complex matter, but in summary, a Dallas-based company, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), wants to build a 42″ natural gas transmission pipeline through the Big Bend to service Mexican industry and private interest. It would be the first project of its kind; there is nothing out here of that industrial scale. The Big Bend region is still an intact bio-region because there are no pipelines. Our tourism economies depend on the environmental preservation of this region. It is imperative that we, the citizens of Big Bend and Americans, do everything we can to keep this project out. There are few places in the world untouched by global industry and the Big Bend is one of them; we have so much to fight for.

The opposition has recently succeeded in garnering over 300 Comments and 4 Motions to Intervene in the recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission comment period, delaying the project six months. BBCA is working with landowners and within the governmental process to delay it even longer and make it an unattractive project for ETP.

TV: What could we do from here to help?

KS: Anyone interested in helping keep the Trans-Pecos Pipeline out of the Big Bend, should visit bigbendconservationalliance.org, become a member, and keep up with our blog. Your small membership donation will help fund the opposition and you will receive updates about events, campaigns, and calls to action. Spread the word!

Thao Votang is the director of communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park.

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