Like jazzy Gee’s Bend quilts, Debra Smith’s paintings with kimono fabric move to their own quiet, powerful rhythms. Working with vintage Japanese textiles, Smith feels something that others might miss—the spirit of the handmaiden, the silk weaver, the maker herself.
Smith spent a year in Florence, Italy, studying fashion before earning a BFA from The Kansas City Art Institute. Next, she headed to New York to study at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Today, she exhibits around the world. Her work is also in many corporate collections, including Hallmark; Shook, Hardy & Bacon; and Sprint.
As an artist, how did you come to fabric as your main medium?
I am a third generation weaver on my mother’s side; my grandmother also quilted and painted. So it was in my blood. We moved from Texas to Hannibal, Missouri, when I was 5 years old, and my mother became very active in the Arts Council. I grew up with raku fire pits in the backyard, cyanotype workshops, and other creative adventures.
I already had a rich history in textiles from my childhood, KCAI, and FIT. My love for kimono was a discovery due to timing and opportunity. After graduating from KCAI, I had a roommate who was working at Asiatica and was about to leave her position. I was already weaving with beautiful scrap fabrics that Asiatica had donated to KCAI and had woven a series of scarves that one of the owners purchased.
What kinds of stories, or feelings, or associations come with kimono? Why choose them for your work?
When I create paintings out of vintage silk textiles from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, I feel a vibration to the fabric that draws the viewer in, a vibration of the human hand that actually made the fabric. That is what drives me: The beauty of the handmade. The time, the patience, the stunning design and color combinations. It is all the raw material for the poetry and emotions that I attempt to translate through my reconstruction of these fabrics.
Could you describe your process? Do you start with an idea or with a piece of cloth? And then what?
Each one of my artworks is intuitively pieced. Only once or twice have I worked from a drawing when I’ve had a commission.
Inspiration will come from a fabric, or even two colorways accidentally landing on each other in my studio. I sit at my sewing machine with an office chair on wheels, easily turning from the iron on one side and to a cutting surface on the other, slowly building the work over hours, days, and occasionally weeks or months.
I pin it to the wall at the end of every day and always look at it with fresh eyes the next. Sometimes it will turn upside down completely in the end. Each piece is two layers of vintage silk that is hand cut, sewn on a machine, clipping the seams after every stitch. The two layers are eventually fused together and finished with a hand-stitched border mounted to acid-free foam core to be framed.
How has Kansas City nurtured you as an artist?
I lived in New York City as a self-employed artist for almost ten years. I chose to move back to Kansas City because I recognized how hard I was working to just exist in New York. I wasn’t enjoying the town. I had to weave so many scarves to pay the bills it left little time to make artwork.
I made more artwork that first year I was back in Kansas City than I did almost the entire time I lived in New York, and I was also redoing an historic house on the Westside from top to bottom that first year. Kansas City lifted a weight off my shoulders I didn’t even know was there. It gave me room to breathe and the space to create, for that I am forever grateful.