See how artist Shinique Smith turned an LA Jazz Club frequented by Miles Davis and John Coltrane into a highly enviable studio

When Shinique Smith moved to a new studio in Los Angeles last year, she didn’t go for it only a light-flooded space with soaring ceilings and panoramic mountain views. Instead, she chose a studio with all of the above, which was also housed in the former It Club, a legendary jazz venue where Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis often played in the 1960s.

It is a more than appropriate environment for an artist who regularly explores black history in her work. There Smith dyes and bleaches fabric, paints canvases, bundles fabric into sculptures and otherwise transforms materials with a complicated history – such as indigo fabric, once a cash crop like cotton – into nuanced visual languages. For a recently opened exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas, Smith is displaying a series of large-scale works she created blindfolded during the Black Lives Matter protests.

We reached out to the artist about her studio inspiration, her must-have tools, and the video production she’s working on next.

Can you send us a photo of the most must-have item(s) in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?

My most indispensable tools are my hands. I touch everything: building, drawing, wrapping, bundling, brushwork – all my work is imbued with my sense of touch.

The hand of Shinique Smith.

Next on the list is natural light! Shadows, reflections and colors cast over the space and influence my palette and mood. It fills the air and affects the energy of all my work.

View from Shinique Smith’s studio window.

Which studio task are you most excited about this week?

This week I’m looking forward to my artist talk and reception for my new exhibition ‘Stargazers’. I am also looking forward to planning my next video production, as my piece Breathing: Moon Marked Journey evolved into a series. When I return to the studio, I will storyboard and talk to collaborators who will film with me on location in South Carolina and other places important to me, for indigo production and for ancestral migration trails.

Installing Shinique Smith’s sculptures Mitumba Deity II (2018) and Grace is next to (2020) at her new show “Stargazers” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. “I hadn’t seen them together before,” said the artist. “It was a moment for me to see how they resonated in close proximity to each other.”

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

I usually keep it quiet in the studio as I prefer to listen to my own thoughts and internal music. Otherwise, I listen to non-fiction. I don’t listen to fiction much because I don’t want to be seduced or caught up in fabricated emotions. I want to be as present as possible when I’m working, and when my mind wanders and emotions come in, they come a real place from my own experience. One of the newest books is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. It reaffirms what I’ve always believed: that fabric is one of mankind’s greatest and most important inventions.

Shinique Smith selfie with colored water as she takes body prints for her show at the Nerman Museum.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

I follow over 2000 pages dedicated to friends, art, science, cute animals and more. I haven’t been on social media much lately, but here are a few I checked out on Instagram today: @the.black.gaze, @cerebral_women, @friendswithyou, @geometriasagrada, and @thehoodwitch.

Is there a photo you can send of your current work in progress in the studio?

Works in progress at Shinique Smith’s natural light-flooded studio: smoke dancersleft, and Mutual Butterflies

If you feel stuck preparing for a show, what do you do to break free?

I’m drawing; new ideas or thoughts related to what I am working on. I write or work on something else and then return to the piece with new reflections and fresh eyes.

What quality do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I admire honesty (directness/openness) and erudition in application, composition and thinking are central. I abhor visual bluntness, when something is illustrative without any other internal dialogue, or when painting relies too much on photography – you might as well make a photo edition.

What images or objects do you look at while you work? Share your thoughts from behind the canvas or your desktop, wherever you spend most of your time.

Studio wall of inspiration, including sketches and images of previous works with jewelry and line and spiral geometries.

What is the last exhibition you saw that impressed you and why?

Saw the Whitney Biennale as I passed through town for a short visit. It was overwhelming as I had to leave and there was so much to absorb in a short visit. Although I only saw a portion, the works I saw were provocative, so I look forward to returning.

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