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In the Studio: Leslie Smith III

Leslie, a Black man with medium skin tone, stands in his studio amidst a backdrop of artwork and painting materials. He faces the camera, wearing dark glasses, a newsboy cap, a close-trimmed beard, and a painter’s smock over a black button-down shirt.
Photo by Jim Escalante.

Leslie Smith III is an artist based in Madison, Wisconsin, and a 2022 Joan Mitchell Fellow. We interviewed him about his work and creative practice in April 2023. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

I consider my works to be paintings, even though my processes of late mirror a bit of sculpture, and fiber art. Ultimately, I'm still operating within an understanding and appreciation of how paintings function.

In the purest sense, I'm an oil painter. I really love oil paint, pigments, mediums, and their working principles. I’m infatuated with historical processes and their potential as solutions for contemporary pursuits. I think these historical painting traditions exhibit optical magic. I often enjoy uncoupling a historical oil painting process from its representational purpose, then using it to achieve something more perceptual and abstract.

If I Can Find My Way Back Home is a series of irregularly shaped objects assembled on a wall as a 3-D painting. On the far left are two shapes covered with gray felt that are stacked on top of each other. They are joined with a small section of canvas that is not covered in felt but has strokes of white and yellow paint. In the center is an irregular vertical bar of textured black paint. On the right is a rectangular shape composed of smaller canvas sections that have been stitched together. It is mostly left white, with various marks and strokes in some areas in bright yellow, pink, and gray.
Leslie Smith III, If I Can Find My Way Back Home, 2022. Oil paint, dried pigment, sewn canvas, and industrial felt, approx. 59 by 93.75 inches.

I think a lot about my work as being part of a pursuit to expand notions of Black expression. I’d like to believe that most folks acknowledge that no individual identity or culture has a singular expressive modality or aesthetic. I consider my abstractions as celebrations of Blackness, acknowledging the complexities of Black identity as it relates to my own experience.

My paintings are residual artifacts of me as someone who is a collection of unique experiences. Recently, I've been focused on how we engage with each other in shared spaces as a result of our individuality. Transparency, compassion, and resentment, amongst other aspects of social constructs, are some of the recurring themes in my paintings. The resulting abstractions are in service of my goal to oppose dominant cultural narratives.

Still blue is an assemblage of five irregularly shaped painted sections of canvas that have been arranged on the wall. We see it here in three views: front, and angle that shows the sides, and a close-up. The top right canvas panel, the largest of the group, is painted a bright blue and has a vertical line bisecting it on the middle-right side. Below that is a black shape. The other three shapes come together to create an L of white canvas with gray and black marks and stains.
Leslie Smith III, Still Blue, 2022. Oil paint on canvas, sewn canvas, and acrylic stained canvas, 24 x 18 inches.

My relationship to process is steeped in problem solving. I draw on the history of painting and appropriate familiar painterly gestures and manipulate them, turning them into larger exaggerations or passages that sometimes mimic impressionistic spatial relationships. I enjoy working with finished parts in creating abstract forms. A good amount of time is dedicated to working on making materials that will be deconstructed and integrated into a matrix consisting of juxtaposing materials and forms.

A photo of paintings in progress and strips of painted canvas in the studio of Leslie Smith III. There are two long tables, a work bench with paints and brushes, and a sewing machine.
Works-in-progress in Leslie Smith III’s studio, 2023. Photo by Jim Escalante.

The irregular shapes of my paintings allow me to work against the conventions of my approach to composition. Every modular element exists on the same level. Like a mosaic, nothing's overlapping. It's not exactly a collage, although it has a similar energy as a collage. What I hope is being witnessed is a kind of forced harmony. I think my shapes inhibit viewers' predetermined notions. I hope these works lead to a moment where you have to engage the object on its own terms without expectations.

I think of this approach as being connected to my use of geometry and composition. I’m trying to move further away from Western perspective. I’m in the midst of exploring relationships between the traditions of perspective and colonization. There’s something interesting about the way we see and how we choose to aestheticize the world around us.

Meet me in the Sky is an assemblage of six irregularly shaped painted sections of canvas that have been arranged on a white wall. The central panel is a vertical shape with speckled blue paint. It is sandwiched between two panels that are covered with gray felt. Below the speckled blue panel and the right piece with felt, a piece of white canvas is nestled in like a puzzle piece. It has a bright red vertical stripe near the left side of it. Underneath is a horizontal bar of solid black canvas. A small square of black canvas is perched on the top left of it, as if supporting the piece of gray felted canvas on the top left.
Leslie Smith III, Meet Me In The Sky, 2022. Oil paint, dried pigment, sewn canvas, and industrial felt, 44.5 x 43 inches.

In addition to my oil paintings, I also make drawings. My paintings have always been very separate from my works-on-paper, in that I don't typically make drawings that become schematics for a painting or study for a painting. They're their own thing. I always say that my drawings deal with what I'm processing right now, whereas my paintings deal with the ideas that I was processing through drawing three years ago. There's a delay and I’ve gotten used to it.

In Silence 2 is an abstract graphite drawing displayed in a white beveled mat that rests on a white shelf against a white wall. The drawing has areas of horizontal and vertical markings and shading.
Leslie Smith III, In Silence 2, 2020. Graphite on Arches 300 paper, 6 x 5 inches.

This relationship between drawing and painting has been shifting for me somewhat over the past few years. In the space of the Covid lockdown, I was working from home and I couldn’t get to my painting studio regularly. I was so hungry to make paintings. Instead, I was doing a lot of drawings. I started dealing with the issues that I wanted to be dealing with in the paintings. It was new to me to do this with graphite on paper.

Over the Spring of 2020, I created a series of works-on-paper that laid out my next steps for some paintings.

Spring Kept Its Promise Once Again is an assemblage of painted canvas sections mounted on a white wall. On the far left is a vertical bar of pure black. It butts up against two white shapes with horizontal bands of blue and white stained canvas and a wedge of white canvas with a bright red and pink vertical band. In the center left is a large irregular shape with yellow paint that fades into white moving from left to right. On the far right is a trapezoid shaped piece of white canvas with the same bright pinkish red vertical band represented on the left side of the section.
Leslie Smith III, Spring Kept Its Promise Once Again, 2021. Oil paint, and acrylic on shaped and reconstructed canvas, 64 x 75 inches.

One painting that came out of that process is called Spring Kept Its Promise Once Again. It was one of the first pieces that I was able to sink my teeth into after the initial lockdown of the pandemic, and it was in my second solo show in Paris last year. It was liberating to have so many decisions made up front that I was able to focus more on how the individual parts of that whole painting reached their maximum potential.

For me, it's super important that each section of a painting is very finished and finite in its own individual way. If you get lost in that passage of paint or that passage of sewn material, it's got to be fulfilling in its own right. At times they become portals, like traditional painting windows, things that you peer into. And when you step back, you're forced to try to figure out how all these individual components come together and create this more macro experience.

In the Thick of It is an abstract sculptural artwork on a white wall composed of 2 shaped flat forms and a circle of bunched dark gray felt. The largest form is a polygon with curved edges and some points, marked by thin multicolor scribbly lines, with a light gray felt shape inset to the center. A rectangular shape to the upper right is painted in a bright pink to white gradient, with visible impasto brush marks, and gray felt shapes on two sides.
Leslie Smith III, In The Thick of It, 2022. Oil paint, dried pigment, sewn canvas, and industrial felt, 74 x 63 x 11 inches.

I’ve recently begun integrating felt into the space of the painting. It's like I’m trying to develop aesthetic and structural solutions that bring everyone together in ways that offer unique visual experiences from one painting to the next.

As a result, felt has ventured into my works-on-paper. I’m trying to create a common space for the industrial felt. My focus as of now is on the way the felt fibers interlock and the relationship between them and how I typically apply graphite to a drawing surface. I’m trying to blur the lines between the two, if possible.

Grounded is a graphite drawing with an irregularly shaped piece of gray felt inset into the center of the paper. The background is shaded with graphite. The drawing is shown in a beveled white mat resting on a white shelf against a white wall.
Leslie Smith III, Grounded, 2023. Graphite and industrial felt embedded in Arches 300 paper, 8 x 5.75 inches.

I work on many projects at the same time in the studio because I work in oils and the processes take time. I've got tables laid out with things that are glazed, surfaces that are drying, I'm just building up an inventory of color that I can cut from. There's things that I'm sewing and stretching right now that are being put together. It's all over the place.

Right now, I’m working on large-scale paintings for my first solo exhibition in New York City. It’s called Reaching For Something High and it will open in September at Chart Gallery. I'm excited about it.

Leslie Smith III, a Black man wearing a newsboy cap and tan painter’s smock, sits in the back left corner of his painting studio with his back to the camera. We see sections of painted canvas and other works-in-progress laid out on two long tables and pinned up on the walls.
Leslie Smith III in his painting studio, 2023. Photo by Jim Escalante.

I'm also working on a site-responsive work for L’Art dans les Chapelles, which facilitates an annual event of artworks responding to chapels in small communities in Brittany, France, not far outside of Pontivy. They invited 15 artists to participate. They gave us a year to create a work for a 14th or 15th century chapel. They're beautiful, and all in different levels of conservation. The chapel I’m making work for is Chapelle Saint-Tugdual, in Quistinic. It's a unique space. There's no electricity, there's just windows and the chapel is nested within this lush green space full of trees.

hapelle Saint-Tugdual is a stone church with a pyramid shaped roof line, a red arched doorway, and a belfry with a cross mounted on top. It is nestled into a green lawn with green trees all around it amidst a light blue sky.
Chapelle Saint-Tugdual, Quistinic, France. Photo by Leslie Smith III.

My Installation is titled The Passage. Fourteen paintings inhabit the space as individual stations that exhibit a transition from cobalt to crimson. Each painting is actually two paintings, one niched inside of another painting. They're about 20 by 26 inches. It's a play off of the stations of the cross, in that they take the form of 14 identically shaped canvases, with similar applications of paint. They all incorporate this deep, lush green that I've been exploring lately. It's a much more process-driven project than what I'm accustomed to. It differs in that I've put a lot of the creative currency into the making of the materials. Then I’m making selections out of sections of painted canvas and cutting away from those materials to create the paintings.

Four irregularly shaped paintings on canvas are mounted to a wall with a sketch of a series of 14 works pinned below them. The sections of canvas are half white and have bright colors on the other side, starting with a bright blue on the left and becoming more purple as you move to the right.
Work in progress for The Passage, Chapelle Saint-Tugdual, Quistinic, France. Photo by Leslie Smith III.
Two people are hanging artworks on the interior walls of Chapelle Saint-Tugdual. The walls are textured, the floor is made of stone, and the ceiling is made of wood. There is a table in the center of the room with a tripod and other equipment.
Installing The Passage, Chapelle Saint-Tugdual, Quistinic, France. Photo by Leslie Smith III.

This approach has slowed the painting process down, making it less immediate. At the moment more aspects of the process are more considered, but not in the sense that I'm sitting in a chair thinking about what the next stroke is going to be. I’m working more like an upholsterer, where painted canvas is treated like a hide and I am going to make my selections out of it. The project opens to the public on July 7th.

Interview and editing by Jenny Gill. Learn more about Leslie Smith III’s work here.

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Artists' Voices