A look at “The Personal is Still Political” by Skylar Smith and Lisa Simon

Seems like not even a day goes by without a TV show or film drawing the ire of people who say “it shouldn’t be so political.” The exhibition on view at Spalding University’s Huff Gallery refutes that statement.

“The Personal Is Still Political,” a collaboration between artists Lisa Simon and Skylar Smith, dives into the artists’ personal and political feelings about the election of 2016 and the world we’ve been living in since.

Insider caught up with Smith to talk about the exhibit, how she and Simon came to collaborate, and her background and practice as an artist. Smith attributes her focus on art to the time she spent at Ballard High School, after which she attended the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Skylar Smith | Photo by Stephen Jones

“That was a really transformative experience, it’s a school where pretty much every class is an art class,” says Smith.

She went on to get her master’s degree from School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Versed in a wide range of mediums, Smith still considers herself a painter first and foremost.

“I definitely work in other media, but I feel like I’m always approaching my work as a painter,” she says. For example, when she works on installations, she feels like she is essentially painting in 3-D. “This most recent show, I’d say it’s a show with paintings in it, although it’s pen and ink, and colored pencil, and pastel.”

In addition to her own work, Smith has been interested in teaching, and she’s taught in a variety of institutions from colleges to prisons. She says the students keep her from getting stagnant in her approach.

Simon also is a Louisville native. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from UofL before going on to a master’s program at Michigan State University, where she focused on painting and ceramics.

Smith and Simon’s friendship dates back to high school, when they both attended Ballard.

“And we just reconnected after college, when we were both back in Louisville,” says Smith. “I think we are just simpatico in terms of the type of themes we’re interested in exploring in our art — we’re also educators, we’re also mothers.”

The two have worked on shows together before, including “Accumulation” and “With Child,” the latter of which addressed being a mother while also trying to create art.

Artwork by Lisa Simon

“The Personal Is Still Political” began as an idea — before the 2016 election — when Simon and Smith started applying for grants to fund the show.

“It was the presidential primaries at the time. So my grant was to explore women’s suffrage, while we were thinking Hillary Clinton was going to win,” recalls Smith. “It made me think of the history of how women got the right to vote, and what it would mean to have a female president.”

Smith’s plan had been to approach important dates in suffrage history, creating images rooted in those ideas. She also planned to grapple with the half-truths provided by the popular historic narrative, especially addressing the fact that women getting the right to vote in 1920 actually only meant that white women could vote.

Of course, after Smith and Simon received their grants, the focus of the work had to respond to a different election outcome than most had predicted.

“I got the grant, I was working on that, and then Trump won,” says Smith. “It was like … I want to continue, but it really shifted. And then we had the Women’s March in January, and I wanted to confront what was happening in a more direct and literal way.” 

Detail of “Marching Installation” by Skylar Smith

Her new approach worked with a vision of a Women’s March that stretched from the 1900s to today, and spanned the entire world.

“I just had this vision that the gallery would be taken up by this giant Women’s March,” she adds.

Simon’s work is less literal, according to Smith.

“Her work is more metaphorical — it can be very whimsical, and her approach was through humor,” explains Smith. “A lot of her work in this show, she’s working with popular culture — like comics, images from art history, advertisements — and taking all that media and putting it together in humorous and also tragic ways.”

You’re almost out of time to catch “The Personal Is Political.” It’s in its last week at Huff Gallery, 853 Library Lane.

The closing reception will be held Saturday, March 31, from 1-3 p.m., and it sounds like a blast. Activities include a Louisville Suffrage Walking Tour led by Marsha Weinstein and all-ages art-making activities including “Make Your Own Nasty Woman Button” and “Make Your Own Suffrage Sash.” The Suffrage Tour starts at 2 p.m. Admission is free.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.