Not too long ago, Kirkland Smith was meeting, 6 feet apart, with fellow artists at Stormwater Studios in Columbia when talk turned to sharing the work they have done during the quarantine.
Known for her impressive assemblages, constructed at Stormwater Studios mostly from plastic, Kirkland reserves her home studio for painting and for teaching art classes. While her two younger children, Paul and Shannon, were finishing their senior and junior years of high school at their Columbia home this past spring, Kirkland spent most of her time in the backyard studio, challenging herself to paint every day.
“So, I set up a still life,” Kirkland says, “and what I was thinking about during this time was, ‘What are some things that bring us comfort and are just really simple things that mean a lot?’” A masterful answer to this question was a sumptuous pile of pillows, depicted in Kirkland’s sizeable painting “Pillow Talk.”
Kirkland set a lofty goal not to judge any of her work until she had completed 100 paintings. Although “Pillow Talk” took a couple of weeks to finish, she focused on painting one small study every day or two. The distractions of caring for her family kept her from spending more than a few hours painting each day, but ultimately, she finished at least 60 pieces before returning to her downtown studio. Having mostly put aside painting for the past decade to work on commissioned assemblage pieces, Kirkland felt like she needed to allow herself to begin again, to relearn how to mix colors and work from life.
“It was a gift I gave myself,” she says, “to just do them without feeling any pressure.” The freedom of creating art without a deadline or an audience was exhilarating, but Kirkland still felt like most of these pieces were not meant to be sold. “It’s good to share what you’re doing with people, but there’s something liberating about creating art for yourself, where you can try new things, play, explore, and focus on the process rather than the product.”
Kirkland wants to do more painting, in part because it will enhance her work on assemblages. “I feel like doing my assemblage work probably informs my painting as well,” she says. If she has a creative block while working on an assemblage, it helps to go home and paint. The reverse is also true. “It’s weird. If you don’t do something for a while, it’s like a muscle that atrophies, and it needs to be exercised. I haven’t meant to go so long without painting regularly, but my assemblage work has been more in demand, and each one takes a lot of time to complete.”
She works on one assemblage at a time and keeps that work completely separate from her painting, although the beautiful assemblage portraits of herself and her husband, James, are on display at her home studio. An attorney, James served as a representative in the South Carolina House for 22 years and was the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of South Carolina; he is now a special assistant to the president of the University of South Carolina. Along with Paul and Shannon, the couple has two grown children: Emerson, who works for a technology company in Virginia, and Thomas, a pilot working at McEntire Joint National Guard Base.
Since returning to Stormwater Studios this summer, Kirkland has completed a commissioned assemblage, a portrait of William Starrett, the artistic director at Columbia City Ballet. “Part of the challenge of doing this is that he collected lots of stuff for me to use in the piece,” Kirkland says. Incorporated in the portrait are plastic shoe horns, combs and a hair clipper guard, slats from a hand fan from a production of The Nutcracker, a signed ballet slipper, a Little Prince figurine, a toy giraffe, little girls’ hair barrettes, and an upside-down toy dinosaur. Assemblages usually contain a lot of toys because they provide the requisite variety of color. Kirkland always uses objects in their original form and thinks painting them a different color would defeat her purpose. She will take objects apart or layer them to make them fit, but she wants individual objects to be recognizable.
Kirkland admits, “I’m always nervous to present every portrait that I do.” She wants the client to be happy with the completed image. When her older children were little, she worked from home, creating portraits in oil, pastel, and pencil, at one point having a stressful three-year backlog. With the assemblage portraits, she says, “The truth is, I’m not going to have the perfect palette of colors in objects that I can make when painting. I’m not going to have the nuance of color.”
The inability to mix colors shifts her focus to getting the image correct by getting the values right. “Working from a black and white photograph helps me to keep my values organized,” Kirkland says. To keep the proportions correct, she works on a grid, easily enlarging her design onto an assemblage panel, the way artists have done for centuries. For a portrait, she maps out where the eyes, nose, and mouth should be. Once she begins to place objects on the board, she can lose track of the lines but strives to make sure those features remain intact. “This is not going to be as finely detailed as a painting because the objects are just a little bit more randomly shaped,” she explains. “It presents a challenge, but your eye kind of blends things together and fills in some of the details.”
In Kirkland’s studio at Stormwater, one wall is stacked to the ceiling with bins full of colorful pieces of plastic. On an easel is a 4 by 5-foot portrait of her youngest child, Shannon, made solely of high-profile computer keys in black, white, and several shades of grey, found mostly at thrift stores. “It really just looks like a pixelated picture,” Kirkland says, “but I don’t use a computer to help me to do this. What I use is that painter’s eye, trying to get the value and the color, working from big shapes to small.” Hidden in Shannon’s portrait are her name and Kirkland’s. The repetitive letters required several keyboards, and Kirkland struggled to find enough dark gray keys to provide the appropriate shading.
On the opposite wall hang assemblages of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and an American flag. “What I will tell you is that my studio is the worst place to see my art,” Kirkland says, noting that the best vantage point to view the mayor’s picture is from the parking lot, through the glass garage door. William Starrett’s portrait was assembled atop a table in the middle of the room; Kirkland affixed various pieces with a caulk gun filled with Goop adhesive. She used to construct assemblages on the floor, but when she began bringing her dogs, Cayman and Maggie, to Stormwater Studios, that became a challenge. It was easier to bring her dog when she only had one but after adopting Maggie, who ran away one day and was chased all over Columbia by well-meaning strangers, Kirkland leaves the dogs at home.
Constantly reevaluating, Kirkland says, “Art is just a bunch of problems that you’re solving. One of the reasons that I think art is so important for kids to do in school is because it is one of the few areas left in the curriculum where they can just explore and try things and fail and solve problems.”
Kirkland sometimes has difficulty sourcing material for assemblages. In 2013, her portrait of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs won the People’s Choice Award at the inaugural ArtFields competition in Lake City, earning Kirkland a $25,000 prize and becoming part of the Artfields/Lake City Alliance art collection. But finding the pieces to fit her vision had been difficult. After many failed attempts to acquire recycled Apple products, Kirkland visited local technology businesses to see if they could help. Coming to the rescue was Dave Wegener of Wedge, a shop that repairs Apple computers. Dave allowed Kirkland to use items that were collected for e-cycling and donated many other items, including two cases of microprocessoring chips, providing a mid-tone that was exactly what was needed to give the portrait depth. Ironically, the chips are the “brain” of the computer, a nod to Jobs as the brain behind Apple.
While working on a triptych for Brockman Elementary School — a depiction of the Lowcountry’s Angel Oak tree, which now hangs in the school cafeteria — Kirkland wanted objects to construct frames around the images. She has a rule that her raw materials need to be items that have already been used. One day, she and James were having lunch at Miyo’s, and she realized that the restaurant’s black straws would be perfect. James was worried that Miyo’s owner, Michelle Wang Cao, would not understand why Kirkland would want her to collect used straws. “But she loves art,” Kirkland says, “and she said, ‘We would love to do this for you.’”
The daughter of Martha and John P. Thomas, III, Kirkland grew up in Mount Pleasant with an older brother, John, who now lives in Columbia, and a younger sister, Beth, who lives in Mount Pleasant with her three children. Martha is a respected artist, and Kirkland sometimes solicits her opinion. “I feel like we have been very helpful to each other because there’s no competition between us. I want her to be the best painter she can be; she wants me to be the best that I can be. And I definitely think that we can offer a fresh eye for each other, and our styles are similar,” she says.
Kirkland attended Wando High School and earned a coveted spot at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts’ summer program, going on to earn a degree in studio art at the University of South Carolina. Her father passed away in November of her junior year, and, devastated, she moved home for a semester. That was when she reconnected with her future husband, James, whom she had met at age 15 through a mutual friend and dated long-distance. By the time they got to college, they were just friends and lost touch as they focused on their different studies. But James came to see Kirkland after her father died, and their romance rekindled. “My father liked James a lot,” Kirkland says. “I think he’d be very happy.”
In 2007, when James was deployed to Afghanistan, Kirkland and her mother took all four children to live in Argenton-Les-Vallées, France, so Kirkland could study contemporary realism in drawing and painting at Studio Escalier with Timothy Stotz and Michelle Tully. She took a French class at Midlands Technical College to prepare for life in the French countryside. “Every day, I thought, ‘What can I do today that will get me one step closer to my dream?’ So each day, I was squirreling money away. I entered some art competitions and won, and that money went straight into my art fund for the trip, and then ultimately, when James was deployed, I sold his car. Going to France ended up being the best thing we could do.”
When she returned to Columbia, Kirkland was excited about painting. Early in 2008, she entered an environmental art competition to use post-consumer material instead of paint. Thus, her first assemblage portrait, “Inheritance,” came to be. This past year, she drew 13 portraits in charcoal for “The Supper Table,” the Jasper Project’s tribute to women who played a part in South Carolina history.
This fall, Kirkland is taking an online class with one of the teachers from Studio Escalier. She is interested in how online classes work from the perspective of a student and hopes it might even help her eventually teach her own classes remotely. She would like schools like Studio Escalier to continue to offer online classes. “I think these are the kinds of changes we could see as the result of the pandemic as people adapt to the situation and find new, sometimes better, ways of doing things,” Kirkland says.
It is a silver lining in an otherwise cloudy year, and it’s not the only one. She has been able to make significant additions to her body of work. “Sometimes I feel frustrated because it takes me so long to do a piece,” she admits, “and then, it’s nice to look back at all the pieces I’ve done and realize, well, I’ve been consistently creating work.”
All the time alone in her studios is a luxury Kirkland appreciates as well. “I get completely lost in my work and lose all sense of time,” she says, “and I love that. I love when that happens.”