Jonpaul Smith is a Cincinnati, Ohio transplant, having grown up in Logansport, Indiana, a real small town about forty-five minutes north of Purdue University. Just good farm country—a “one-Walmart-town”, as Jonpaul lovingly refers to it. Having been raised in a farming community and under the influence of his father's liquor store and mother's crafting practices, Smith utilizes corporate refuse and branding to creating patterns and stories about how we identify with the things we consume.
His materials can be his original traditional and non-traditional prints, paper ephemera, and the packaging of everyday household items. No matter what material he chooses, the process begins with cutting the materials
into strips of various sizes, then painstakingly overlapping or weaving them into meticulous, intricate
compositions. His complex, tapestry-like constructs, make use of (and, in a sense, refine) pop culture
imagery. Smith received his M.F.A. and Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Cincinnati,
D.A.P.P. His B.A. is from Hanover College in Indiana and he also studied fine arts at the University of
Wollongong in Australia.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Jonpaul Smith: I’ve been in this studio since 2010. Outside of grad school, I’ve always maintained a studio wherever I lived. I’ve always been a home studio guy. There’s pros and cons to that. There are definitely times where I can fall so far into my own practice that I forget to network— which is a problem because within the art world, in good and bad ways, networking is really important. It’s a tough field as it is. It’s important to go support other artists. I recognize that seeing other people’s art is really important, but at the end of the day I just want to Netflix, weave, pet a cat, and see my wife. So the home studio life works for me.
FD: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
JS: I mean, it developed organically simply because of the floorpan. This is the larger room, and then you have the smaller room off to the side. We’ve pulled up most of this carpet that you can find throughout this main workspace, I built the walls up, and put down the tile over there. The windows used to be framed with metal and so whenever it rained, water would just seep right in through the cracks. It was a little rough, but it’s probably been in its most current state for the past four years. Regarding furnishing; it looks like I have it together now, but for forever it was just any piece of free furniture that I had accrued over my life: folding tables, crappy bookcases, and chairs.
I frame all of my stuff myself, which is a skill that I picked up at Miller Gallery, it's a skill that has been so helpful for me because framing with that sort of standard costs a fortune. I keep my wood shop primarily in the garage to eliminate some of the dust and mess, and I'll bring in some folding tables when I'm assembling them.
Over here in the back are source walls. Anything I find, I go ahead and pin up. That’s been my process for a while. I like everything in front of me, so before I begin laying out compositions on the floor I will play with the sources on the wall for a while. It helps me discover things a bit. This large round composition is one of the rare ‘unwovens’. It started after I had a bunch of scraps left over from cutting for a woven piece. Typically when I make a woven I won’t back it, I just do what I refer to as fish-scaling, sort of placing the pieces under each other for structural support, but I'll back the 'unwoven' with drawing paper—in printmaking it’s referred to as chine-colle: essentially placing wheat paste onto the paper and then hand rolling it out. I’m feeling the ‘explosion’ that’s happening here. I’ve always been a fan of explosive qualities that Lichtenstein utilized—this sort of recalls that for me.
This press came from British Columbia. An old printmaking professor built them and it was the first thing that I bought out of grad school when I didn’t really have the money. It showed up on a semi truck at my old apartment building, which led to a pretty funny situation. He had called about fifteen minutes before dropping it off asking where my loading dock was. And I had to explain that it was. . . just. . . my apartment building.
FD: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building etc) influenced your work in any way?
JS: I mean, I love Madeira (suburb resting right on the edge of Cincinnati’s city limits), but did I ever imagine living in the suburbs? No. I forever lived in Clifton and then Columbia Tusculum, Oakley. . . I mean, we snuck into this house during the recession when its price was way undervalued. If anything, I feel a little self-conscious about where I live as far as its populous' general political leanings; but on the other hand, my neighbors are just like me. It’s what it is, I guess.
FD: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?
JS: My wife usually wakes me up because I wake up with a lot of energy, and I think she just wants a minute of quiet before interacting with me. We have our coffee, I brush the cat, and sit around and talk while she gets ready for her day. She’ll head out, I’ll come down here. I’ll maybe have one more cup of coffee, watch T.V. for a minute, and then, depending on what I have going on; I may work in the sketch book, work on some collaging, answer emails and correspondence, or I’ll carve a block. Then the day kind of just floats into what it is. I teach intermittently. Coming up here soon I’ll be teaching a class over at Tigerlily Press— it’ll be a four week intensive for high school students. That’s the sort of teaching that I’m interested in, focused 'visiting artist' style classes. I keep pretty traditional business hours, mostly due to my wife’s schedule being that nine to five sort of day. She’s my best bud, so I’m not going to be having her, like, reading upstairs while I’m working down here. I mean, obviously when you have a deadline, you have a deadline; but I’d really say that I’m in here pretty much from nine to five, Monday through Friday.
My thought process is really disjointed and all over the place and so I need to have a lot of things going at once. That’s also probably why I am a home studio kind of guy. I need to be able to work for a bit, do some laundry, work, do some dishes, work, go outside. . . that sort of thing.
FD: You need your time to be broken into a lot of tiny parts.
JS: Yea! It’s kind of reflective of how I visually like things, too. Which is usually jarring as hell, most of the time. I keep busy.
FD: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
JS: I think that the best umbrella word would be ‘pattern’. The pattern becomes apparent in visual ideas regarding consumption, consumerism, and repetition of buying products because of your strong feelings of identity of brand. It’s kind of tricky; back when I was in grad school and I was really trying to think about my work meant, I was thinking a lot about weaving, crafts, and memory being instilled in the things that you touch— I was obviously really influenced by my anthropology studies in undergrad—I was really focusing on the symbolism and meaning that you project onto objects.
I’ve always been very process driven. Printmaking itself is so process oriented. I loved painting, but for me it never felt very tactile—I could never make the connection— it felt like I was pushing something around that wasn’t mine. If I can find a carton, break it down, and cut it up; there lies something in that process that I can really identify with. I can apply my persona to that activity. I can look at Wendy's [the fast food chain] face and think of eight times that I’ve eaten there. Anything from going with my parents as a kid to going a couple of weeks ago when my wife wanted a frosty. It’s hieroglyphics, really. We’re circling back around to using pictographs, and written language seems to be morphing away from itself.
FD: What mediums do you work with?
JS: I generically say that I work with anything paper. Paper all day. It’s one of the oldest human creations, right? It’s by far one the biggest technological advancements alongside fire, the wheel, the printing press revolution. . . Really though, it’s anything regarding printmaking. In a way, I still believe that my work is very painterly in that it; combines composition, color, and texture. It’s just missing the physical pushing of the pigment.
FD: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
JS: So, it really started as printing with found objects and wanting to have the print be it's own object, not an edition. There’s so much of printmaking that is about reproduction and I really wanted to get away from that. So I worked with anything that would react to the press in a physical way, getting destroyed in the process. I would usually get a couple really great prints and then the remaining pile of unusable prints would be used as background texture on another print or cut up and used somewhere else. . . a lot of new compositions out of old prints. Eventually, it turned into me cutting prints apart and making quilted tapestries of those images.
I’ve always had a love for manipulating paper. Academically it developed within printmaking, but in reality, it’s all types of paper. I began getting interested in found material at a really young age. It refers back to the liquor store, that was the first place that I learned that people are loyal to a brands. If you like Bud-Light, you like Bud-Light. You don’t drink Coors. I think I grew up with that sort of understanding, and then later on I travelled to participate in this artist residency in Budapest, and part of the agreement was that I donate an artwork upon my exit and the time all of my woven pieces were really rooted in my using my prints as source material. I wasn’t going to try to travel with metal rulers and x-acto knives and things and so I had to respond to the area. I had to work with the street paper in the city and work with things brought to me. So the piece that I was working on over there became like a Gee's Bend quilt, where the quilt itself holds memory in it. I think that's how I started to transition from using my own prints to using found material.
One of the rules that I have set up for myself is: I can't buy any material. It has to come to me in a natural flow. Either I’ll find it or someone will bring it to me. I source my family a lot, because several of my siblings have children, and children eat the worst stuff, they get the cereal boxes that are visually loud and all of that. Then (from storing it) it will stay smashed for forever. I’ll weigh down a good sized stack for a couple of months. That way it becomes really nice and flat. Then I trim: I remove all of the excess flaps and folds from the product design. I hate white, so I trim off any flaps, nutrition labels, or features that ground the paper into reality again. I just want the object that refers to the brand that holds weight for someone. They then get collaged together, which is what I have going on here. I use acid free glue and rag paper and I just barely join them, sort of building a quilt, in a way. Then I measure them on the back, mark them, and make a note as to which one they are.
FD: Do you work with narratives, plot, or a general progressive ideas?
JS: The narrative is very clear to me, but I’d probably describe it as open narrative. I’ve always responded to whatever the viewer brings from their own story. I can’t control the way people read things. The way I experience a brand may be completely different from their experience. Now, if I have a commission it’s completely different. I’ll typically ask them to keep whatever trash they may have normally thrown away for a three month span of time. Then they hand it over to me and I interpret that stuff. Usually with my idea of them in mind. I think anthropology also helps you do that, you know? To ask others “what is your life like?”
FD: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?
JS: I don’t know if it’s autobiographical, but I’d definitely say personal history feeds the work. It’s not super evident, but it’s all in there. [Points to the in progress work on the floor, with a Gap ad located at the top] I couldn’t afford Gap when I was growing up; a lot of the imagery I pull from has to do with ‘want’. ‘Want’ is the killer of humanity. It’s crazy, people destroy everything the have because of what they want.
FD: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
JS: Pattern, it’s everywhere. The natural world. Any time outside is crucial to me: biking, kayaking, it’s really hard to tell during this time of year but I have a pretty large garden back there. I grow some vegetables, but it’s mostly flowers. I’ve always been into those sorts of things.
It’s random stuff, too. I love a good wallpaper sample book. Paint sample chips. Weird design left overs. I have all of these old cigarette carton tops that my father used to cut off the cartons and then use as note paper. That sort of stuff influences me in some way. My mother sewed most of my siblings’ clothes. She’d go pick out patterns with my sisters, and I was around a lot of that practical creativity. That idea extended into the community as well. It was a farming community, and the prevailing culture is that you use everything you have. I’d say that’s something that has really effected my studio practice.
FD: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
JS: This space is pretty flexible. The press is on sliders, so if I’m doing a larger print I can move it around so that I have some mobility. If one of these woven works is taking up my time then I’ll push things out closer to the walls so that I have more floor space. One of the greatest experiences in finding the house was knowing what this studio could be for me. I fell in love with the giant concrete sink from the 1920’s. I was like, “I can do anything I can damn well please with that sink!”. It’s gorgeous. Before, when my studios were located in my apartments, I had to be extra cautious to not get ink anywhere. Now that I’m here, I can relax a little bit, even though I still keep it clean because I’m a tad obsessive.
FD: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
JS: I think there has always been a populous of artists that have a visceral response to corporate imagery. I might be one of those people that could be included in that. It’s existed forever, so I’d say that I’ve just dovetailed into that genre. I think there is a natural connection between my work and Pop Art aesthetics., but at the same time I think that my work folds into the fiber world, those artists and craftsman tend to really welcome me and what I do. If I’m going to be self critical I’d say that oftentimes I do work with too strong of blinders on. I really get focused on what I’m doing. In some way, working heavily with design and woven crafting, I don’t bump into a lot of people that are working in the same way that I do. Usually I find that they are pushing the idea of the woven form. Not necessarily pattern or technique. Mine is more of a mixture of both.
FD: Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
JS: I feel a kinship to El Anatsui I love his work. First off, it’s a found material, and it’s a looked down upon material. It usually consists of liquor bottle caps. . . or the wrappers off of bottles. . . or whatever found material. Then he has a team that chain males them all together.
There’s another artist, Tom Fruin, he went around to various parks to collect old drug paraphernalia bags, old vials, that sort of thing, and make these large quilts out of them; he'd stitch them together. He’d collect the detriment from drug abuse and make something interesting out of it. So they’re really ethereal. Once you understand what it is it becomes pretty powerful. It’s pretty neat work. I’ve always loved Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein. As a kid I just thought Lichtenstein was the best. I just thought he had it all figured out.
FD: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
JS: No, I don’t think I’m a motto or creed type of guy. Like, what would it even be? Weave or die? I don’t know. Honestly, it would probably be something like, “keep busy”. That’s it. Sometimes I get so disconnected from my own work that I just have to tell myself to go carve a block or something. Research the internet for source imagery. Do something. Just keep busy.
FD: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
JS: [laughs] Isn’t that always a progression?. . . . I hate that conversation. If my wife is with me then she usually answers for me. A lot of it is too. . . there’s a lot of really negative perceptions of artists in the public and I just don’t feel like responding to any of them. I usually just say that I teach. It’s much easier.
FD: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
JS: Just financially existing, honestly. In some sense, being an artist is a political action. You’ve chosen a career that no one really wants to support, or even understand for that matter. I’ve met enough people that are so challenged by their lack of understanding of what an ‘artist’ means that they get visibly frustrated by it. It’s a bit socially challenging; and I mean. . . I’m getting close to forty, this is my life. [laughs] There isn’t really any turning around now. This is it. For me, it’s about embracing it, taking it seriously, and enjoying it.
FD: Words of wisdom?
JS: Maintain a good studio practice. Always fall back on the routine of a well maintained practice. Look at others work, appreciate it for the technique but don’t get intimidated by it or have it shut you down. It sounds like a cliche, but fear is often times just growth. Push through the fear because it will always reward you later.
FD: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
JS: I think one of the most exciting projects that I just got contacted for is the EVAC Project. They match you with a veteran that has seen combat and they record an audio file of their story and then you create a print in response to the recording. Those prints travel around to the Pentagon, the Library of Congress, and other places like that; carrying the stories of those veterans. My grandfathers were WWII veterans, so I have been around that culture a bit. Then, of course, the Cincinnati Art Museum acquiring one of my pieces was pretty exciting.
FD: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
JS: The EVAC Project work is due in May. In September I’ll be going to Pittsburgh to do Big Ink, the four foot by eight foot wood block will be printed there. There will be a compilation of various sizes of doilies. Right now, I'm trying to mentally plan for that. Those are the big things. I contributed to Sandra Cinto’s Library of Love at the Contemporary Art Center. That’s pretty cool. I just got done with two different British zines:, and I still have the exhibition up at Brazee Studios. Then, I have the member show at Tigerlily Press in April.