Penelope Smart moved from Toronto, ON to St. John's, NL to become the director of Eastern Edge Gallery. She spoke with us about her love of writing, her experience on the island, and her dream gallery space!
If you had the opportunity to collaborate with any artist in the world who would you choose?
Meret Oppenheim. The inter-war era she was active in is mesmerizing to me, and Surrealism had a lot of playful yet broad-minded ideas going on. She's an Art History headliner but she's always been a favourite. Maybe Charles Rennie MackIntosh. Mary Shelley!
Do you have a book, movie, or video you've read or seen recently you'd recommend to other artists or writers?
Last winter I watched The Red Shoes, which is a Technicolor movie from the late 40's. It's a fairy tale-turned ballet but they made a movie out of it. It's beautifully done and has beautiful colour and choreography with striking scenes of tragedy, magic and romance. I’m big on romance. I hadn't seen anything quite like it before. I came to it because I picked up a paperback autobiography of Margot Fonteyn, a famous ballerina. I love viewing art through different artistic traditions, in this case ballet. Getting into the head of someone who is creating art in a different way, through their body or choreography. This film a really cool snapshot of a moment in filmmaking and also a very interesting adaptation of a ballet. I’ll add another movie to the list, the version of Great Expectations with Robert de Niro. I saw this movie as a teenager and I fell so in love with how the movie looked, the world of this movie. Everything is green, different shades of green, the clothes, the interiors, the Gulf landscape. It’s subtle though, and consciousness of this, how the use of green made the story feel separate and complete, this had a tremendous effect on me back then, visually. Exhibitions are visual narratives, too, I guess for me the good ones astound you in the same way as this “green,” did, a show or body of work that has, not a colour obviously, but something simple and connective and different, and it seeps in.
A book I would recommend, which was recommended to me, is The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. I couldn't put it down. It's breathtaking, vivid and heartbreaking.
If you had an unlimited budget, is there anything that you'd love to own that would help with your writing or curation practices?
That's a good question! In my fantasy world I'd own a gallery that is a refurbished horse stable, an old barn. A gallery in a barn. I love horses and riding, and all the barn chores. I feel like a stable encompasses so many things that I believe in in terms of a gallery, the gallery as a work space, not a dead zone or overly-lit square. I'm describing a place that’s an experience to enter into, to be in, and the experience encompasses more than just art, there's a sense of living and breathing. This is a feeling I get in a barn, where there's dirt and life and different rhythms. I mean there wouldn't be horses or dirt in the gallery, it would be a converted barn, but you'd have the sense of continuity, peacefulness and a sense that people are carrying out ideas and working hard. I think that would be a really beautiful place to house and to show art to people. I’ve also felt this way about garden sheds.
That would be really cool! So, getting a little more into your curation practice, could you tell us a little bit about Gallery Penelope Smart? Is it mostly online based?
It's been a little of everything over the last few years. When I started my website it was meant as a repository for ideas that were coming from a lot of different places, like creative writing or art writing, as well as projects with artists as an independent artist representative or curator. A friend built it custom for free and I wanted a place for everything I was up to. So that’s basically what it is. But also online would be the place to tell people about a show and put up images of works for sale, through me. It's never been a place that’s driven huge sales because it’s not 100% clear that I’m selling art. I've thought recently if I'm going to be an online gallery or any separate gallery project then my site should be something that is visually much more of a place to shop or a place to look at a specific artwork by a specific person. I need to decide.
So you are representing two artists on there right now, is that right?
I like selling art, so I started doing it, but not regularly or in a way you would describe as business savvy. I've been working with artist Sarah Burwash for the past few years, and that was born out of a friendship and started by doing one show and then trying out different projects when opportunities arose. She sells her own work as well, in different places, so it's never been a hard and fast rule. Although, when we decided to work together more recently we agreed it was a trial period, for both of us. It’s based on the personal ways we wanted to work together and just try out things project by project or exhibition by exhibition. What I am able to offer artists at this point is opportunities as they come up depending where I am with my own work and where I'm living. Suzanne Dery, the other artist I’ve worked with is a Canadian artist who is living and working in Glasgow, who I met when I was living there in 2015. I saw some older prints that she had done and really liked them, so last year I thought it would be really nice to try to work with those prints through my online webpage and bring them to the small client base I've built up over the last several years. The collaborative aspect to working with artists in this way has been a bit of a test to see what happens when I show the work that I'm interested in to other people.
Would you say you represent artists more based on who you want to collaborate with more than represent in a traditional way?
That would be a good way of describing it. It's always been a side thing, which I think lends itself to collaboration. But also, in the art world, it’s difficult for potential clients to know who you are and trust you if you are not one clear thing. It's difficult to be an artist representative on the side of your full time, non-commercial art world job. It naturally confuses people. I don't know if it really serves the artist very well because they are always looking for opportunities to sell more work. If you want to try to sell this work it’s different because it takes time and energy to get work out there for people to buy and to brand yourself. I've been on the edge there for quite a while and haven’t taken the big leap. So yes, I would definitely say it's more towards collaboration than me trying to sell out a body of work. For now, it's when I meet an artist and we get along, share ideas, values, and experiences, we decide to work together in a way that makes me the curator and gallerist and them the artist. Sales have been a positive outcome, or sometimes press, or new opportunities that have come from putting work out there.
It seems like a very mutually beneficial relationship!
On your website you say you're interested in emerging artists. What it is about emerging artists that draws your attention so much?
I’m a few years out of grad school with some professional experiences under my belt now. There are lots of things out there I'm still working towards. So first off, emerging artists are accessible for me. They'll return your e-mails, are interested in studio visits and hopefully they're not jaded by their own ideas of what being an artist is. There’s no gallery or rep to go through. A lot of times they're eager to meet with people, whoever they are. Their work is generally more experimental and loose because they are trying things out. There's lots of hopes and dreams in the mix at an earlier stage, and so it’s a lot of fun and you can walk down the same path for a little while. With emerging artists, they are figuring out how to negotiate professional relationships and so you are meeting somebody when they're testing out being professional. It's flattering for both sides. It's also fun to encounter a practice when you see something that you really, really like and you know it’s headed somewhere and you're catching it at a particular early moment. For a dealer that’s the jackpot. It’s exciting for a curator too!
You could be catching the next best thing!
Yes! You never know where something or someone is going to go.
You mentioned that you've recently finished grad school. Could you tell us a little bit about your masters experience?
I did my masters in Curatorial Practice and Art Criticism. It was a two year MFA at OCAD University from 2011 to 2013. Before I decided I wanted to pursue a career in the arts and exhibition-making professionally, I was working in journalism. At that point that there was a lot of cool sounding grad school programs that had to do with curating. The OCAD program was pretty new and small at that point. When I got in, I moved to Toronto from Sackville, NB where I was starting to do very small exhibitions with friends and taking part-time Art History classes. OCAD was a rigorous program. There were five of us. I wrote a thesis and curated an exhibition as a part of that thesis and defence. I gained a lot of connections and practical experience from it and I also had really wonderful and frankly quite lucky opportunities that came out of that program. I was able to meet people in and around Toronto at different organizations and different types of galleries. I think the program has changed quite a bit now and there are different ways you can professionalize yourself in curating, even in the last five years there has been change. In terms of Canadian programs, OCAD at the time was competitive and affordable, and I'm glad I did it.
So you were a journalist before! What was the shift from journalism into art criticism like? Were there any similarities?
In journalism you learn a lot of skills that are highly applicable to anything you will do in life. I was working for CBC, and my interest in journalism came out of a love of writing. I always thought I would work for a fancy magazine when I grew up. Growing up in a small Northern town, I loved the idea of being a magazine writer, you know, like the Kate Hudson character in “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days!” I grew up on magazines and imagined myself living a version of that life. CBC had always been the pinnacle for creative journalism in Canada and it was a big part of my life growing up. I did intern and work for publishers and magazines before I got a job at CBC's English radio in Montreal. Some skills you learn working in radio journalism are how to pick up the phone and call strangers and ask them serious or strange questions, how to be able to connect with just about anyone, and how to show up to things that are happening in your community. But I would get really nervous talking live on air. I didn’t like that part. I would say ridiculous things, expressions I had never used before, because I was so nervous! A big part of the job is condensing information into clear and concise sentences for listeners to understand. The writing is free of academic and laborious paragraphs. Writing scripts for radio was my favourite part of the job. I’ve found that it has lent itself very well to grant writing, artist statements, and art writing.
That’s great, we've never thought about radio like that!
Writing for radio is unlike any other writing I’ve ever done, you go through this crazy rebirth in terms of how you think about telling stories. It's very liberating and it's addictive once you surrender yourself to that way of communicating. You have to stay in the present and get to the point and ask “Why?” at least once. It’s easy to forget the impact of “Why?”
And you carried those things into your current career?
Yeah that’s right! I would say precision, immediacy, and clarity in terms of art writing and talking about art is something I felt like I went through the ringer with in radio, and it’s valuable to bring it to an art circle.
So for you are curation and writing exclusively tied? Do you always accompany your curation with writing pieces?
Creative writing for me is all over the place. I love exhibitions that come out of journal entries, letters, song lyrics, and personal experiences, whether it be a primary source, historic account, or somebody's fictionalized history, like an autobiography for example. I love pulling ideas and using those types of written work within curating and in an exhibition space. Fiction I do for fun and for my own type of therapy, it can get me out of bind. Art writing spans so many different genres now whether it be stream of conscious writing, poetry, fiction, or autobiography. Lots of artists are writing books now. Diaristic stuff and poetry is lots of places. All of these kinds of writing exist together and different artists and writers do them very well and in very different ways, so I think the line between creative writing and art writing is blurred. But maybe it always has been. I love that.
Can you tell us about The Dayroom? Was that a project you started when you moved to St. John's?
Eastern Edge GalleryI moved to St. John's to be Director at . Then someone I knew was moving out of their studio and I asked if I could see it, because I didn’t know anything about St. John's or anything about studio spaces here. We went into this old building and he showed me this room. It had this beautiful window on the top floor, and I could see myself working in it. It was a nice friendly gallery size, small enough to feel intimate but not like a closet and it was really affordable! I had never had a room of my own, outside of a kitchen in my apartment, so I thought it would be a neat opportunity. I knew very few people here and I didn’t really know who I was in the city but I did know that I always wanted to have my own studio space, and this was an opportunity for that. I cleaned it up, did a paint job and I knew I wanted to have shows there, whether it be commercial shows or more project based shows, like a studio exhibition space. I've done two shows in there now, both with artists I know. So these aren't shows I'm loosing sleep over, they are collaborations with friends. But the shows are consciously about life in Newfoundland. Sarah Burwash was in Newfoundland for a residency so she came into St. John's. The Dayroom has been working out great in ways like that. It's hard when you have a full time job to do a side thing that’s also full time, I've tried to be there on the weekends and have regular gallery hours of Saturday and Sunday but that’s been much harder to keep up then I thought it would be. There are public hours but I'm not on Facebook, it's really been through Instagram that I keep communicating with people. So I recognize that it's not a regular public gallery, I'm just not able to do that on my own.
Are you going to keep the space when you leave NL? What are your plans for its future?
I'll keep it until I leave town. I'm doing a show this spring, beautiful charcoal drawings. Keeping it simple is important. Works on paper, paintings, these are easy to deal with and I’m drawn to them. I’m talking with a few people who might be interested in doing some collaborative projects, sort of like a rotating, multi-use space. I think there is a lot of interest in that. But things only last as long as the people are around and emerging writers and artists are always leaving town. The shows that I've had in there had a great turn out. There was nothing like this here. But people are not out gallery hopping or turning old garages or warehouses into independent art spaces the way they are in Toronto, and that’s also a part of it of the challenge of it. It’s different here and there’s not a lot of people. Maybe now that I've moved on from Eastern Edge I could think about different ways to be in The Dayroom and use it with others.
That brings us to our next question about your time at Eastern Edge! What are a few highlights from your year as director of Eastern Edge Gallery?
A highlight would be feeling good about learning more advanced financial operations. That was something I really wanted to learn and it was really fun. I learned to love payroll! So there's some practical things I gained. Art wise, one of my favourite moments was screening "Waiting for Fidel." The first thing I did as director when I came back from the holidays last year was screen this Newfoundland cult NFB film that I wanted to watch in the gallery, and it turned out that tons of people hadn't seen it. It was a cold winter night, the gallery filled up, it was fun and everyone had a great time. Even though the film is from the 70s, It felt like I'd hit on something connected to contemporary art and essential ideas on this island.
A definite highlight was the night when my first Newfoundland friend, Jason Penney, left me a chicken schwarma in my mailbox. There's a lot of kindness here.
I'd also say a highlight is just realizing, through Eastern Edge, just how strange and unknowable Newfoundland is. There’s so much to see and learn and think about here that's different than other places. It was humbling. At the end of the day, it's a mystery. It's a place where lots of things are hidden even though it’s a barren rock face and everything literally has to sit on the surface. It has different seasons, a different past, a tough economy, a working harbour town is its own thing. I’ve described it before as the Wild West, but with high taxes. That’s how it can feel from the outside. Now that I have a tiny bit of hindsight, I have the ability to recognize how special this opportunity was for me. To watch ships coming in out my kitchen window. To experience a place with no soft landings. Newfoundland tosses you around a little but that’s part of the appeal.
So your current website says that there is a new site coming soon, are there any sneak peaks you could tell us about?
Well, like I said at the beginning I've been toying with this idea of committing my website to being a gallery page, more obviously a gallery where it is easier to get to the artists and the work. A new site that takes away personal stuff, where it's not clear what's going on and perhaps comes off as unprofessional. I’m learning I do have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. I think I need more time to grow and test and make mistakes. Having my own studio space and making shows real in it, has been an important step.
Thank you so much for speaking with us Penny, we can't wait to see what show you curate next!