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Mavis Smith
Let's Have Sex by Mavis Smith
“Let’s Have Sex” by Mavis Smith

I will say up front that Mavis Smith is a good friend of mine. Recently we spent an evening on her deck talking about painting while enjoying her wonderful cooking and a pretty good bottle of wine (Liberty Schoolhouse Cabernet Sauvignon ‘99). The deck sits up in the trees and overlooks her studio. Mavis hates to talk about her art. That’s why I brought the wine.

Over the last decade, Mavis has created powerful collages constructed from intricately placed clippings taken from magazine photos. She selects every piece not only for color but for shading gradation. Instead of a mosaic, the product is a rendition of form with dimension and space. In some cases, the piece reveals the photo from which it came, adding subtext to an already mysterious image. Mavis’s works present themselves with a singular clarity, but upon investigation cascade into layers of supposition—all in superb color harmony. In sizes ranging up to six feet, they can dominate a room with a banquet of metaphor and rumination.

Mavis’s early influence was Pop Art, a movement which focused on commonplace subjects while addressing popular culture. That kind of subject matter is evident in the clear and provocative statements consistently found in Mavis’s work. “I have an element in me that keys into pop culture,” she says while passing the Tasmanian Devil saltshaker. “There’s a side to me that doesn’t always want to be intellectually correct. Everything being hi-brow can get tiresome after a while. Sometimes you want to get down and dirty. It’s all part of what makes people tick...part of the whole picture.” That is the well from which Mavis Smith draws her images.

In her studio, photos cut from magazines surround her. But the people that appear in her artwork “sift out,” as she says, from her imagination. They all have the same look in their eyes. They own the space in the painting and stare as you intrude. Heavy-lidded residents challenge you to figure out what was going on when you interrupted them.

These are very private people. A woman sprawled on a couch with an empty Chinese food container, a man peering across his typewriter, a woman sipping a drink at poolside. They don’t tell you anything, they make you guess. “It is important to me to create the image that there is an unusual story going on,” Mavis says. “I had something in my mind when I created it, but it’s not important that the viewer has that exact story in theirs. Just as long as it is provocative, suggests that something interesting and weird is going on, and creates a mood.” To achieve this, Mavis is prudent but deliberate with detail. And it is in the detail that she creates atmosphere. “I’m interested in that little matchbox that happens to be poking out from the chair, that when you look closer...”

Mavis spends a lot of time drawing. “I like having a big piece of paper with charcoal and getting in there,” she says. A roll of paper extends across the top of her studio wall. When she draws, she pulls down a huge sheet that covers the wall, and she starts “throwing charcoal on it.” Ideas start to form. “I lose time and space and become totally absorbed, lost in the world. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Mavis also paints, which gives her the same sense of immediacy as drawing. It is a feeling she doesn’t get from making a collage. Collage, the way Mavis Smith does it, is hours of selecting pieces of paper, holding them in position, trimming with scissors, and either gluing them in position or trying another piece. “Collage is more of a planned, meticulous thing,” she says. “I can’t just start throwing stuff down, mushing it around, and playing with it. I do that when I draw. With charcoal I pull out and erase and draw over. It’s so much more spontaneous.” Working with paint gives Mavis that same freedom to act on the spur-of-the-moment and provides balance to the deliberate and sometimes tedious processof collage.

That is when she isn’t illustrating. Mavis has illustrated more than 70 books and written ten. She enjoys illustrating and likes how the pressure of deadlines can spur her into creative solutions and force her to try new things. There is no time to get long-winded or noodle with it. She learns economy and discipline, the direct route to an uncomplicated statement that is not unlike Pop Art.

Mavis keeps a divide between her fine art and her career in illustration. She splits the physical location of her work space, illustrating books in her house and using her studio only for fine art. She also separates her two careers into blocks of time, doing fine art only when she isn’t working on books. A book may take weeks to complete. It has been nearly eight months since Mavis has taken a significant break that would allow her to devote serious time to painting. Right now, she is finishing a set of drawings that she will send to the publisher soon. “Some part of my body knows that I am going to actually have time,” she says. “I find myself in odd moments making little sketches for paintings that I can imagine working on. But I can’t slip that way and still keep focus and on track. I have to wait until the book is done.” Then she can go out to her studio. It’s the necessary divide.

When do you work and why?
I like to work early in the day because that’s when I’m freshest and have the most energy.

How do dreams affect your work?
Not much really. My conscious imagination is pretty damn vivid though.

Who or what influences your work most?
The painter Balthus, filmmaker David Lynch, author T.C. Boyle. I am hopelessly fascinated by the quirky and off-beat, especially when it seeps into what appears on the surface to be banal everyday life.

What was the most memorable response to your work?
People love it or hate it. The time I had a show at Citicorp Center and I had to cover up the various breasts and penises that were visible in one of my collages so as not to offend corporate sensibilities certainly stands out as memorable.