On Mind and Memory, with Leslie Smith

On Mind and Memory, with Leslie Smith


Leslie Smith makes drawings, prints, and books based on her interest in the mind, body, and the way we think about the self. She holds an MFA in Book Arts from the University of Iowa Center for the Book, and a master’s degree in Library Science. Her artist’s books are held in various public and private collections including The Dibner Library at the Smithsonian, The Flaxman Library at the Art Institute of Chicago, and The Darling Bio-medical Library at UCLAShe lives in North Carolina and teaches printmaking and book arts classes. leslie-a-smith.com


Tell us about an idea for a work which hasn’t yet entered the production stage.

For the last few years I have been thinking about the mind, body, and self. I am beginning work on a series of prints about mind and memory. In this case, I put aside the idea of neurons for a moment and just think about the mind from the day-to-day user’s perspective. I imagine my mind is made of rooms.

How did this idea originate?

For a long time I have thought that what is outside flows inside. We see something, it is projected onto the back of the retina, then slips into the brain, finding a temporary home. People often talk about the structure of the mind as an architecture. I like to think in a very literal way. I start imagining square and rectangular rooms. Some rooms are large like a gym and some are small like a closet. Thoughts and memories fill them both.

What influenced/triggered you?

I was looking at 17th-century reports on curiosities and wonders and I saw this visual list of the seven wonders of the world. Each wonder is in its own window. They seemed like little rooms to me. The pyramids of Egypt are in one room and the walls of Babylon are in another. I know this is not how the mind is. Each memory is not tucked neatly into its own room.

From R. B.’s “The Surprizeing Miracles of Nature,” 1678

Maybe it is more like a cabinet of curiosities. Objects from all over the world line the walls and ceilings.

From Ferrante Imperato’s “Dell’historia natuale,” 1599

Tracing the idea from its embryonic form from concept into the design stage, can you tell us how your idea has progressed through its various iterations?

 I once saw these temporary lakes in Greenland. They are one of most memorable curiosities I have ever seen. I have been thinking about them off and on for the last 15 years. They are made of melted ice and last for years, but the weight of the water causes fissures in the lake bottom. These huge lakes can drain in a few hours. Since the Greenland lakes have been such a prominent memory I started there. I began by linking the outside with the inside. I examined my memory of the blue lakes, but also the places I go to think: a house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a park in Washington, DC, a dried up swimming pool in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I made a book about these connections called Inner Rooms. As soon as I was finished with the book I knew there would be another part to this project.

I began with Greenland again, working through the process going from exterior world to interior mind. At first I thought my representation of the walls would be tentative, only drawn in dotted lines. Now this does not seem right anymore. It is more that the rooms are temporary, but seem permanent. First, I see Greenland, receive it, then store it away. That is what these first test prints are about. In this moment, I see the possible variations on these prints and then the bridge extending out from the last. The rooms could be opened up; they could blossom out. What kind of wonder cabinet is exists there?

Are your test prints for this particular project designed digitally, in analogue format, a combination of the two?

I really wanted a thorough mixing of technologies in this project. For now these experiments are a mix of printed laser cuts, hand-coloring, and graphite drawings. I am trying not to plan too much, just make images and put them together.

Does this project demand loose improvisational commitments or strict adherence to a blueprint?

So far it is loose and improvisational, but I think it could be even looser. It seems like intuition and chance will be the best allies given the subject matter.

How do you know when something is working?

In general, I think I know when something is working by a feeling I get. Sometimes the images are interacting energetically or the imagery is getting close to what I imagined, and I feel an electricity and an excitement. I could be wrong, but the only way seems to be to follow the feeling.

Describe your building process/practice for this particular project.

I am printing the selection of laser cuts I have right now in various combinations and orientations. I am then drawing on the prints as an immediate way to see imagery in the scene. I am also hand-coloring with gouache and colored pencil. Eventually more of the imagery will be printed to more easily produce multiples, but I want to keep hand-coloring. I like mixing the very old technique of hand-coloring with laser-cutting.

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