Precious metal at ShockBoxx in Hermosa

Christina Smith in her studio. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Heart of gold

Christina Smith’s solo show “Integrated” opens Saturday at ShockBoxx

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Traumatic events can change a person for the worse and push them into a hole from which they may never emerge. But if a traumatic experience leads one to delve into the essence of who they are, and to explore their self-worth as a human being, the end result may be both self-knowledge and inner strength, not to mention hard-earned wisdom instead of endless self-torment and shame. Or, as boiled down by Nietzsche, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Which brings us to a young artist named Christina Smith who has confronted her demons and now is more centered for having done so. Her personal story underlies an exhibition called “Integrated” (better understood as “disIntegrated”) that opens Saturday at ShockBoxx in Hermosa Beach. Smith is quite uncomfortable about sharing it, but the need to do so overrides that. As I tell her during the course of our conversation, she’s a courageous person. Most people would bury and then shy away from revealing their hurtful, intimate stories, but fortunately in the present era women (and yes, men, too) are speaking freely and frankly in the hope that others with similar stories of misfortune will realize that they are not alone, and that what they may have endured is not something to be ashamed of.

“It’s Ok, You Forgot You’re Free,” by Christina Smith

A sponge comes of age

Christina Smith was born and grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee. She comes from a large family, says that her parents were great, but then adds that her father was a special forces pilot who saw combat overseas, Mogadishu being one example. “So, from a very early age we were going to a lot of memorial services. Men that had been there that weekend were dead the next month. My mother wasn’t about to hide the truth from us, that your dad is in war; and there are aspects of that in the show.”

And thus at a very early age, Smith says, “I associated my father with death and also what did it mean that he kills other people for a living in order to keep us safe?” A precocious child, apparently, by age four she was thinking, “But why don’t those people get to be safe?” Perhaps this was one of Smith’s first attempts to reconcile the disparities in our world. “Kids are just sponges,” she says, and when I call her a sensitive sponge she laughs. But a sensitive sponge she was. And is.

Eventually Smith set her sights on California. “I always had this dreamy idea about the West Coast and L.A.,” she says, “and I wanted to pursue acting. I was a competitive dancer, so I knew I was going to perform in some way. Then the visual art growth kind of chose me — I didn’t really choose it.”

She arrived here in 2007, went to New Orleans for a couple of years and then returned. We met in her studio, located in L.A.’s downtown Arts District.

Dancing, acting, and now painting, but they are all aspects of Smith’s search of ways to express herself artistically. However, while each discipline can convey mood or feeling, perhaps there’s more autonomy in the visual arts because, unlike being in a dance troupe or in the cast of a play, “no one’s editing it — it’s just you and your story.”

That’s not to ignore or slight the others. “The dance aspect [contributes to] understanding where things fit inside my body. I’m very body-conscious,” which in this case appears to imply that trauma can be remembered and expressed both physically and mentally. She says, “I love the human story and what it feels like.” But let’s look into how Smith applies all this to her painting.

“As You Are,” by Christina Smith

The gold standard

Smith’s canvases are built up, layer by layer. I’m not sure how many, but several, and the texture itself gives away this fact. Layering, she explains, is like life itself. After all, we’re kind of like onions. You peel off one layer and there’s another underneath. Same thing here.

The first layer, though, can be symbolic filth and detritus. It could consist of graffiti, a mishmash of designs, swear words, whatever. That’s the “mud” that incessantly drifts into our lives. But, with effort and insight, this can be layered over with gold. The gold is that perfect essence of what we can be or at least strive to attain. And, yes, there may be additional layers of the ugly stuff, trying to have the last word, as usual, only to be covered up by gold yet again. We’re striving for that 51 percent, with the good or positive in life finally defeating, even if just barely, the negative and bad.

All of this layering is an active visual metaphor, essentially pouring metaphorical gold into our broken parts. However, we also need to become our own mechanics, to keep our lives smooth and in running order.

Smith sums up what I think is one of her motivations for the work: “I always felt fundamentally broken and not good enough, and it took me a long time.” But eventually she found, and listened to, “that internal voice, that quiet, deep, golden voice inside of us, that all of us have.”

Christina Smith. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

And so, while the bottom layers can be intermittently messy, what emerges on top is “a profound and untouchably beautiful part of humanity. Nobody,” Smith emphasizes, “can get to that, and nobody can hurt that.” Or, as it applies to the art, “No one can tarnish that perfect gold.

“It’s taken me so long to fight for that part of myself. So That’s what I really love about this series. And with the show (at ShockBoxx) I just want to give it context.” Smith realizes that everyone has a story of grief, loss, or suffering, and that in this sense she’s not unduly special, and she’s not asking for anyone’s pity. But the show does offer her personal and specific story, with this hopeful message: “If I can get through it you can get through it.”

One may conclude that what Smith has constructed is a defensive wall or shell around her own traumas (which does include sexual assault). That may sound slightly dismissive, but strength is a self-protective fortification. That’s not to imply that one merely hides behind it. After all, that “perfect gold” does require safeguarding from theft or vandalism.

We can look at the gold-layered paintings and admire the texture. It’s visually tactile. Many of them also, as I see it, are like mirrors. Not the kind of mirror over a bathroom sink, but a mirror for your thoughts and moods to be reflected back at you. In some ways, perhaps all art is a mirror, but non-figurative art may be a better barometer in this sense because there isn’t necessarily the “distraction” of a recognizable form.

But what if the final layer, the surface layer in Smith’s work wasn’t a terrain of gold but one of the muddy and messier layers? Would that convey the same story, but just sort of reversed?

“I also tried that,” Smith says, “but I don’t ever want the suffering to win. That’s what my message is right now.” This goes back to that 51-49 percent analogy. Or, yet again, hope trumps despair.

“Hold On,” by Christina Smith

The other woman

ShockBoxx, which isn’t that large to begin with, has a smaller room at the back of the gallery, and I think the essence of Smith’s story will be waiting for us there. The multimedia show includes a film that should draw us — like flies to flypaper — to the more intimate space. Smith has been rather guarded as to exactly what we’ll see when we peek inside. What we do know is that there’s a mixture of bravery and trepidation involved on her part.

“No matter what my story is, I’m still worthy of love and worthy of existing. That’s the message I want for all humans, that I can’t live with shame and be feeling cornered in my life.” And yet there does remain “that fear that people are going to judge me and throw me out.” However, she continues, “That’s society telling me that there’s shame here. There’s not shame unless I’m accepting it, unless I choose that thought. So, yeah, I’m profoundly uncomfortable, but I want to do it for that one person who has that secret story and feels like they don’t have a voice. Then I feel like it’s worth it.”

The accompanying film shows Smith reflecting on the question of how do I get the gold and how do I maintain it.

I suppose it’s something of an alter-ego, but Smith the artist goes by the name Amrta, short, by one letter, for Amrita, the latter translating as “immortality” in Sanskrit. Amrita also shares attributes with ambrosia, the so-called nectar of the gods, which is often depicted as honey-gold in color. It is also, Smith says, “the purest thing that would fall from the sky after war, (signifying that) the war is over. “I adopted Amrta because it feels so encompassing,” and that it represents “the idea of what I want to be.” Perhaps in this sense we can also see Amrta as an art-warrior acolyte, a role model of sorts or at least a concept to aspire to.

“Untethered,” by Christina Smith

We don’t usually stumble across references to Amrita, but one of Smith’s pastimes has been the study of religion and comparative mythology. She also found a branch of Buddhism she could relate to, and has actively incorporated that into her life as well. It provides guidance for her life, helps her stay focused and positive, and also “has forged me to be more of the person I want to be.”

One of our goals in life is not only to become mature but to become wise; that is, to acquire wisdom. Before discovering the Buddhist teachings that have helped her, Smith says she went through a stage where she was angry and reactive. In relationships, she was “always looking for the bad,” but then had the epiphany that “I don’t want to be blowing up my life and my relationships, and I don’t want to be angry.”

Wisdom, she says, “is reserved for when you earn it. I haven’t quite earned wisdom yet,” but she’s gaining the ability to trust herself and her instincts. And therefore, by all appearances, Smith is headed in the right direction. But what a journey it has been, presumably one with more discoveries in the years ahead.

In the meantime, with her impending show, Smith is treading new and uncertain territory, but believing in herself that it will come out right. She’s taking a risk, of course, laying bare her inner life, which in the end is what an artist must always be prepared to do. In her words, referring to the story concealed behind the gold, Smith says, “It’s not about making pretty art that people want to hang in their house, it’s about telling a story — and I think that is my biggest goal. It’s like, don’t judge it, let it flow through and come out, and it’s going to be the story it needs to be.”

Integrated, a solo art show by Christina Smith, opens with a reception at 7 p.m. on Saturday at ShockBoxx, 636 Cypress Ave, Hermosa Beach. The show extends into October. (310) 989-4323, info@shockboxxproject, or visit ER


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