Outside the Frame: Q&A With Guerilla Artist Keri Smith

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.

Keri Smith is an author/illustrator-turned-guerilla artist. She is the author of several bestselling books about creativity, including How to be an Explorer of the World — The Portable Life/Art Museum and Wreck This Journal.

Artist Keri Smith
I discovered her blog, Wish Jar, a few years back, and it quickly became one of my favorite sources of inspiration and provocation, with musings on changing your perspective, things to do besides shopping and getting lost.

I recently chatted with Keri via email about navigating the line between public and private online, and whether she sees her blog as a documentary of her life. An edited transcript of our discussion follows.

Amanda: Why do you blog?

Keri: I began blogging initially as a way of connecting with a wider audience, growing my illustration business and just generally documenting my process (and everyday life). This has changed over the last few years. I would say my focus is still on process, but I would expand that more into using the blog as a forum for experimenting with ideas. One of the benefits of having an audience is that it requires a regiment, a need to create on a regular basis. I don’t believe in waiting for the muse to visit.


Amanda: How are your reasons for blogging similar to or different from the reasons you create art?

Keri: They are one and the same. I do not see the process of blogging as a separate thing from creating art. This is in part why I do not like to be known for being a “blogger,” as this is just one form of output for creative ideas.

Amanda: I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Web is changing the way we think about public versus private. I wonder how you navigate this line between public/private in terms of what information you choose to share, or not share, about your life and art.

Also, since this is a blog about documentary storytelling, I wonder — do you think it would be accurate to call your blog an online documentary either of your life, or of your life as an artist?

Keri: Yes, I think it would be accurate, though not in an expository way. I prefer to share elements of my life and what is in my head, but not too many details about my personal family life. This has evolved over time as I found myself slowly entering into the public eye more as my books grew in popularity. If you believe, as I do, that art and life are not separate entities, then how can you share aspects of either without exposing too much of yourself?

I think the answer for me lies in presenting a life in the context of “human experience,” the things that bind us all together, the quotidian (everyday), as opposed to making the experience too personal. Presenting things without judgment and letting the audience bring their own experience to it. That would be the goal, anyway; I don’t know that I always succeed. But then it is the experiment that I am most interested in, attempting something without knowing what the outcome will be.

I will borrow the words of the French writer George Perec, as they are appropriate here:

How are we to speak of these “common things,” how to track them down rather, flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what is, of what we are.”

Perec spoke of the need to question the things that are most habitual. This is my goal as an artist, to pay attention to the things that I might otherwise miss — to tune into my surroundings instead of walking through the world in a state of unconsciousness; to engage all of my senses, which I forget about most of the time.

Being on computers all day, our senses become underused and dulled (we are animals, after all). The virtual world can never be a substitute for real world experience. And the more it takes over our lives, the more we forget to feel the sun on our skin, the more we forget that there is an entire universe to be discovered even during a 10 minute walk to work.

Amanda: In your book, How to Be An Explorer of the World, you offer this advice:
Artist Keri Smith' list of how to be an explorer of the world

Could you riff a bit on how you see these concepts extending, or not extending, to the online universe? Is there as much (or perhaps more?) fodder for creativity in the virtual world as there is in the physical world?

Keri: I actually wrote the list with real world explorations in mind. I love the idea of a website/blog being a catalyst for propelling people out into the world and I enjoy it most when people write me to say that their world looked or smelled or felt a little different because of something that I wrote.

That being said, I also love the idea of exploring the online world in new and interesting ways… The Internet is like a large library, and we can find our own meaning and methods of investigation. The ways in which we investigate can be as interesting as the information we find in the end, and can become a kind of narrative in itself.

I think it is also important to consider that while there is fodder for creativity in the virtual world, by obtaining information and ideas in this way, we are receiving a lot of information secondhand. What is lacking is a direct experience — the difference between reading about nature in books and experiencing it live and in person. The multi-sensory experience is missing. I am a big advocate of going directly to the source if at all possible; this becomes a little convoluted online, where millions of people are reproducing and passing on information like one massive game of broken telephone.

At the same time, I get excited at having so much more to investigate — there are a lot of things being put online that the general public has never had access to before (archives, art pieces, unpublished works, etc.); this is both exciting and overwhelming. I suppose it is a double-edged sword in some ways.

Amanda: Are there blogs or other websites you follow that you think are interesting examples of this notion of documenting our lives online?

Keri: My favorite sites are those that remind me to pay a little more attention to details. Here are a few favorites:

imaginechildhood.com
David Horvitz
New York Times: Maria Kalman – And the Pursuit of Hapipness

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.