Denver artist Natalie Smith's new show, Relics Revealed, provides an intimate glance into powerful stories.
It was the rolling pin that first drew me in. Bright orange eggs oozed viscerally from the functional kitchen tool, daring me to touch the deliciously shiny resin surface. But it was the title, “The Power of Women Helping Women,” that really intrigued me when I first noticed Natalie Smith’s work earlier in 2020, a title that would continue to hold meaning as I explored her new show at NEXT Gallery, Relics Revealed.
Natalie Smith’s gorgeous kitchen creations draw us into the intimate stories of childhood, family, and the role of food in our personal histories. Her work emanates a feminism born from domesticity that is no-longer relegated only to the kitchen. The egg becomes a powerful symbol of gender, ancestry, and breakfast. Natalie becomes an extension of her body of work, dressed in lemon-yellow egg-cessories from head to toe and generously sharing the personal experiences and memories that inform her work.
I caught up with Natalie to ask a few questions about her work and her story.
How do you like your eggs?
Well, I feel the answer lies in my Exhibition “Relics Revealed.” I am a texture person. If the food has the right texture I’m in love. I really like my eggs sunny side up so the egg yoke is perfectly plump. I like the way the yoke fills my triangular cut, sourdough bread. Growing up, occasionally my mom would cook us all a gourmet breakfast on Sundays. She would include eggs - sunny side up, toast, hash browns, and french toast, with orange juice. Breakfast was a delight as a child on those days. Therefore, my favorite meal is breakfast.
What food or recipe best represents you?
The painting titled “Grilled Cheese,” is the beginning of my biography. This is my very first meal prepared by myself. At age four, my brothers were watching TV and they asked me to make them a grilled cheese sandwich. I didn’t ask any questions about how to use the microwave. I just replied with confidence,”Yes!”I was ecstatic ! I got to do a grown up task! Then, excitedly I put the cheese in between two slices of bread. I plated the sandwich, while struggling to balance on the stool that supported my weight, as I reached for the microwave. I remember pressing three, zero, zero, zero then start. The fire set the fire alarms. My brothers came back to a melted microwave sandwich. I tell you this story because it speaks about my personality. I at times can be too stubborn to ask for help, but I’ve always looked forward to a new adventure. With every step forward, believing it will all work out in the end.
I am an Egg. All females have the potential to be Eggs. The egg in its purest form symbolizes the strength women have to connect with their origins. We have energetic power to create a spiritual awakening. We open our third eye and let intuition flow through us. Our mantra is to create beautiful things daily. We represent birth, existence, fertility, sun, sky, and above all creation.
Throughout history, society has suppressed us. So, each Egg has been venerated and sainted in my egg series. I chose to call the eggs after women I think of as holy RELICS. We determine our desire and align with our divine identity. The heavens are open unto us and we are in tune with our sacred calling. The yoke symbolizes the sun within us. We have the possibility to guide the sun's energy with one whisper, in any direction we ask. Egg whites represent our ancestors within us. We are able to speak to each other telepathically. Life and death have no boundaries. We carry the strings that attach our ancestors to us. The strings are in our veins. When we speak their names. They feel our voice vibrate their spirit. They help us whenever we are in need of their company. When the sun and the sky work together joy exhumes every soul. During this pandemic we are all in need of this kind of support.
In my process of making the eggs I took marbles as the yokes then added liquid plastic over the egg yokes. Some of them I would have to wait and drizzle the plastic again to get the drips to stay in motion where I wanted. I used vibrant golds, blues, oranges, and black and brown for the areas I wanted to look more fried. After that, I added a 3-D gloss to add that egg white while it was still under cooked look. Some pieces have real egg shells. All were rusted with peroxide and vinegar for the last 2-8 months I've been working on my solo exhibit. People within my community have donated items for the cause to celebrate women. 10% of proceeds will go to Diar Foundation. This organization is giving its support to women located in South Sudan. These women are lacking in food and water and means to survive. Karak Denyok the founder. DIAR has given women wells closer to home, food to feed their children, taught women and children how to farm their land to survive etc.
There will also be egg masks available to purchase at the door . The masks were created by my sister Lilia Todd, an environmental artist located in Las Vegas. Each mask is color coded in the back by size. 50% of proceeds will go to Black Mamas Matter Alliance. All masks are 600 thread count organic cotton with twin filter pockets.
Your portraits are haunting and beautiful. How does the process of painting impact your relationship with the subjects? Is painting a kind of healing process?
In the painting “Caroline Selmer,” I show women they are not alone in the loss of a child. My great ancestor Caroline almost died giving birth, and lost the child soon after. I related to her story as I was studying my genealogy, for I had lost a child at 4 weeks. I had felt utter destruction. I had lost what my body had been prepared to make for several years. To experience life and death so close to each other I do not wish on anyone, but for all my females out there I want you to know you are not alone in this.
Women need support from other women in times like these. Here is a poem I wrote about the power our subconscious can or can't have..
“When caught in a whirlwind of despair can we be still? When feeling good can we feel bad?When feeling love can we feel hate? When feeling destruction can we feel a desire creatively? When feeling remembered we can feel forgotten? When feeling anxious can be poise? When we feel frustration can we feel satisfaction? When judged as dishonorable can we still bring honor? When life brings you lemons you can’t make lemonade. When feeling depressed can you feel happy? We aren't in control of what happens next, but we can decide where we go after. We experience emotions everyday. The only one that can decide our fate is one's self. Self doubt is ultimate destruction within.”
As we paint those we have lost we create a sense of connection. Painting heals the holes that fill our sobbing souls. When we create their story on a physical thing. We transfer a piece of their essence. I believe all thoughts hold energy. We can transpose those thoughts into an object. If we focus on sending our love to someone specific those thoughts can make something real for us to hold onto. It is at that moment we have made a religious relic of that person.
The best example I have of this is titled “Gene Jerome Smith.” It is currently hanging in "Relics Revealed” at Next Gallery. It is a portrait painting of my father. I took the time to study my dad’s facial features. I found the shape of the cartilage on my ear matched his. I decided to portray him with a loose shirt, greasy hair, and tan lines. While painting his eyes I thought “ If you saw me today would you be proud?” I start to tear up because I feel him near me, telling me “I am proud.” The power my mind has to take memories of him and then magically conduct it into flat surfaces. I know now my veins carry his physical existence.
This poem, I wrote July 2, 2020, expresses my thoughts at that moment.
“Small little portrait of Gene Jerome Smith. How is it you bring me such comfort in my times of weeping and depths of sorrow? How is it I feel like I have the power to reincarnate a piece of your physical presence with far between few memories? Thus, feeling as though my concentrated thoughts are so powerful, the love we once shared magically transfers through matter and zaps, like lightning, into such a foreign, hand-sized, Italian frame. Like a relic, you had been sainted in my own spiritual way. I can place you under my pillow, and know you were an answer to my prayers.”
In Denver Voyage, you describe your grandmother as an early feminist. Who do you think best represents feminism today and why?
My grandma is turning 100 this year. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She lived through a lot of changes in our society. She stood up for herself in small and simple ways. She taught me art in her dining room space. That was where she would set up her subject matter to paint. She used her oven as a storage space for her dollar store snacks. So she didn’t cook much, but she did enhance her skills with her hands; while other women were slaving away to impress their men, my grandma stopped to ask herself what she wanted out of her daily routine. She was ok with the idea that sometimes her home duties could be put aside for what she loved to do. To me that is what modern day feminism should represent.
I have always had a hard time with the mainstream idea of feminism, because equality in that sense often seems to me to encourage the idea that women are becoming more like men, and or believing that sexism is the fault of men, therefore they should be fixing the wrongs precisely inflicted on women. What I want to encourage is not blaming or putting others down in order to regain power, but rather the authentic empowerment of each woman to find and express her unique gifts and voice. I believe that in doing so, we are making more room for all people, regardless of gender, to become the most empowered versions of themselves in this world.
Many of your paintings depict fast food or meals made with simple ingredients. How do these play into your story and the story of American culture?
Frozen meals, easier recipes and fast food chains started popping up after World War II. Women were the main source of the meal-making and now some women were choosing to stay in the workforce. Amidst these things, the traditional meal-making from home has continued to disintegrate. We in America are all about efficiency. We work so much we chose fast food chains to shove the meal down our throats to continue to work the other 4-6 hours left on our shift. The loving feeling that is made in our kitchens as we prepare something together is rare throughout the week. My whole series is about different family recipes that were shared in the kitchen and snacks we got from 7-11. My childhood has a lot of American Culture embedded in between each still life recipe.
During my childhood we didn’t actually go to fast food restaurants that much. We were too poor. My dad's recipe “Milk Duds and Popcorn” was something we ate every time we went to the movies. We used to sneak treats from Walmart or the gas station into the movies because we could not afford movie theater popcorn. But when we were in front of the tv we indulged in all the delicious processed snacks we could get our hands on.
It seems America eats more out of boredom or entertainment rather than eating every bite slowly and enjoying the moments that are shared with those we love. To me, there is something special about sitting next to family and sharing stories in between well thought out meals for the night together.
Another good example is my Big Gulp and Slurpee-Time paintings. Some days us kids ate an entire dinner from 7-11. I don’t know how relatable that is to other American
families but it could relate closer to families going out to eat more regularly. I would usually get a hot dog and slurpee and my dad would refill his 64 oz Big Gulp Cup with a Bahamma Mama Dog.
Catch Relics Revealed for the final weekend before it closes on Sunday!
When: Friday 6 - 10 PM July 31, Sat & Sun 12 - 5 PM, August 1 & 2
Safety Info: Patrons are expected to wear masks, maintain 6ft distances, and use provided hand sanitizer. At NEXT, one can even purchase egg face masks to practice safe social distancing.
Support: 10% of proceed's from Natalie's sales will go to Diar Foundation.