By Fred Camper

Yvette Kaiser Smith says she used to be “one of those kids from hell, smoking cigarettes, a hoodlum.” Born in Prague in 1958, she emigrated to Dallas with her parents when she was 11. Her family wasn’t well-off, and when she graduated from high school it didn’t occur to her to go to college. “I didn’t know about scholarships.” She drank a lot and slept during the day, supporting herself by working in bars and restaurants.

Then, at 26, she decided to change. “I woke up and said, ‘Hey! I don’t want to waste space anymore.’ I had started taking accounting classes at a community college. I was working a restaurant-bar called the Dallas Palace at night and going to school during the day. But I wanted to get out of the bar scene, so I took a year off from school and got a straight day job working for an optometrist.”

But her freed-up nights posed a problem for her boyfriend, who had been seeing other women while she worked. “So he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take a class like drawing in summer school.’ I’m so gullible.” She enrolled in an art class. “I was surprised at my ability and overwhelmed by the way it felt. The professors were encouraging, and all of a sudden the drinking, the cigarette smoking, and the self-destructive behavior stopped. It was, ‘Oh, Yvette, here you are!'”

A year later, her boyfriend inadvertently did her another favor: She found him with another woman. Her college had a semester-in-Rome program, and suddenly leaving the country seemed attractive. “I don’t think I would have taken the risk of going if it wasn’t that something shook up the comfort of my daily existence.” After seeing Rome, Florence, and Paris, “I knew I was going to study fine art.”

Smith won a scholarship to Southern Methodist University, where the art department stressed “trying to find the truth of the materials,” she says. “Let’s say I wanted to work with a gesture, a movement, and I had chunks of wood. How do I articulate this movement in that material? Each material should have its own language.” She worked with wood, plaster, concrete, bronze, and lead. “It’s not about imposing my own vision of what it’s supposed to look like–because the material is inherently more clever than I can be.”

She loved the program but eventually found its approach wasn’t enough. “I felt that I needed to tell a story, rather than relying just on the material.” Her fiance, Tim, had already moved to attend graduate school in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago. She applied to the MFA program there, and they married and settled in Hyde Park. “I had lived in Dallas for over 20 years, which is like a flat tire culturally. In Chicago I felt something in my gut when I walked through the streets. It was this sensation that I hadn’t felt before, an emotional feeling that you feel in your body, a familiarity in the way that the space felt, a sense of memory perhaps. There are no walkable areas of Dallas; it’s all spread out, a giant suburb. The streets don’t feel lived-in; everybody stays in their yards or apartments; everything’s clean and new. Chicago is grittier; there’s a history here that’s felt, a rhythm to the structural aspect of the city. I remember being a lot happier. Chicago is not like Prague, but it awakened in me something that I felt in the old country.

“I had seen myself as an art student. I wasn’t overly concerned with thinking about my nationality. I had never before asked the question ‘Who am I?’ Maybe because I was into the materials and form, things very outside of myself.” She wanted to explore what she calls “a narrative of self-identity.”

That narrative was shaped in part by an early crisis in her marriage. Her parents had assumed fairly conventional gender roles. “My dad could probably build a house from scratch blindfolded, but he couldn’t make a cup of coffee.” But at the same time “they never raised me as a girl–they raised me as a person. Tim is a wonderful, wonderful man, but he came from a Southern Baptist tradition. He thought of himself as a feminist, and he loved me for who I was, but there was another person inside him that started coming out like an ugly monster when we got married. Even at the church, his father had said, ‘When am I going to get grandchildren?’ And I replied, ‘I’m going to graduate school.’ He said, ‘What do you mean graduate school? You can do that in 20 years. It’s only art.’

“Tim knew that I needed to be an artist and that this was not a hobby, but he also wanted to have children right away. To him, you get married and the wife has children for you. I had a full-time job and at night was working on my art. He forgot that he could also cook and clean. Part of him loved me for what I was doing, while the other part resented me for not doing what he wanted. I was drowning in this fight to retain my selfhood, or justify my right to be who I am.”

She says Tim is now her greatest supporter. They haven’t had children yet, though she says they still may one day. But the “child issue” led her to another concept. “I started considering female identity in terms of the breeder. I noticed how everyone around me saw me as this baby-making machine, and I started feeling like an object, so I started making these drawings of very simple figures being laid down or burdened by objects, such as a simplified figure with a harness of huge ovaries that was bending the figure’s back. I look at it now and it seems heavy-handed, but you have to start someplace.” While making sculpture at the U. of C., once again exploring many different materials, she asked herself, “How did I feel being seen as a cow? How would anybody feel?” She began to think of her sculptures as expressing aspects of human identity.

“Early in graduate school, my search wasn’t clear in my brain.” But with the help of academic courses and her adviser, sculptor Herbert George, she arrived at a new method. She began to approach her work as one would approach a research paper, reading books on “the cultural and anthropological history of menstruation,” for example. “Herbert George is really responsible for teaching me how to ask questions so I can continue to work for the rest of my life,” she says.

Near the time of her graduation in 1994, she began to use fiberglass, inspired by the work of fellow student Nina Levy, and it quickly became her material of choice. “Fiberglass has a translucency that for me referred to the body.”

The eight sculptures on view this weekend at the Chicago Cultural Center have their roots in Smith’s explorations of identity and female reproduction. But seven of them were also influenced by a trip to Prague last April, only her second time back home. On her first visit, she was overwhelmed by memories. “I felt like a flat wafer, a piece of paper. This trip, feelings opened up, and I expanded like an accordion. My mind was calmer, and I was able to absorb at a slower pace.

“One of the commodities offered to tourists is lace. I noticed all these patterns–on skirts, on doilies. I’d been crocheting; doilies were on my brain. I came home and bought a book of traditional doily patterns.”

Smith titled her large wall piece Lucy after the famous female fossil, the oldest yet found of a hominid that walked upright. The piece itself consists of large fiberglass doilies based on traditional patterns, arranged in a spiral that is determined by Fibonacci numbers, an integer sequence that occurs across nature. “I sleep with a physicist,” Smith says. “I was thinking in terms of evolution. A spiral isn’t final–it points to an ongoing process. I was also thinking about gender construction, natural and social forces. I had been timid about exploiting the craft of crochet because I was afraid to be labeled as craft oriented, which was stupid because there is such a great lace doily tradition in the old country. I started being proud of it.”

In addition to visiting her parents, who have retired to Prague, she visited an aunt and uncle in Slovakia with whom she used to spend summers. “The last time I saw them I was a young kid, and that’s where we picked up. It was spring, the grass next to their apartment complex was covered with dandelions, and I remembered that my aunt and I used to weave the flowers together to make a chain. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I asked her if she remembered doing that with me, and she said, ‘Of course.’ So she taught me how to do a daisy chain again.”

For the huge wall-mounted sculpture Daisy Chain, Smith has arranged 11 fiberglass skirts in another spiral. They’re connected by green strands, which stand for, among other things, flower stems and “the substructure that twists everything together.” She had noticed women on Czech streets wearing multiple patterns–“a scarf, a skirt, a vest, a blouse, and none of the patterns matched but the whole ensemble worked.” Her fiberglass skirts are painted with bright patterns; the paint has been applied directly to the hardened resin that gives fiberglass its shape. She says the piece again questions “what part of identity is genetic and what part is determined by social structure”–the whole idea that a child at seven might determine the man. “The skirts symbolize social structure.” The patterns aren’t all Czech; one was taken from a 15th-century Chinese textile. “I chose patterns that to me were obviously fabric patterns but could also point toward biology, seeds or cellular shapes.”

The nature of her materials still plays an important role. After the resin is applied to the fiberglass it dries quickly, in about 20 minutes. “Usually the most innovative things happen when I get into trouble. The stuff is setting fast, and it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do, and I have to scurry around to save it. A large part of what makes the work is finding that balance between my direction and the material’s direction.

“As the materials search progresses, the concept gets more complex also. I was thinking of childhood and the whole nature-versus-nurture thing. Looking at my history, walking through my streets, being with my family, I noticed all these traditions that were somehow in my work. But I hadn’t put them there because they were Czech traditions. And I didn’t say, ‘I want to explore women’s work.’ But that trip did make me remember that as a kid in first grade we had to learn embroidering in class. I was thinking about who made me, what part of me is genetic, when am I a girl. Is it from genetic or social conventions that we make girly games? When I was a kid, I didn’t see the boys doing daisy chains.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.