Activism. That’s what comes to mind when looking at Armisey Smith’s artwork. Her paintings, sculptures, and murals alike inspire and empower while teaching about activism and resilience.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of Parsons School of Design and Pratt Institute, Armisey Smith now lives in Newark, New Jersey, where she teaches and makes art. She has been the lead artist on several public art mural projects in New Jersey. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums across the Tri-State area.
“Strength as a woman is divine,” Armisey Smith writes in her artist statement. “Sometimes there is vulnerability, but the strength is always ready to bubble to the surface. As a woman artist, particularly a woman of color artist, it is difficult to navigate multi-layered realms of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but you push through it to become a more evolved person. The paintbrush, canvas, pencils, charcoal, etc., is the place to express feelings — to place it back into the universe with the hope of forgiving others and oneself.”
One of the bodies of work that stand out is the Side-Eye, Pink-Eye series of paintings, which has a multi-layered symbolism. “The spark in creating this segment of the series was in direct response to the pandemic in conjunction with the murders of African-American men and women at the hands of police and white ‘vigilantes’,” Smith writes about it.
Smith’s Side-Eye, Pink-Eye series is a direct response to white people’s behavior towards others during the present, ongoing, coronavirus pandemic. “It just felt like there’s an absence of empathy for others—for people, in particular people of color, living with pre-existing medical conditions that can, in turn, put them at greater risk of contracting the virus,” she explains. “That lack of empathy during the pandemic is very disturbing.”
Then, one night, while watching TV (something she doesn’t often do), she saw George Floyd being murdered. It was “the biggest gut punch that anybody can get,” Smith recalls. “[George Floyd] could have been my brother or my nephew, it could have been my sister or me or any of my friends, people of color.”
And so, after George Floyd, she felt compelled to do something. She asked her friends if they wanted to participate in a project with her. While in high school, and then in undergrad, she’d painted eyes — a lot. After all, one can tell a lot about a person by looking into that person’s eyes. Then, pink, the color, has multiple connotations, symbolism. And so, she explained the background of her project to her friends and asked them to take selfies and share with her. Then she would paint “their likeliness” based on those selfies. And that was the beginning of the Side-Eye, Pink-Eye series.
When looking at those portraits, those selfies, “I could feel the anguish, the worry, the why now or why ever and why here,” she says, “I just saw all of that in each of the portraits, and that’s how I felt, too.”
“There was so much pain, anger, and to-the-bone fatigue of all the machinations of institutionalized racism swimming in their eyes,” she writes in her artist statement. “I painted them, adding contour and meaning, leaving the introduction of the pink to their eyes for last as a closing statement of all the elements that can kill us, yet bond us in an unbreakable sisterhood.”
One image that the artist connected to is called “Loretta’s Child,” a painting of her friend, who lost her mother, Loretta, to COVID early on. Smith, herself, lost her mother years ago. So, this image was one of the first in this series and the artist feels in particular attached to it.
Another piece that stands out is “Mama,” based on a selfie of one of her friends who also participated in the project. “I asked each participant to title their pieces, so they could have agency over their work,” Smith explains, “and so she said ‘Mama’ thinking of [George Floyd] calling out for his mother. It’s incredible and it resonated with me.”
“Would You Step on My Neck, Too” is yet another powerful piece that Smith created in response to George Floyd’s murder. “I experienced racism throughout my life, on a microlevel,” the artist says, and she felt compelled to create this piece and worked on it for hours, didn’t stop until she finished it. “I just felt compelled to talk about that, because I think some people don’t understand how precarious it could be; just one little situation can propel us into a dangerous or deadly situation — being pulled over by cops over false pretense that your brake lights are out because [you’re] driving through a suburban neighborhood, or not [knowing] what’s going to happen to you if you walk out in the street on a wrong day…”
Working and completing her Side-Eye, Pink-Eye series of portraits was something that Smith just had to do. “I guess it’s more of a compulsion and it takes different degrees of that compulsion to create something.”
The creative process associated with artmaking involves choosing the medium and materials, Smith explains. Sometimes it’s about thinking and meditating on it, on what approach to take to create the art piece. “And then I go for it, I immerse myself in that particular medium.”
Recently, Smith has started to explore the meaning of time, as seen through the eyes of her ancestors. The source of inspiration for this new project was a bowl displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC — a bowl on which a slave had carved marks, each mark for each year in slavery.
Smith explains that, for African Americans, time “is very disjointed” because “our time was interrupted when our ancestors were stolen from Africa.” And so, inspired by the markings on that bowl, she began to create what she calls “a series of time, using marks in watercolor and ink. It’s very cathartic, almost like a mantra, a chanting trying to connect with my ancestors.”
Armisey Smith’s work is often inspired by history, by Black history in particular. But the artist, especially as an arts educator, is also helping form new generations of artists. She advises aspiring artists not to compare themselves with other artists, because they might fall into a “mental trap. [Instead,] allow yourself to change and evolve,” she says. “As an artist, you’re here to create, so create, get better at your craft, challenge yourself.”
As an artist, Armisey Smith continues to challenge herself and create powerful artwork through which to inform, encourage, inspire, and empower.