'True Colors': Gonzales Smith transforms tiny elements into big art

Walking in to Jenna Gonzales Smith’s downtown studio space, you might wonder what kind of strange pet she’s been harboring in there: the grey carpet is covered with a layer of what looks to be animal hair -- black and white, mostly, with strands of purple, orange, gold and red. A closer look reveals it to be thread — residue from Smith’s latest artistic creation, a wearable art piece called “True Colors.”


Upholstery thread was the main material Gonzales Smith used in “True Colors,” which she created for the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council’s Wearable Arts Extravaganza: Technicolor, held at Centennial Hall last weekend. The three-part piece, modeled by Tessa Smith (her sister in law), Catherine Walsh and Gretchen Dierking, garnered Gonzales Smith a first-place win overall in the art show, an honor which she also achieved last year, for her piece “The Wild One.”

For this year’s piece, Gonzales Smith’s three models revealed their bright colors on stage, throwing off black and white coverings that obscured them at first. As the title suggests, the piece was designed to support the idea of embracing who you are, the artist said.

“It’s really (about) showing your true self,” she said. “You shouldn’t be hiding yourself or modeling yourself to fit something else.”

Gonzales Smith’s oversized, shaggy garments were created by stitching down thousands of rows of upholstery thread — some rows lay flat against the surface of the models’ bodies, while other sections hung free, like giant tassels, creating lots of texture and movement on stage. Gonzales Smith said she liked the idea of exploring a utilitarian medium in its raw form, and seeing where she could go with it.

“String is interesting because it’s something we see every day, that’s always all around us ... from the minute you wake up, you’re in your sheets, they’re all made out of string. You forget that it’s woven, somehow.”

This wasn’t the first time Gonzales Smith has worked with thread. As a student at Colorado State University, where she received a bachelor’s in fine arts with a concentration in fibers in 2010, Gonzales Smith created a series of hanging sculptural pieces of out the same thread, which had been donated to the school by an upholstery company more than 25 years earlier — giant bundles of it in various colors that no one else had been using. Smith was intrigued.

“I was experimenting with string and seeing what string would do on it’s own, what shapes it would hold, depending on how much string you had and how you textured it — using nothing else but string.“

When she left the school, she took some of the bundles with her, unsure what she was going to do with them.

“I was a TA and I was the only one who used it, so instead of getting paid in money I got paid in thread at the end.” She laughed.

For “True Colors,” Gonzales Smith ended up dismantling some of the thread sculptures she’d created in Colorado, in order to have an ample supply of every color.

A 2006 graduate of JDHS, the Peruvian-born Gonzales Smith had her first solo show, “Threads Through Nature,” at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council Gallery in February 2013. The exhibit showcased her unique embroidered collages, created from found natural materials mixed with embroidery thread and beads, as well as her dolls, adorned like the collages in materials including bark, feathers and leaves. Gonzales Smith said she began collecting natural materials while on dog walks, without knowing what she would do with them. The very first piece she made into a collage was shown in the Juneau Douglas City Museum’s 12x12 show several years ago.

In the past couple years she has become increasingly involved in making in dolls, an interest that’s been fed by her friendship with Mary Ellen Frank, a well-known local doll maker she was introduced to after her JAHC show. The two women have been working together ever since, sharing space on the second floor above Hearthside Books on Front Street, next to the Aunt Claudia’s Dolls museum.

Gonzales Smith said her interest in dolls was interconnected with the idea of wearable art. Her first wearable art piece, “The Wild One,” created of grass, roots and old man’s beard, was in some ways a larger version of what she had been doing on a small scale with pieces such as those shown at the JAHC show.

“I started off doing dolls because I wanted to do big scale wearable art -- but I didn’t even know about the wearable art show.” She laughed. “It was really perfect, and the theme (“Organix”) really fit.”

This year’s project evolved from an initial drawing of the shape of one garment, which she sketched from three different angles. She ended up liking the sketch so much, she decided to create three separate pieces, excited to see what she could do with multiple iterations of the same technique.

Gonzales Smith, who works at Gastineau Elementary School, said she spent several hours pretty much every afternoon after work since December in her studio space creating the garments.

“It takes so much time. It’s a little scary to think about how many hours are put into it,” she said.

Part of what draws her to wearable art, she said, is the challenge posed by the wide open field and an unusual medium.

“I really enjoy problem solving, having an idea and finding a way to execute it,” she said.

Gonzales Smith shared honors for this year’s win with Lauralye Miko’s “Tech-Eggcolor Par-eggdise,” modeled by Amy George, a piece created from more than 5,000 eggs of various kinds. Miko, who has placed in several previous shows with George as her model (who appeared on this year’s poster), won second place overall, winning first place on Saturday and third place on Sunday.

Second place on Saturday went to “Light & Shadow,” by Matthew Culbreth, modeled by Dawn Jouppi and Keegan Carroll. Culbreth’s two-part piece, which won third place overall, was created from plastic, film, paint, metal and lights.

Second place on Sunday went to “Pure Imagination” by artist and model James Hoagland, created out of feathers, fabric, rhinestones, sequins and glass beads.

Gonzales Smith said she was blown away by the level of talent at this year’s show, the third one she has attended, and in her mind the strongest so far. In addition to praising the other artists, Smith praised her three models, who motivated her to keep going when she started to flag.

“I really had to work off their excitement,” she said. “I think it’s also a lot of trust they have in me that keeps me going.”

As for what she’s thinking for next year, Gonzales Smith isn’t saying. For now, she’s planning to concentrate on her doll figures — and possibly pursue a joint project with filmmaker Patricia Kalbrener — but the wearable art wheels will no doubt be slowly turning in the background.

“I really only have ideas right now of staying in the organic feel, more like the 2013 show,” she said. “Maybe taking it a step further.”


For more on Gonzales Smith, visit www.JennaGonzales.com.


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