SMITHS is a project inspired by the history of general stores as intimate public spaces of exchange. From tinsmiths to tunesmiths, I invite various makers to my downtown Oakland storefront to share their skills and stories. These lively gatherings engage participants in conversations about the rich social and political histories embedded within various craft traditions.

June 9, 2009

SMITHS hosted Indigo Girls, a craft-action dye happening and social sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist Travis Boyer. Participants were invited to come and dye whatever they liked in a natural fermentation indigo dye vat: clothes, objects, materials, etc. Boyer writes, "Indigo Girls is a party about auto-fashion empowerment, creativity, identity, pedagogy, and camaraderie...The process of dying marks the dyers; it stains our hands and costumes but also facilitates profound illumination." Indigo Girls was a satellite event organized in conjunction with the Queer Cultural Center's 2009 National Queer Arts Festival and the exhibition Threads, curated by Tirza True Latimer, Rudy Lemcke, Matt McKinley, Pamela Peniston, Allison Smith, and Tina Takemoto.

September 11-13, 2009

SMITHS hosted a series of hands-on indigo workshops with local practitioners and students at CCA, SF State, UC Berkeley, and SFAI. These were accompanied by video screenings, readings, and discussions about indigo in early U.S. history and across cultures to the present day.

September 24, 2009, Headlands Center for the Arts

Becoming Commons was a clustering/swarming/gathering of people entangled in the complexities of everyday living and working together. Looking to historical models of communes, collectives, homesteads, experimental outposts, and other forms of collective barn raising, participants were invited to share their stories and ideas in an intimate exchange at the Headlands Center for the Arts. This town hall-style program was collaboratively conceived by interdisciplinary artist co-founder of Mildred's Lane J. Morgan Puett (Headlands AIR '09), artist Allison Smith, curator Erin Elder and artist Brian Conley. Additional remarks were made by Headlands pioneer Mark Thompson and Linda Fleming, founder of the utopian commune Libre. Dinner was prepared by Headlands chef Keith Mercovich, whose meals demonstrate a commitment to innovative and locally sourced cuisine. This event was followed by a weekend retreat in Bolinas led by Erin Elder.

October 2-4, 2009

SMITHS hosted a series of events on beekeeping ranging in topic from its revival as contemporary practice given the politics of Colony Collapse Disorder, to Hardt and Negri's writings on swarm intelligence and other social metaphors. Artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Thompson skyped with Garnet Puett, artist and 4th generation beekeeper in Hawaii, whose beekeeping operation is currently one of the largest in the world. Max Goldfarb's Sonic B sound installation played in the foyer while participants made dozens of hand-dipped beeswwax candles for a candlelit communal meal over which excerpts from Rudolf Steiner's lectures on bees were read. Many bee-themed films were screened, including Richard Knox Robinson's award-winning film The Beekeepers and the Bay Area debut of Mark Thompson's film Immersion, in the making for nearly forty years and recently shown at the Guggenheim to critical acclaim.

November 6-9, 2009

This series of events investigated the history of revolutionary broadsides and included a visit to the Presidio to tour M & H Type, the oldest and largest lead type foundry producing hot metal type for letterpress printers in the United States, and Arion Press, whose publication program matches prominent contemporary artists with the literature of the past and present in books that are beautifully designed and produced. SMITHS hosted a small-scale Letterpress Fair and Print Exchange featuring a roundtable discussion with Betsy Davids (CCA Professor Emerita), founder of Rebis Press and co-founder of the Pacific Center for the Book Arts, John McBride, publisher of Invisible City and Red Hill Press, and Beau Beausoleil, poet, bookseller, and coordinator of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadside Project, which rallies artists and poets in response to the 2007 bombing of the historic heart of bookselling in Baghdad. Refreshments included home-brewed Smith's Beer presented by critic and writer Patricia Maloney, her partner artist Smitty Weygant, and their friend artist Brian Andrew, who together demonstrated the basics of beer brewing. Participants received a letterpress broadside printed by CCA grad students at Kala Art Institute under the guidance of fellow student Nicholas Hurd.

December 4-6, 2009

This cluster of events examined socially engaged ceramics practices and the theme of small-scale mass-production, from Josiah Wedgwood's pro-revolution, anti-slavery gestures to several ongoing CCA student projects presented in Super Pop-Up Shop, an experimental course taught by writer/curator Glen Helfand that took up temporary residence in an Alameda shopping center. We toured Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, the slow food movement's pottery of choice and pride of the Bay Area. It is one of the few remaining mid-century American potteries still in existence, and there we spoke to factory workers about how they see themselves in relation to contemporary art and craft debates. The weekend culminated with a lecture by critic and scholar Julia Bryan-Wilson on her new book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era. In the first book to examine this movement, Bryan-Wilson shows how a polemical redefinition of artistic labor played a central role in minimalism, process art, feminist criticism, and conceptualism. In her close examination of four seminal figures of the period—Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Hans Haacke (artists), and Lucy Lippard (art critic)—she frames an engrossing new argument around the double entendre that "art works." She traces the divergent ways in which these four artists and writers rallied around the "art worker" identity, including participating in the Art Workers' Coalition—a short-lived organization founded in 1969 to protest the war and agitate for artists' rights—and the New York Art Strike. By connecting social art history and theories of labor, this book illuminates the artworks and protest actions that were central to this pivotal era in both American art and politics.

January 15-17, 2010, SFMOMA

Throughout the spring of 2010, SFMOMA serves as an outpost and alternate platform for SMITHS. For the museum's 75th Anniversary weekend celebration, Allison Smith worked with a host of local makers to create Fancy Work, a satellite project that looks back to an exuberant early-nineteenth-century decorative arts movement known as American Fancy to trace an alternate lineage for psychedelia, modernist abstraction, and experimental light and sound works. Consisting of a monumental quilt positioned opposite a colonial wall sconce projecting light back across to it, Smith engaged the space between with a series of lectures and discussions. Sumpter Priddy III spoke to his definitive history American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts 1790-1840, the touchstone study for the installation, while media arts scholar Robin Oppenheimer presented her research on West Coast light shows as an underappreciated folk art form. Oppenheimer was joined in conversation by legendary light show pioneer Bill Ham. Quilt historian Roderick Kirakofe presented selections from his eccentric quilt collection, while Cleve Jones discussed the impetus behind his founding of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Smith led museum visitors in a crazy quilting activity using scraps from the Fancy Work quilt, while several different musicians played the musical saw.

January 18, 2010, SFMOMA

Arts & Skills Service considers the museum’s original location in the War Memorial Veterans Building and its development of the Red Cross Arts and Skills Service, which enlisted artists to teach some fourteen different art and craft skills to GIs recovering in military hospitals during World War II. This project was launched with a day of discussions including curator Christina Linden and Allison Smith on their research into this program at SFMOMA and San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery director Meg Shiffler on her research on artists with military backgrounds. Shiffler was joined on conversation by artists Ehren Tool and Jason Hanasik.

February 25-26, 2010, SFMOMA

SMITHS hosted a series of events that explored tactile activities of making "on the homefront." In a roundtable discussion at SFMOMA, Allison Smith presented her research on the museum's World War II-era Red Cross Arts and Skills Service. Poet and novelist Summer Brenner discussed community projects in Richmond that reveal how deeply the Bay Area was impacted by this war. Artist Amy Franceschini presented her Victory Garden project and the ideas that led to its ultimate realization at City Hall. Art historian Elissa Auther responded to these historical accounts with remarks about the use of craft as a lynchpin for bringing people together around issues of political importance. The following day, western herbal medicine practitioner Joshua Muscat and his partner and assistant Adriane Bovone led a six-hour workshop on the practice of wildcrafting and its connection to wartime healing. Emphasis was given to remedies for anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness. They demonstrated how to make a fresh plant tincture, a dried plant tincture, and a salve, which participants could then take home for their own use.

February 27, 2010

SMITHS hosted a day of mending and making-do at the storefront with street tailor Michael Swaine, who brought a century-old treadle sewing machine. At dinnertime, artist Jay Dion introduced a generosity project in which he’s made hundreds of porcelain “tin cans,” exchanging them for food donations to the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Hot vegetable and chicken soups were served out of the cans while art historian Elissa Auther discussed her new book String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, which presents an unconventional history of the American art world, chronicling the advance of thread, rope, string, felt, and fabric from the “low” world of craft to the “high” world of art in the 1960s and 1970s and the emergence today of a craft counterculture. An engaging discussion ensued regarding current art/craft divides, issues of visibility in the art market, the creation of alternative economies, the impact of digital technology, and emerging discourses in the fields of social practice and material culture.


Participants in SMITHS include students at California College of the Arts, through the graduate seminar Craft Lab and the undergraduate course Extreme Sculpture, part of ENGAGE at CCA, a project-based learning initiative. In addition to participating in SMITHS: Arts & Skills Service events, Craft Lab students work independently in their studios to develop their work in relation to issues such as labor, community, cultural identity, textile histories, sustainability, and war. The motto for Extreme Sculpture is "All Demo All the Time," and for this class Allison Smith hosts weekly hands-on workshops with community partners from CCA and the larger Bay Area, including crazy quilting, wartime embroidery, revited battleships, political bobbin lace, digital printing on fabric, laminating and bending wood, a sculpture photo clinic, the art of gaman, wildcrafting, mending, weaving on a digital jacquard loom, wood carving, wheat weaving, metal chasing and repoussé, and blanket making, among others. In each of these demos, forms of physical making and material manipulation are directly connected to various social histories, current events, theoretical discourses and conceptual metaphors.

March 25, 2010, SFMOMA

At the museum, SMITHS hosted an evening of discussion on tactile acts of wartime creativity. Sanjit Sethi discussed examples of undeniable creativity within the military sphere, from Civil War "quaker guns" to World War I "razzle dazzle" camouflage, presenting us with an opportunity to explore connections between the military industrial complex and the artistic avant-garde. Julia Bryan-Wilson discussed wartime textiles and "love armor" (from knitted mittens to tank cosies and more). Allison Smith presented her research on wartime blanket-giving traditions.

March 26-27, 2010

SMITHS hosted a two-day workshop that engaged with contemporary practices of blanket-giving to deployed U.S. troops and wounded veterans as well as to members of local communities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

April 29-30, 2010, SFMOMA

SMITHS hosted leading trench art scholar Jane Kimball, whose seminal book "Trench Art: An Illustrated History" highlights her research into a dazzling array of exquisite objects made by soldiers from battlefield debris such as expended bombshells, shrapnel, and other war materiel. On Friday, Allison Smith's California College of the Arts classes "Extreme Sculpture" and "Craft Lab" culminated at SFMOMA as students presented their work in response to semester-long investigations into a variety of wartime craft traditions.

May 1, 2010

On Saturday at SMITHS, Allison Smith shared her own trench art collection of some 35 artillery shells that were transformed into flower vases by soldiers during World War I. Afternoon activities included polishing the vases and filling them with fresh flower arrangements, in homage to nearly forty years of flower arranging programs hosted by SFMOMA from the 1930s onward. Berkeley-based wheat weaver Nan Rohan demonstrated ornamental strawcraft, an ancient tradition performed by prisoners-of-war in the Napoleonic era. Participants enjoyed a communal meal together, and capped off the evening with Tia Christopher of the non-partisan veterans' support organization Swords to Plowshares discussing issues facing veterans today, especially women, and the ways art has enriched and informed her own and others' healing.

May 29, 2010

Allison Smith's residency at SFMOMA culminated with an active re-staging of the WWII-era Red Cross Arts & Skills Service at the museum's original location, the War Memorial Veterans Building at San Francisco City Hall. Smith enlisted a volunteer corps of artists and craftspeople to teach hands-on workshops to veterans and their families and to engage in the healing process through creative skill-shares. At this public gathering, the research, resources, ideas and questions occasioned by the project were presented. Participants shared their skills in mending, millinery, weaving, crochet, natural dyes, woodworking, ceramic repair, digital video and blogs, interviewing for radio, and more.

October 16, 2010

SMITHS invited the community to a "putting up" party and PICKLE IT workshop hosted by Susanne Cockrell and Ted Purves, who proposed starting a community root cellar at SMITHS, wherein homemade jams, honey, pickles, sauces, vinegars, beer, kraut, beets, and more are collected along with stories about food, labor, family, land, economy, and love. These will be served up at public events throughout the year and we hope this will be the beginning of an annual event for replenishing the pantry.

January 22, 2011

SMITHS hosted Bay Area artist Alison Pebworth, back from a five-month tour with the Beautiful Possibility Project, who shared stories, images and other ephemera collected from her journey across the Northern United States and Southern Canada. Beautiful Possibility is a traveling exhibition and research project created in the spirit of a 19th Century traveling show that explores American history and culture through direct interactions with diverse regional audiences. The Show & Tell was presented in conjunction with an elixir tasting made from ingredients collected from Pebworth's travels. Map, tour venues, exhibition images and travel journal for the Beautiful Possibility project may be viewed at

March 19, 2011

SMITHS hosted Oakland-based artist Sarah Filley, who explores the fallacy of lone survival, so popular in contemporary culture, as operating on the tension between paranoia and preparedness. This tension underscores the real need for community discussions and participatory urbanism. Survive This! is a body of work that came out of research which charts the aesthetics of survivalist gear on a bell curve: the Do-It-Yourself “woodsy isolationist” defines one extreme, and ultra-militaristic executive gadgets define another. At the top of the curve lies populist/yuppie R.E.I. activity-based day kits. Filley has created something for the rest of us, and maybe for all of us together.

As the host of a Survivalist Tupperware-style Party she acted as friendly ambassador creating awareness of our interdependence and local resources. The discussion started with the kits served as a platform for examining fears, ideas, practical tips, and resources in a climate of Code-Orange Level Alert Status.

October 8, 2011

SMITHS hosted a Politics of Mending Workshop led by textile worker and activist Carole Francis Lung (a.k.a. Frau Fiber) whose project The Sewing Rebellion encourages our emancipation from the global garment industry by learning how to alter, mend and make our own garments and accessories. Frau Fiber and regional chapter organizers distribute their knowledge of the garment industry, pattern making and sewing, encouraging the reuse, renovation and recycling of existing garments and textiles in the creation of unique items tailored to individual tastes and body shapes. For more info visit her blog.

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