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Barbara T. Smith: How Divorce Causes Performance Art

Barbara T. Smith

In those days, while I was at the Chouinard Art Institute, I would bump into guys like Ed Ruscha or Joe Goode or Jerry McMillan. This was in the late '60s, when I had a studio in Eagle Rock. And they were all very cute and fun and often hustling me. I'd be expecting them to have good manners, but here it was, the '60s! And all of that went out the door.

It was both fun and hard to manage. But it was a great adventure. And at last I was doing what I loved to do: making art. The performance ideas I had really bugged me because I didn't know what they were. There was no name for performance art then. Some of these pieces were hilariously funny and others were very profound and scary.

For instance, I was feeling terrible concern because I was raised as a protected, middle-class woman, with the expectation that I would be taken care of by a husband. Now that I was divorced, there was no way that was going to happen, and I didn't have the skills to cope. So I did a sequence of pieces where I made a metaphor out of plants that were raised in a nursery (called Plots, in 1969). If you planted them in a field, they would never survive. I bought really hearty plants, ground-cover plants. I went and planted them in fields in Costa Mesa, Pasadena and Eagle Rock. I hoped they would survive but doubted they would. And, of course, none of them did.

At that time I was no longer doing traditional art and I completely lost touch with the guys I'd originally hung out with. My new group was involved in performance art, and we weren't going to art shows anymore because our work wasn't in galleries. So I lost my art context, even though I was immersed in a new one. And I lost my marriage context. And I was losing my children. Luckily I had a good sense of humor — which is pretty important — but I had nothing else. I must have had great faith in myself.

I have hardly ever sold anything. There was nothing to sell. But it's happening now. The museums are becoming interested in figuring out how they can buy a performance-art piece. We're lucky to have saved artifacts and documentation, because these were unrepeatable moments in time. When it was over, poof! It was gone.

—As told to Tibby Rothman

Barbara T. Smith is a performance-art pioneer who co-founded the legendary experimental gallery F-Space in Santa Ana.


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