Smart and sexy, individualistic and adorkable, confident, quirky and assertively present, the women and girls that populate the universe of artist and illustrator Jacqui C. Smith hold space for themselves, each other and any viewer who needs it. In vibrant colors, deft lines and stylized personalities, her figures radiate a light-hearted energy that carries within it a rather urgent message — that representation matters. And that priority is something Smith amplifies not only in her sellable, collectible, eye-catching, fine art itself, but in how she brings that work to the world.
Smith is a prolific and busy freelancer with about a million things going at any given time — illustrating children’s books for self-publishers and companies, creating designs for large and small businesses and events, managing a multimedia makers studio — all while selling her artwork at boutiques, craft shows, festivals and conventions. As one of the few Black artists showcasing illustrated artwork at events like Designer Con (where we first met her last year), Smith is very cognizant of the power of her presence to engage the community in a conversation on diversity. But she also just straight up enjoys it.
“I love the big shows,” Smith tells the Weekly in a recent interview. “Meeting and talking to people, the connection, the motivation, the inspiration.” Artists spend a lot of time alone in the studio and Smith laughs that, “the only time I talk to people is at shows! I have fallen in love with that experience.”
So what does an artist who relies on the in-person dynamic and the energy of big shows and niche boutiques do in a post-pandemic version of the industry? Like everyone, at first Smith was at a loss for an answer. “I’m okay now but at the start I was so terrified. I stressed out this summer, but other doors opened, and in the end it has pushed me to think about what I want for the future. A reset. The two-year plan I had… yeah.” Online sales are good, but Smith can see now that in some ways, the situation was the push she needed to move forward on her dreams.
Aside from coloring books, she also creates stickers, journals, coasters, greeting cards, prints, T-shirts and pins. But lately a bigger dream has been asserting itself — her burgeoning career in character design and animation.
“I had like five things on my bucket list,” she says, “and having an animated series with my girls was one of them!” Wanting to pursue what it would mean to create not only characters, but a whole narrative world, but being rather too busy, if there’s a silver lining of the pandemic’s impact on her career path, Smith says that’s it’s been getting back into animation. “Now I have a writing partner, so I’m not just drawing characters, we are writing stories.”
The ladies in her work are a combination of figures from popular culture and current events, plus people she knows or just sees — though there’s a little bit of her in all of them. Smith has always prioritized representation in the community and in the work, both who makes it and what it is that’s made. Her series of ink drawings on wood are a whole other mood than her digital portraits, but they belong to this narrative arc, as well as occupying a special place in her process. At four feet square and impossibly detailed, these fine and complex ink drawings have a ritualistic, pattern-forward stylization that invokes Aubrey Beardsley and a 1970s psychedelic take on Art Deco. They take months to complete. “They are very special to me in terms of envisioning the women, and wood grain shows up a lot in my digital work now as well,” she says.
Across her stylistic array, Smith’s work uniquely embodies its own message within its being rather than in didactics or exposition, though there are definitely works responding to the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to elevate Black creatives. “I do see [the protest movement] opening doors, and I am so proud of people for standing up for something. Artists made amazing pieces that opened people’s minds to the possibilities that are out there. It’s a hard conversation that needs to be had, but this is a good start. There are so many things that still need to be said, stories that need to be told.” In this calling, Smith’s message is focused but subtle. “It’s Black and it’s beautiful; it’s that I am here.”
Find out more at jacquicsmith.com.