Early in her career, Francia Tobacman Smith identified herself as a feminist. In the 1970s, she organized a feminist conference in Upstate New York and mounted a show at Westbeth that featured women artists. Later on, she took on a variety of leadership roles at the Women’s Caucus for Art, and also established the Jewish Women Artists Network. Inspired to delve into her background through her art, Francia worked for a number of years on a multimedia project that focused on her Jewish roots, culminating in a 1995 touring show titled Personal Visions: Art and History Meet. Also in the nineties, Francia and her husband, percussionist Bruce Smith, founded a summer arts program in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, which they ran for a decade. Francia’s artwork has been widely exhibited and is in the Feminist Art Base of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Terry Stoller spoke with Francia Tobacman Smith in February 2016 about the early days at Westbeth, her arts residency in Kentucky in the mid-seventies, her project exploring her Jewish heritage, her commitment to feminist activism, the summer arts program in Switzerland, her interest in painting landscapes framed by architecture, and her printmaking process.
Terry Stoller: Were you an original tenant of Westbeth in 1970?
Francia Tobacman Smith: Yes.
How did you hear about Westbeth?
There was an article in the New York Times saying that Bell Labs had been turned into Westbeth, as housing for artists. We were really young and still in college. We were living in the East Village and staying with friends, and we needed to find a place to live. My husband Bruce has been a musician his whole life. We called to put our name on the list.
And had you been studying art from a young age?
I started studying in my later years of high school. I had a teacher who encouraged me. Then I went to City College and majored in art. There were some important artists teaching there. Charles Alston from the Harlem Renaissance, Mario Cooper, a watercolorist, and Colleen Browning, a painter. Before I went to City College, I had gone to the Art Students League.
What a lucky find Westbeth was.
Yes. My son, Sascha, was born and raised at Westbeth. No one had much money. We didn’t have security then. The tenants filled in for security. And there was a lot of activity going on. There was a big group of writers and poets gathering together, doing readings. Musicians were playing avant garde music together. And Sandor Zugor, a printmaker from Hungary, got a press for etching and a press for lithography and set up a printing shop. We still use those presses.
You weren’t at Westbeth that long when you got an artist’s residency in Kentucky.
That was quite an experience. Somebody I knew in New York said she heard about a residency that was going to be for a year in Kentucky. I applied. I got called. There were about six finalists. They flew me down for an interview and gave me a hotel room. I had to bring my artwork. I was doing very organic work then, based on parts of the body. So I went there, and I was awarded the residency.
I was given money to rent a house. We stayed in town in a very large house with many windows. I also got a stipend for art supplies and books. I had a studio in a high school, and people came to work with me—sometimes classes, sometimes individuals. I used to give lectures, and I had numerous exhibitions.
You were brought up in the Bronx. Did you experience culture shock living in Kentucky?
Yes. My husband had long hair—and I mean long in a ponytail. Luckily, he got into an orchestra in Owensboro, the town we were staying in. And people came from the college in Bloomington, Indiana, to play in the orchestra. So he got hooked into that. And he gave private lessons in the town and also taught at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
I read that people came to observe while you were painting in your studio. Were those paintings of parts of the body?
No. I started changing to landscapes, which tied into my organic matter.
Were you inspired by the Kentucky mountains?
It was beautiful there. The summer before we moved to Owensboro, we went down there to rent a house. And then we went out to the southwest, and I was blown away by that landscape.
You had been in a women’s show in SoHo before you went to Kentucky, and later in the seventies you put together a women’s show at Westbeth. When did you become a feminist?
In the seventies, there were demonstrations at museums because there were so few women represented in museums and in art galleries. That spurred me to action.
Who was in the Westbeth show?
I was, along with Georgia Rave, Brenda Horowitz, Sheila Schwid, Anita Steckel, Camilla Chambers, Lucia Vernarelli, Gina Shamus, and Laura Meyers. It was a good show. The gallery didn’t look the way it does now. It always had all those rooms, but it hadn’t been fixed up. I recall that the show was well received. In the seventies, I had also organized a feminist conference at a place called World Fellowship up in Kerhonkson, New York.
Did your artwork in that period reflect your feminist activism?
I did all this organic work for years, and then after I had my son, I did a birth series, having to do with the woman’s body.
In the mid-eighties, you began a project related to Judaism, inspired by a visit to the Venetian ghetto.
It culminated in a traveling show in 1995 called Personal Visions: Art and History Meet. I think I was taken by the architecture and the physical space at the ghetto—or the lack of it. It was tied into my grandmother’s family who had stayed in Latvia during World War II and were all killed. The big mural was my Kaddish to them. That was a chance for me to own up to the destruction of the Jews in World War II, that it wasn’t just talk that I heard growing up.
This work took you in a new direction of form and use of materials. Can you talk about how the exploration through constructions came about?
It evolved. I did some three-dimensional pieces. But the biggest project was the Kaddish, which took me fifteen months to build. And I worked on three panels, two feet wide by four feet high, and created the equivalent of Torah covers, and covered a table, which had Yahrzeit candles on it. The installation was quite touching, particularly at the art museum in Evansville, Indiana. The way they set it up was perfect, like a chapel with klezmer music.
The project evolved over a number of years. Was that your main focus during that time?
Yes. I was interested in doing the top part in cutout wood and the bottom part in canvas. I was finding fabrics in stores in Italy. I’d be walking down the street or I’d be in the shower, and all these things kept popping into my head about the next step. It was the first time that ever happened. That was a really big change in the way I worked. I’d pass a store and would see hair clips with gold and with stones or curtains with tassels, and think, I can get those and incorporate them in my work.
Can you talk about the arts program you founded overseas in the nineties?
My husband and I created a summer arts program in French Switzerland. My husband approached a violin maker who had an atelier in La Chaux-de-Fonds, and asked him, What do you think of this idea—of having an arts program and bringing people here? He said, Fantastic. We went to speak to people in the music conservatory to secure a space there during the summer. Then we went to the head of the art school and asked if we could use a studio there, and they graciously said yes. La Chaux-de-Fonds is a small town of about 40,000 people, and it’s easy to get things done there. We ran our Atelier des Arts for about ten years. We taught, and we also hired teachers. I taught painting, and sometimes other people taught printmaking. And for the music, we had teachers for horns and piano, and my husband for drums. The students and teachers would perform in local jazz clubs. And they would play outdoor concerts at festivals in the town.
Our first year was 1995. The program was three to four weeks, and we started traveling afterward. We’d get a car and drive down the mountains into Italy. And we got into that rhythm and going to different places.
Who were your students?
They were mostly from America, and there were people from Germany, Australia, Japan. They were serious high school students, college students, and adults. They were getting intense arts training, and people loved it.
You’ve written that you’re inspired by landscapes.
It’s the beauty. It’s like you died and went to heaven. I used take students to the countryside, and we’d sit there and sketch the cows. I’d knock on farmers’ doors and ask if it was OK to draw there. They were always happy for us to do that.
You’ve got a series of paintings that are landscapes framed by architecture. What is it about using the architecture as a way to look at the landscape?
I wouldn’t say it’s a way to look at the landscapes. It’s just that I’m intrigued by the old architecture that lives on no matter what. And the architecture is in the same place as the landscape.
I’d like to know more about linoleum reduction printmaking. Can you speak about why you work in that medium?
I like that medium because it’s playful and magical—not that other printmaking processes aren’t magical. But you never know what you’re going to get out of a reduction because you’re cutting and you’re printing, and you have to think about how the overlay of colors will interact. If you make a woodcut, you’ll see it, you’ll print it out, and essentially it will look pretty much like that. The part that’s magical in a linoleum reduction print is that you just never know what you’re going to get.
Why don’t you know what the result will be?
You might cut into it and print a color, say red. Then you do another cut and use blue, which will become purple over the red. So it’s the color, and the space between the forms. The first time you cut, you’re going to see the white paper (if you’re using white): if you cut too close, you won’t have much white; if you leave more space for the ground, you’ll have more white paper. The cutting is on the same plate; you put a layer on top of a layer, and you’re going to see how they’re going to interact. You have to constantly think about that. It’s about color and spatial relationships on the same plate.
What’s the difference for you between painting and printmaking? What impels you to use one form instead of the other?
I do both. With painting, you can go back and forth, cover it over, use acrylic, another layer, another layer. If it gets thick, you can sand it, clean it. You can keep changing it endlessly. And there’s something about paint, the feel of the brush and the paint that I just love. I wouldn’t give that up.
With printmaking, you can experiment in another way. If I take acrylic paint, a cadmium red, paint it, dry it, paint another color over it, say, yellow, you may never see that it could be orange. But you will see that in a print.
Can you tell me more about your arts activism?
I was part of the Women’s Caucus for Art [WCA], part of that network and on the board of directors. And in 1991, I started JWAN, the Jewish Women Artists Network. That was a major thing for me. First JWAN was part of the WCA board; then it became an independent organization.
What drove you to do that?
I felt that Jewish women artists needed a voice. I did a survey within the WCA and found that the Jewish women wanted to have their own group. It’s still going, and there have been some big exhibitions. In 2007, JWAN mounted a show titled Words Within in New York and Boston. I think that brought the group a lot of visibility.
Do want to say anything else about Westbeth?
Christina Maile and I have been working on a film called Growing Up at Westbeth. We showed a rough draft of it here at Westbeth, and it was well received. Westbeth has been wonderful. It’s given me a chance to be part of an arts community and to flourish as an artist.
To see more of Francia’s artwork, go to studiofrancia.com.
Photo credits, from top: Marianne Barcellona; Christian Carone (6). Courtesy of Francia Tobacman Smith.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2016 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council