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Life & Work with Jen Smith

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jen Smith.

Hi Jen, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I came to Los Angeles from San Francisco to get an MFA from UCIrvine. After I graduated, I became obsessed with pickling and cooking. Feeding people seemed more accessible to me than traditional art viewing. Because of these interests and my networks, there was a year where I was cooking a lot for artist talks at CalArts.

Having only been a competent home cook and having never worked in a restaurant, this is where I learned to cook for LOTS of people. And since this is Los Angeles, this cooking eventually found a home in catering for on set productions. Running this catering business is now how I make money. I continue to have an art practice and am grateful to have a very supportive relationship with the gallery Commonwealth and Council in Koreatown. Most of my art projects have some relationship to ideas about intimacy, generosity, and community spirit which is why Commonwealth and Council feels like home to me.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Running a business is pretty challenging. Before COVID, we typically had about 30 people on our payroll. Each person comes with their own personality, work ethic, sense of fairness, etc. I am an artist at heart – especially interested in collaboration – but I have had to make some more boundaries. Not only because this is what is mandated by the California Employment Development Department – but also for my own mental health and clarity! I wish art was as clear cut as this. Art making and viewing, success, etc., is a lot more free form – with that comes both satisfaction and anxiety.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
Since we live in a capitalist society, and making money is one of the ways we are expected to support ourselves, I made this business, Full Moon Pickles and Catering. It’s not an especially flashy or chic enterprise. We are not trying to the BEST OF LA or anything. But we take the work seriously, put our life’s energy into it with as glad a heart as we can on any given day. And everyone who is a part of it matters – from dishwasher to PA on a set – we are working with common cause. Yes, it’s lunch and a paycheck – but it is also our collective lives together. So trying to make that a positive exchange is a big part of what motivates me. As an artist, and particularly as an exhibiting artist, I try to make work that has a loose economy – one that makes itself available despite money, Money that flows through the art world is not at all straightforward. Of course, money is everywhere – from the cost of materials, my time, in every detail of the gallery’s labor from promotion to their insurance policies, etc.

My business supports my artwork. Commonwealth and Council’s business supports my artwork. My latest project at Commonwealth and Council, Take Care, was a collaboration with Liberated Arts Collective (LAC), a group of artists impacted by incarceration and institutionalization. Physically it was an edition of 50 muslin totes containing care packages mounted on a gallery wall that spelled out “in this together” in Korean, English, and Spanish. Each tote bag contained a fabric face mask (made from remnants of a previous artwork, Mothercloth), cutlery kit, tincture and tea for reducing stress, and California native flower seeds. Meant to be an exchange of care for care, anyone wishing to receive a package was asked to write a postcard to someone on the inside and buy them a copy of HOW TO SURVIVE A QUARANTINE (a recent LAC publication) through the Collective. I am so grateful to have the opportunity and the supporting structure to make this kind of work, to be myself.

We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on luck and what role, if any, you feel it’s played for you?
I benefit from a tremendous amount of privilege – as a white person from a middle-class background with a master’s degree whose parents were supportive, etc. Also, I don’t have children. So I have had the privilege to pretty shamelessly explore my interests, make relationships and networks. I have been in particular places at particular moments that have been of benefit to me. So if one wants to call that ‘luck,’ I have had plenty.

 

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Image Credits

1) Ruben Diaz 2) Jen Smith 3) Daniel Martinez 4) Ruben Diaz 5) Nasser Mufti

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