Next Generation: Emerging Scholar, T'ai Smith

Next Generation: Emerging Scholar, T'ai Smith

Next Generation: Emerging Scholar, T'ai Smith

June/July 2015 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Staff
T'ai Smith

T'ai Smith; Photo: Birthe Piontek

T’ai Smith didn’t plan on being a scholar. When she entered the PhD program in visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, she had been working in photography and drawing; she expected to emerge as an artist. “But it changed the way I think,” she says, “and about halfway through I realized I had found a new craft: research and writing.” 

The field is richer for it. Smith’s insightful work on textiles, craft, and design has appeared in publications such as the Journal of Modern Craft, along with catalogues and compilations. Her first book, Bauhaus Weaving Theory, was published in 2014. This past year, she’s been in residence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia, where she’s an assistant professor. As a Wall Scholar, Smith has been cross-pollinating with scientists working on climate change – thinking about everything from polymer fibers to the explosion of stuff under capitalism. 

As for making art? “I sometimes see it as a sad consequence that I’ve become successful at my scholarship and that I’ve given up that way of approaching the world,” Smith says. “But at the same time, I know I can go back to artmaking and will no doubt do so in the future. Hopefully before I retire.” 

Tell us about your areas of interest. What excites you about them? 
The spaces where concepts get materialized, or where material things and processes reveal or generate abstract thought. It’s why I love writing about this area called craft! For example, I’m currently obsessed with various kinds of diagrams used in different textile-based practices, like weaving notation and sewing patterns. I love the way diagrams provide a visual schema that mediates between abstraction and materiality. 

It’s also why I love reading poetry and philosophical writing. I really dig that switch that happens in my brain as I grapple with the materiality of words on a page and the incalculable or ungraspable quality of the meaning generated out of an especially opaque sentence. 

My current hobby (or perhaps an aspect of my research – I can’t really separate them) is to wander through random websites, from quilting blogs to corporate pages on polymer fibers, to locate traces of this material abstraction. My favorite line of late is on the “Performance Plastics” page of the Dow Chemical website: “Exceptional cloth-like haptics, drapeability, and low noise.” 

Based on the image they use, this line apparently refers to baby wipes or diapers – something truly mundane. But this phrase also opens up worlds in my brain. Especially given how pernicious that company has been over the years … 

What are you working on? 
Oh, gosh – too much! I’m in the beginning stages of a book project that will look at tailors’ diagrams and sewing patterns, as well as frock coats and dresses, alongside the discourses of political economy and philosophy in the 19th century. As I map out the chapters and the argument, it feels like I’m working on three or four things simultaneously. 

One more contained essay I’m currently writing is about the “Textiles U.S.A.” exhibition at MoMA in 1956 – a glimpse into a world in which new, synthetic threads and then-futuristic uses of fabric signaled the promise (and collapse) of American utopianism. Here, textiles made by craft practitioners were set alongside textiles made for the military-industrial complex. The contradictions there are fascinating. 

What’s the best or most rewarding part of your work? 
Of course I revel in the research, the moments when questions are forming around new discoveries. But the most rewarding aspect of my work always seems to emerge in the editing stage – after I’ve vomited forth a lot of thoughts and I’ve struggled to piece them together into a semi-coherent argument. 

I sit down and reexamine what I have, and through a process of combing, I’m able to draw out the connections, often through subtle changes. In this stage, I’m able to see the bigger picture, to begin to understand the stakes in what I’ve written. And so, indeed, editing is a reward. Before that, the whole writing thing can be pure hell. 

Speaking broadly: What does this field need more of? 
I’m frankly not sure. My instinct is to say it needs more speculative writing and genuinely critical criticism. But maybe I just say that because that’s what I strive to do. I actually think the craft world has been generating some really important work and writing. It just needs to continue. 

How do you define success? 
When I’ve won an award! Or when I get an email from someone I don’t know telling me how useful she has found a text I’ve written. Success is knowing I’m not speaking into a void. 

What are three words people would use to describe you? 
It depends on whom you ask, of course. My friend just gave me these three words and they seem about right to me: creative, efficient, direct. But I’d like to add one more: baroque.

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