Name: Rachel Wolfson Smith
Location: Austin, Texas, USA
Motorcycle: Yamaha XT250
When and why did you start making Art?
Really early on. I’ve always been eager to create things.
I studied painting and drawing, mainly landscape painting, at Maryland Institute College of Art and got my Masters in painting at Indiana University. I went on to be an art professor for several years and left teaching to be a full time artist when I moved to Austin, TX two years ago.
What is the aim of your art?
To explore people’s struggles.
My drawings are often based on old myths, which are essentially stories about how to confront hard times. Creation, temptation, falling from grace; the riders act these things out as if in a play. When I choreograph how they interact with each other in the drawings I’m thinking about the difficulties people face just living life. In a way, the drawings are metaphors.
There’s something solitary, and even romantic about driving and riding that’s always made me feel connected to cars and motorcycles. Aside from my love for the machines themselves, I notice that people often identify with their vehicles, so I use them as symbols for their owners.
When they’re racing and crashing into each other, the bikes give the impression of being in battle and take on a Renaissance quality. There’s never a clear victor in these scenes, but there’s a story of struggle to be discovered. The drawings are about life, which is unpredictable, and there’s beauty in that complexity.
What about your technique?
I think of the paper like a stage, and the riders like actors.The scenes are a collage of lots of different images and ideas, and the way they come together on the page tells a story.
My work is huge and the process is physical. Working with pencils on such a large scale (sometimes 20 feet wide) means I have to start out in a really big, aggressive way, and save the details for the end. I work on the whole piece at once, gradually building it up and refining things.
The first step is getting the general shadow shapes laid in, which looks like a picture that is out of focus. I squint my eyes to blur my source image so I can’t see the details. Then I lock my wrist and pivot from my elbow, rapidly moving my arm back and forth, constantly adjusting the edges by hacking into them with an eraser, and drawing them back in.
When the big shadow shapes are “right” I break them down into smaller shapes with more lights and darks. This abstract approach has the effect of a camera lens gradually going into focus.
I’ll move things around in the drawing as needed, and when it’s about 80% done I step back and decide where I want the viewer to look. Our brains are wired to look for contrast, so selectively darkening certain areas creates a path that helps people “discover” the themes in my compositions.
Because of the mix of detailed areas and aggressive marks, the drawings look almost photorealistic from far away, and like an abstract mess of marks woven together close up. People often comment that the drawings look like they’re moving.
I have a woodshop in my studio and when the drawings are ready to show I build panels to adhere the paper to. When they’re mounted this way the drawings don’t have to be framed in glass so they look almost like paintings.
Riding and driving alone, researching, wanting to know how things work, myths, history, beautiful art, traveling, people.
Icons in Art.
The Renaissance artists always seemed like they were trying to share something deeply important and spiritual through their art; transcending something. That kind of art is moving to me.
Every now and then I see it in artwork that’s made today. Art at a giant scales interests me right now too. Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu come to mind. Gregory Crewdson too for his epic process. I also find it sometimes in really beautiful graffiti or a striking vehicle.
The motorcycle: artistic muse and travel companion…
The motorcycle is the ultimate muse because it has this incredible allure and is so much fun to ride, but is also inherently dangerous… which probably makes it even more attractive. There’s such a polarity, it’s a perfect example of a warning myth.
Best motorcyclist experience-adventure.
My (now) husband proposed with a motorcycle instead of an engagement ring.
Best artistic experience-adventure.
I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and make artwork in different places. My favorite would have to be at an artist residency I did in a little village in Turkey called Ibrahimpaşa. I spent a summer there painting in abandoned cave houses and exploring underground cities that people hid in during the crusades in the 12th century. It only could have been better if I’d had my motorcycle with me!
I just finished making a mural here in Austin of a dozen or so female riders (and one gentleman), to whom riding has been transformative. I’m also in the middle of a big project with the Fire Department here in Austin, so when I’m not in the studio I’m going on calls in different fire engines, which is wild.
Lately I’ve been dreaming of brushing up on my Italian and renting a bike to ride through Italy for a week or so. Hoping for the Fall of 2018.
You can reach out to me about buying originals on my website’s contact page or by emailing me at [email protected]
I also have two prints available through Oil & Ink, which is a great place to find limited edition prints of motorcycle inspired artwork by some amazing artists.