The nature of strangeness: Cheri Smith’s pursuit of the unknowable in our organic surroundings

Cheri Smith’s artistic practice is one that is intimately connected to the natural world. Her childhood in rural Essex and her ongoing fascination with what she calls the “tangled, porous, ambiguous parts of nature”, manifests in images which are earthy, mossy, fungal and tuberous. Cheri is acutely aware, too, of the mineral composition of her artworks; by mixing her own pigments using egg and glue tempera, she retains an organic relationship with her medium which, in turn, brings the works themselves into greater proximity and synergy with their natural subjects.

For Cheri, drawing and painting are interlinked. Having undertaken postgraduate studies at the Royal Drawing School, Cheri applies the techniques of draughtsmanship to her painting – visible in her sense of line, her attentiveness to fine detail and her incorporation of texture by scratching into the surface of the paint. As such, the painted works retain all the precision and immediacy of the pencil, pastel and paper works. Particularly in those pieces which take organic matter as subject matter, the shades, contours and tactual qualities of nature are seen so exactly and with such stark clarity that their presence is amplified, their tangible reality made almost surreal by Cheri’s micro-observations.           

This same sense of surreality and strangeness is also present in the works which bring human figures into contact with the non-human. Cheri tells us: “I do believe wholeheartedly that nature is innately strange, and that we are too by extension.” The figures which appear in her paintings and drawings are often seen squatting close to the ground, low-bellied, arch-backed, frog-legged. In their animalistic stances, the figures defamiliarise us from the enlightened bipeds we believe ourselves to be, and reconnect us to a primal humanity which crawls on all fours alongside other creatures, hands and feet in the earth. What Cheri’s works show us is that this strange vision of the human in mutual relation to the non-human is, ultimately, not strange at all, but rather the most familiar, instinctive and natural thing in the world.

‘Hatch (Self Portrait)’, oil on board, 18 x 11.5 cm

AMM: Hi Cheri! To start off – how would you describe your creative practice and the art you make?

CS: My practice is grown out of a deep curiosity for nature, in all its inherent strangenesses and unknowabilities. I am seeking an understanding or closeness by looking and spending time with earthly beings, elements and environments. I work directly from observation as well as imagination and memory, making drawings in pencil and pastel, and paintings in oil, egg tempera and glue distemper. I would describe my works as crisp in detail and texture, sinuous and sprawling.

AMM: How has your artistic approach developed over time and what role have your studies had in this progression towards your current distinctive style? Were there any key moments, people or insights that helped shape the way you work now?

CS: Finding my own approach to making has been an ongoing process, one that I am still very much wrapped up in. It feels like things were quietly taking root for a long time before I started to notice them out of the corners of my eyes. It’s all grown into a big tangled web through which I see the world and in which things get caught and take hold.

During my undergraduate studies at Norwich I became interested in museums and collections, how images and objects can hold stories and power and knowledge. I was completely absorbed by anatomical and natural illustration, though I didn’t know how to reconcile my love for their particular visual language with the ideals and histories they asserted. The decision to nurture and practise drawing through postgraduate study was especially important. I began learning how to use different textures and rhythms for my own means, and most significantly I made lasting friendships with artists whose ways of being and working are sources of continued surprise and influence.

Residencies I have been fortunate to undertake stand out like fireworks: In Volterra, Italy, last year just before the lockdown, feeling like the only person in the world, clambering up rocks and following waterfalls, glimpsing bats, hares and boars. The year before that in Jamaica, snorkelling over coral reefs, befriending land crabs and cane toads, falling asleep each night to a chorus of frogs. Getting lost in these surroundings forced me to trust in my own instincts in my role as conduit.

AMM: It’s fascinating to us that so much of your work is finely attuned to nature – is a connection to the natural world something that is prevalent in your own life? For instance, was your upbringing a rural one?

CS: I grew up in a small village in Essex, where you could walk in any direction and within a few minutes be completely alone and surrounded by green fields or woods. My parents are avid nature lovers, and they used to take me and my brothers out on walks or trips that they called ‘wildlifing’ – exploring trails and nature reserves, wandering through forests or waiting patiently in hides. I remember the hush and awe with which my dad would point out something blurry up high in the trees, how it would be revealed in bird form through binoculars. A connection with nature was something that you earned, by being quiet, patient, observant and open. I collected these encounters with other beings like treasure. I still do.

‘Frog Girls’, oil pastel and pencil, 29.5 x 21cm

AMM: We’re interested in the artistic techniques you use when making paintings – egg tempera is a very traditional medium to bring into your practice and we’re wondering whether that’s something you consider to be conceptually or materially significant for you as an artist?

CS: I consider the materials and processes I use to be absolutely integral to the works themselves. There is something grounding about working with pigments, mixing them directly with egg or oil to make paints. And yet at the same time it can feel almost otherworldly, alchemical. It makes you slow down, and allows you to understand the materials you are working with in a much more intimate way. I like that paint is really tiny bits of rock, mineral, shells, plants, beetles. In turn, the paintings these organic materials are made into exist as microcosms.

AMM: Tell us about the ways in which painting and drawing intersect in your practice.

CS: Drawing came first for me. It feels immediate and completely natural; it is a way of being present in your head and in your body and in the world around you all at the same time. Pencil on paper has an endless capacity and sensitivity for texture, nuance and detail. I try to emulate these same qualities within my paintings, so that now whether I reach for a pencil or a paintbrush is almost interchangeable. I approach drawing and painting in the same way, with a fine point or tip, a hard, smooth surface and a sense of not quite knowing what’s going to happen. Things appear, grow and spread across the page, become solidified or are rubbed away.

‘In Pignano’, oil on plywood board, 20 x 30cm

AMM: The female figure seen as an animal body is a recurring presence in your work. Could you tell us more about this approach to female embodiment and animality?

CS: It feels like generally women are associated more with nature than men. I’ve heard that women are unspoilt landscapes, they are prey, they are monsters. There’s this assumed hierarchy, with men at the top, then women, animals and plants, like a gradient from what’s supposedly got the biggest brains down to the weird and wormy. I wanted to close that gap, and wondered whether I might be able to form some kind of closeness to other beings through mimicry.

When I was little I would spend hours pretending to be a cat or a lizard. More recently yoga practice has allowed me to transform into mountains, bridges, cobras, cats and cows. Even when I’m out walking I’ll constantly find myself stopping to crouch down, sidle along, peer into the undergrowth. It’s only when a stranger walks past and pulls me back into their world that I realise I’ve tangled myself up in a weird squat to watch something the stranger probably can’t see.

‘Scoop’, oil on board, 33 x 22cm

AMM: Your images often verge on the fantastical – they might in many senses appropriately be referred to as magical realist in style. We’re thinking particularly of those that present vaguely uncanny distortions of human and animal bodies, such as ‘Yowl’ and those that depict your ‘Frog Girl’ figure. How does your work deal with strangeness and draw out the innate strangeness of our own selves and the world around us?

CS: I adore magical realism! It’s the truth heightened, the fantastical revealed. I hadn’t thought consciously about the connection before now, but perhaps it’s the perfect realm for me. Stories which house a bit of strangeness and mystery always feel closer to reality.

I do believe wholeheartedly that nature is innately strange, and that we are too by extension. I have always been drawn to those tangled, porous, ambiguous parts of nature, and over time I’ve come to see those qualities in everything around me. There is a layer of strangeness which comes from paying close attention. Often when you notice something that you hadn’t a moment before, it becomes all that you can see. Subtle details can get exaggerated and twisted. Even so, it’s taken me a long time to give myself permission to work from my imagination completely; I’ve had to work out how to do so in a manner which feels truthful and sincere.

AMM: In many instances, your works appear to contain narratives which might extend beyond the depicted moment – we’re thinking particularly of those that incorporate figures interacting with one another and their environments, in various attitudes of squatting, crawling, even metamorphosing. You also have images in which a single figure is replicated several times across the composition engaged in different acts and adopting different stances, which implies a temporal element. Could you tell us more about how narrative and storytelling come into your work and the process you go through when creating such images?

CS: Many of the temporal or narrative elements I employ originated when drawing from observation. I have found that in spending an extended period of time with a place or being, I become much more aware of the shifting nature of things. Animals enter and leave, weather changes. Such drawings contain the duration of an encounter; they are more like time-lapses than snapshots. I love drawing from animals in motion especially, following them around the page so that they become a repeat pattern or a frenzy of layered lines.

There is a painting I think about often that’s in the National Gallery, by Giovanni di Paolo of Saint John the Baptist returning to the desert – he’s repeated so that you watch him make that journey into the landscape, until the craggy path he’s on twists away and he’s lost from view. You feel like you’re there. I wonder whether the fact that my partner is an animator might have had an impact too; he began teaching me a few basic animation processes during lockdown last year, and I was struck by the interplay of repetition and variation.

‘Yowl’, oil on bookcover, 29 x 21.5 cm

AMM: It’s this narrative quality that leads me to ask whether you ever seek inspiration from literary sources? For example, many of your works put us in mind of recent radical reworkings of folkloric, mythic narratives by authors such as Daisy Johnson and Kirsty Logan.

CS: Literature is a rich source of inspiration for me. I am always inhabiting written worlds, and I like short stories especially. The best ones are contained and yet expansive, letting you enter with ease and linger within them long after you’ve finished reading. I suppose they are doing what I am trying to do in my work, only with pictures rather than words.

I haven’t encountered Daisy Johnson or Kirsty Logan previously – I am excited to add them to my reading list! Some of my favourites include Joy Williams, Tove Jansson, Han Kang, Ali Smith and Angela Carter. I have a compilation of contemporary fairytales which I devoured quite a few years ago now; I’ll have to dig it out again. I also can’t not mention Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, two books which I am continually returning to.

AMM: What do you think about the contemporary revival of myth and folklore, particularly in relation to the ways in which humans interact with the natural world? Do you think that a primal connection to organic environments is something we crave as a species continuing to urbanise itself?

CS: I think a love of nature can often be dismissed as sentimental, but really it is vital, primal, in our bones. It must be inevitable that the more distance we place between ourselves and the natural world, the more we yearn for it. While local habitats and far off rainforests are being destroyed, we are cultivating and tending to our own miniature houseplant jungles. The fact that a deep concern for the environment is bubbling away in our collective consciousness gives me hope! I think that perhaps a return to folklore and myth comes along with that yearning for something that’s deep within us and connects us to the wider world.

‘Twist’, oil on board, 12 x 7 cm

AMM: We’d love to know what your studio is like – we imagine it to be filled with various pieces of organic matter and collected natural objects; is this true?

CS: Yes that’s it! I gather and bring back bits of the world to the studio, like a magpie. All these bits and pieces become stimuli or reference points for the work I make. I have lots of plants, shells, mermaids purses, coral, sponges, feathers and eggshells, antlers, lichen, dried out mushrooms and dead bugs. I also have bits of stone, wood and cuttlefish that I carve into, and small toys and figurines. If everything is out at once it can be overwhelming, so I try to keep things organised, and choose carefully what I bring out to play each day. Different arrangements of objects can conjure up a range of meanings, symbolisms, analogies and allegories.

AMM: What else stimulates you creatively?

CS: I like to listen to music or podcasts when working in the studio. My absolute favourite is the New Yorker Fiction podcast – oh to have stories read to you while you work! I also like those which take you deep into a weirdly specific subject, like unexplained mysteries and facts about creatures that you didn’t know existed. I discovered The Medieval Podcast the other day and had a great time learning about medieval eels.

AMM: What about when you’re away from the studio – do you have any hobbies or pursuits that you use as a way of getting space from working?

CS: Paradoxically I think it’s the moments away from the studio which allow me to enter back into it. I need to allow things to happen, thoughts to ruminate, so I have something to process and respond to. I enjoy walking, yoga, gardening, listening to live music, playing board games and video games. I have worked at the Natural History Museum and in a Quaker school, as a tutor for young artists and foundation students, and I’ve recently started working at a globemakers: these experiences must all feed in too.

‘Bird’s Nest Fern’, egg tempera on primed bookcover, 29.7 x 12.3 cm

AMM: What challenges have you had to face as an artist over the past year and how do you think the creative community of which you are a part has dealt with the difficulties that have arisen over the course of the pandemic?

CS: I can only speak of the creative communities I have been fortunate to find myself a part of, whose generosity, adaptability and resolve have been incredible. A big challenge during this time has been in finding ways to contribute. Selling work through the Artist Support Pledge initiative allowed me to sustain my practice and keep my studio, as well as to form connections and conversations with so many fellow artists. I am grateful to be surrounded by thoughtful and refreshing contemporaries, to have engaged in online exhibitions and attended virtual crits and studio visits. I owe a lot to long walks and conversations with my friend Mary.

AMM: What are your main aspirations for your practice moving forward? Are you experimenting with anything particular just now?

CS: I am looking forward to being able to access my studio more over the coming weeks and months, and getting my teeth into new works. Your questions have given me pause for thought too, regarding the role of narrative within my practice. I haven’t worked directly from stories previously, and this is something to explore further. I feel as though each painting I make is a little bigger than the one before – not necessarily in terms of scale but more a feeling of bravery and intention. I am compelled to keep going.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Unearthing’, oil on board


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