Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith in their shared studio space (Portland, OR).
In the work of both Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith, beauty and visual delight never exist for their own sake. They are always present, but as pathways to a better understanding of the human condition, doors that open up and reveal something about our manners, habits and ways of being. Both artists have strong formal sensibilities that I immediately respond to – they each play with geometry, symmetry, bold and undifferentiated blocks of color, and unexpected material choices (discarded clothing, hair on rocks). And they each have an ability to navigate both representational and abstract impulses. Found photographs, for example, are as much a mainstay of their finished artworks as painted shapes or squares of fabric. Their comfort and confidence in both worlds is inspiring and a reminder that they each build their work on solid conceptual foundations. Their starting points – filled with essential questions about people and the world we inhabit – allow their work to take shape in ways that best suit the subject. Rigidly adhering to a medium or aesthetic gives way to simply bringing ideas to life. The way the artists describe their processes, it’s almost as if their materials and techniques at times rise up with agency and announce themselves as obvious choices for illustrating a given concept. In these moments, it is the job of the artist to listen, and both Inocencio and Smith are able to hear what few others can.
For over two decades I have both admired and been fascinated by Mark R. Smith’s and Maria T.D. Inocenio’s careers in art. They have individually developed strong and personal voices as artists. Each is also able to occasionally set a healthy portion of their independent vision aside in order to work together as a team. Collaboration in the visual arts usually appears risky to me, maybe even unpleasant. I’m fond of long hours alone in the studio, and the thought of sharing that space with someone else immediately takes me to a place where I imagine the pitfalls – clashing egos and dampened creativity – much more easily than the benefits – the amplification of ideas and the ability to scale up that comes with shared passion and shared labor. Maria and Mark land squarely on the latter, and spending time with them makes it clear that part of the reason for their success is that they truly like working with each other. It might also help that each artist creates work that is linked to process oriented art, a strategy that lets them side-step a bit of themselves and arrive at something that can only be achieved by letting go of hubris and vanity. They’ll be the first to admit that compromise is a well known traveling companion on any shared journey and that their occasional joint efforts are not without their struggles. For them, however, the joy that comes with a common sense of purpose is more buoyant and uplifting than any baggage that might otherwise slow them down.
I'm so pleased to be able to share my interview with Maria T. D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith. In it they talk about their individual inspirations and processes as well as their collaborative projects.
- David Schell
The Semi-Finalist: Maria and Mark, what were your formative years like? I’m curious about teachers, classes or experiences that influenced you.
Maria T.D. Inocencio: Art school in New York in the early 1980's was amazing. Everyone was talented, rents were cheap, there was so much going on, so much diversity and it felt like anything was possible and you could do whatever you wanted and call it art.
The teachers that influenced me the most were Niki Logis and Reuben Kadish. Niki was no nonsense and had a great sense of humor; she taught me how to build smart and how to persevere. Reuben was solid and steady; he taught me to see better and to look beyond the western tradition for artistic predecessors and for inspiration.
The thing that had the most influence on me was my independent study in the Philippines. While there I spent time with the Bontoc, an indigenous people who live in the mountains of Luzon. The Bontoc women use backstrap looms to weave clothing that is worn on special occasions or in ceremonial settings. These fabrics have various symbols woven into them. The women also have tattoos on their arms. They explained that the symbols and tattoos represent important things in their lives and in their environment; chevrons, dashes and zigzags are mountains, rice crops or water. That principle of how imagery works – that it can be integrated into everyday life, as well as at significant moments, that it can hold meaning that is specific yet universal – and that how an image is made is as important as what it depicts, is a principle that guides how I make art.
Above: examples of Bontoc weaving in the Philippines.
Below: Symbolic tattoos on the arm of a Bontoc woman.
(photos courtesy of Maria T.D. Inocencio)
Mark R. Smith: I had two types of formative experiences in education, originally studying at Western Oregon University in the town where I grew up and then at The Cooper Union in NYC (1980), where I met Maria and lived for fifteen years. My first group of professors at WOU were all military vets and had gone to school on the GI bill in the 1950s. They had been shaped by Abstract Expressionism and SF Bay area Funk. A lot of that rubbed off on me in terms of making one's own work both friendly and eccentric. My professors James Kirk, Larry Stobie, James Mattingly and John Casey were all wonderful and supportive people living quiet lives as makers who helped their students believe that it was possible to call oneself an artist.
At Cooper Union, my big regret was to never have found a true mentor, since I was only there a couple of years before graduating. I doubt he would have remembered me, but I did feel I had a real connection with Jack Whitten, who at the time was a figure in the margins of the art community. He was one of the few (very kind) teachers I've had, who seemed to want to see through your eyes as an individual and help you get to a place where you could best express your ideas. And he supported the notion of making formally abstract, process-based work that could convey personal as well as cultural and political experiences. I hardly knew or understood his work back then (there was no internet and unless someone had an exhibition, it was hard to see the work) but now it's amazing to me how closely I align with his micro-collage assemblage methodology. It's great to see his work being celebrated now, even if he isn't around to enjoy the accolades.
Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith, Significant Movements
1985 , Enamel paint, wood, copper tubing, vines
Mural with trellis 49' x 60'
Sculpture 14' x 30' x 4"
Mural by Smith and trellis and vine installation by Inocencio.
S-F: And I know that you two did at least one project together early in your art careers. Can you talk about that experience?
Maria: Our first project, Significant Movements, at the Pleasant Village Community Garden was a wonderful experience. New York City had a program, Operation Greenthumb, where they leased empty lots – in economically challenged areas to neighborhood groups for $1 a year – to create community gardens. The Artists in the Gardens program paid artists a small stipend to make art in those gardens. I don't remember why we decided to apply as a team, but it was a great idea because the space was so big.
Mark: We met with the residents and went to work on a mural and sculptural installation that incorporated climbing vines. It was a life-changing experience and we made life-long friends there--our daughter is named after the garden's principle organizer and beloved neighborhood activist, Rose Gardella. We even got married immediately afterward because the experience gave us confidence that we could get through anything together. It was a perfect moment and it didn't seem to matter much then who had the agency to be there, it was such a mix of collaborators.
Maria: Mark painted a mural, and I built a sculpture of trellises and vines. So, while we collaborated on ideas, we were still working on separate pieces. The artworks were pretty good for a couple of first timers, but for me the best take away was the engagement with the people living in the East Harlem neighborhood. We worked closely with the gardeners and got to know about their lives. One gardener, Manuel, helped me a lot with digging holes and pouring concrete, but I could only speak high school Spanish and he had limited English. Mark worked with a Vietnam vet who helped him with scaffolding for the mural. After the piece was installed, I taught summer art classes to some local kids.
Mark: And as far as our collaborations are concerned, I think Maria and I just liked connecting with people. We met and fell in love in art school and we were living in these vibrant but infrastructurally challenged neighborhoods, the East Village, Long Island City, and Greenpoint, which were full of a cultural mix. In the early 80s New York City was just emerging from the urban collapse of the prior decade and artists were doing all kinds of improvisational things in taking over abandoned spaces and creating place. When we do work together, it is a challenge to sync up our creative ambitions, but we manage all right-- one of us usually speaks up if the other seems to be going off the rails. We're both hard workers and are each very process-oriented. Process is how we imprint ourselves on the work. As a result, our projects usually end up involving a ton of labor, but hopefully there is a sense of love and commitment that emerges as a result.
Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith
Significant Movements, 1985
S-F: Maria, over the years you have employed a variety of creative strategies and materials to make work that incorporates geometry, abstraction, representation, radial symmetry, collage, text and more. I’m alway surprised by each new direction and in awe of how your results are without exception so formally striking. Can you talk about your various approaches and how they developed?
Maria: At Cooper (Union), we were required to take foundation courses in every medium and a shop techniques class that introduced us to various materials - wood, metal, plastic, etc. As a result, I feel a flexibility to use whatever means is appropriate to get my message across. When I make something, I come up with the message first, then decide what method and materials to use.
For example, in Remembering Every Day, I wanted to express my feeling of loss when my mother-in-law, Jean, passed away. So, I created a process: every day for a year I tried to remember something about her, then make a color association, and paint the color in gouache on a square of paper. I chose gouache because it is easy to use in a daily exercise, and because it is so warm and velvety. Using that material made the experience of recording my memory pleasant, and the experience for the viewer more inviting. I used the geometric forms of a grid and a spiral because they are familiar and common; the spiral in particular is meant to draw the viewer into the piece.
Maria T. D. Inocencio, Remembering Every Day
2018, paper, gouache, Flashe, glue, colored pencil on wood panel
113" x 113"
(Photo: Stephen Funk)
Maria (continued): In Come Together as Light I wanted to create a feeling of shelter and comfort, while talking about time, and the idea of reflecting on one's daily experience. The audience for the piece would be workers in an office and I hoped that the art could function as a way to take a break, while continuing to engage after many viewings.
I chose photography because it is a literal representation of a moment, and as a medium, it is easily manipulated in designing for symmetry. The trees convey shelter, nature and comfort; the symmetry represents reflection. Collage makes sense here for the ease of installation in a large space, but also because of the idea that time is made up of parts, equal and unequal, similar and different. I used stitching as a reminder of the hand, the individual, and the quirkiness and unpredictability of each step as we move forward each day.
Above: Maria T. D. Inocencio, Come Together as Light
2022, digital prints, wood panels, paper, paint, glue, thread, 10' x 20' x 7'
(Photo: Dominic Nieri)
Below: detail of Come Together as Light
S-F: Mark, one of the distinctive elements of your work is how you often transform something so ordinary (fabric swatches, a zipper, etc.) into completed objects of monumental beauty. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to repurposing materials in a world that is so full of discarded objects?
Mark: I've always been drawn to taxonomy and collections of sorts. I've gathered things forever and really started thinking about it as an aesthetic after visiting the bird and insect collections at the NYC Museum of Natural History. When I returned to Oregon, I got busy collecting artifacts and little bits of decaying debris from a farmstead that was still in our family's possession. There were some old quilts and clothing there too. That process somehow evolved into what I'm doing today, in going to the Goodwill bins and digging out discarded clothes to make into art. I like the idea of fixing or rescuing these items and having the opportunity to respond to a pre-existing palette of colors, textures and patterns to work from. It seems like less of a responsibility than starting from scratch. There's always some kind of history embedded in these things which is powerful whether it visibly surfaces in the art I make or not. I'm not a hoarder, but I have lots of stuff at home that is invested with so many histories and residual content. It's an overwhelming sensation at times but very potent and worth exploring as art.
Mark Smith, Stress Formations ( Pyramid Assembly)
2023, Laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13" x 13"
Hand-cut paper figure cutouts and crocheted doily. These items are directly scanned and assembled into an image file for engraving.
(photo by Stephen Funk)
Mark (continued): Another part of me is drawn to sports and its ritualized conflict. In another life I would have enjoyed designing athletic uniforms. When I look for clothing, I'm always after the perfect stripe and for the past few years I've worked almost exclusively with striped fabrics, cutting and reorganizing them into segmented, interlocking forms. Thinking about the collective history of all these materials, I've been organizing my forms based on communal dwellings and gatherings, Fourier's visionary phalansteries and sports arenas, also beehives and termite mounds from the natural world. These are spaces where conflict and cooperation play out. I'm really bothered by all our cultural rifts. This is how this concern manifests in my work I suppose.
Mark Smith, Large Tent with Lanterns at Half-light
2023, repurposed textile construction, 94 x 96 in.
(Below: detail of Large Tent with Lanterns at Half-light.
Note: the concentric moon design in the upper left can be removed from its pocket.)
(photos by Stephen Funk)
S-F: Mark and Maria: It looks like you both use a lot of systems, math and planning to engineer your finished pieces. I’m so curious about how you each balance organization and improvisation.
Mark: I use very minimal math in organizing my work--only to the extent that I need to plan out the scale progressions of shapes. Ultimately, I tend to work very intuitively, based on structural relationships and color interactions, already having that social collectivism content as a driver. The recent large fabric collage work you saw in our studio resembles the shape of a beehive, but more specifically, an enormous tent. The neighborhood where we live has a large concentration of urban campers. It has prompted me to remember the Democratic "Big Tent" philosophy from the Clinton years, where social priorities were all about inclusivity and making all voices matter. Obviously, we've failed miserably in meeting that mark. But as a meditative rumination on that ideal, I designed this work by stacking mitered fabric squares, large to small in progressively diminutive rows until the tiniest square of all, at 1/4 in. scale, rests by itself on top. I had to figure out the math of making the squares in each row smaller, while still conforming to the overall shape. I used a calculator to figure it out, but it was still a somewhat comical process. And certainly there is no perfect symmetry in the piece, intentionally so.
Mark Smith mapping out one of his fabric constructions.
(photo by Dominic Nieri)
Maria: I love math! My dad was an engineer, and I was a good math student. In the past, making work while raising children, and now, while taking care of my mom, requires planning because there is no time to waste. So, my strategy is to create a process and then follow through. The process may be "sew for 100 days" or "take a photo while you walk" or "record how long it takes to do a task." But within each process there is variability built in. In Thirty-One Days I took a walk or drive every day for a month, found a color that caught my eye, took a picture and recorded the time and place. I painted the colors and arranged them on a square panel, one per day, in the order that they happened. Then I put the squares together as a calendar of days. That is the organizational part. The improvisational part is that I didn't control what I saw on my walks, I didn't control how they were arranged on the squares or how the colors interact when put together. The planning made the painting without me making design decisions, which can be stressful and take up a lot of time.
Above: Maria T.D. Inocencio, Thirty-One Days
2011, wood, acrylic paint, paper, glue
72" x 84" x 1.25"
(Photo: Maria T.D. Inocencio)
Below: A glimpse of Maria's process for a project she is currently working on.
S-F: Neither of you shy away from incorporating overt beauty into your work. Can you each talk about your relationship to this elusive, subjective and at times fraught subject matter?
Maria: I was always concerned about making something beautiful; as if it is a dangerous thing to pursue, that maybe by trying too hard for beauty you might create something empty or cloying. I try to set up situations that sidetrack my ability to make the artwork beautiful. Following a predetermined process helps with that.
I am often inspired by a beautiful idea and want to make art about it. So, I make a plan and trust that the result will succeed in conveying that beauty. For example, Where We Touch is based on my volunteer work at the two schools my children attended. Teachers, students, parents, neighbors all worked together to build large projects - one for each school. I was struck by the cooperation, accomplishment and enjoyment among the wide variety of people. They were different in every way - culture, politics, colors, ages, but were able to work together towards a common goal. That was beautiful, and I wanted to share that beauty through an artwork.
Maria T. D. Inocencio, Where We Touch
2006, string, paper, thread, 93" x 100"
(Photo: Aaron Johanson)
At the time my daughter and her friends were middle schoolers making friendship bracelets for each other, which seemed like a lovely gesture. So, I decided to make the artwork with friendship bracelets. Each bracelet would represent an individual in the community. My process started by asking each person to measure their wrist and choose their favorite colors. Then in the studio, I hosted bracelet making parties and people came, had cookies and coffee, and sat side by side helping each other make bracelets. It was so much fun. I sewed the bracelets together (in a grid) so that each person's bracelet was connected to the bracelet of a friend or family member. The elegant result was reminiscent of a safety net. It was a nice metaphor for the community of relationships that we create around us.
In Heirloom Waterfall I wanted to honor the women who came before me – the tradition of weaving, stitching, sewing and everything that is called "women's work", their earnest labor, their knowledge – all handed down for us to appreciate. It made sense to place the handmade linens and dresses in layers and descending from the oldest on top to the most recent at bottom, flowing like a waterfall. (By the way, none of the pieces was damaged by the installation.) It's hard not to find beauty in the detail, the intricacies, and the material delicacy of the heirlooms, each containing a story and asking the viewer to connect it to their own.
Mark: When I engage with art, I tend to enter through its physicality, looking at and thinking about how something is made. I like to be affected viscerally. There's so much information embedded in the physical manifestation of a work and that point of entry leads me to the content. It's just how I make sense of things. So beauty tends to be synthesized with the process of making and if I can demonstrate some kind of deep commitment to realizing a visual form, I feel like it's my most potent tool. I wouldn't want to deny or withhold anything from someone who's willing to consider my work.
Mark R. Smith, Stress Formations (Small Tent Beating Heart)
2023, laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13 x 13 in. each
(photo by Stephen Funk)
S-F: As an occasional creative team, you both seem capable of setting your egos (at least partially) aside and working on a project together. How did you get started collaborating and what’s it like to go through that process as artists that each have such strong, independent and well developed voices?
Maria: We've been making art and have been together for over 30 years and have evolved as artists together and honed our communication skills. We respect and admire each other's work. I think we have complimentary skills; I can do some things he can't and vice versa. We are mindful of celebrating each other’s ideas and talents. Most importantly, we want the piece to work, so every element that goes into the artwork has to contribute to its success.
Typically, the reason we collaborate is to accomplish a particular project with a specific purpose. We approach the project from the same starting point, so there isn't one lead and we are equal contributors. The great thing is that his strengths and perspective are different enough from mine that the process is additive, and we often get more than if either of us worked alone. It gets layered, more complex and hopefully more effective.
Above: Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio, I Used to Think I Knew Everyone
2017, muslin, paper, newsprint cutouts, thread, glue, 84" x 83.5"
Below: I Used to Think I Knew Everone (detail)
S-F: Both of you do work that is so engaged with notions of human connection and relationships at a time when a lot of people appear to be giving up on humanity in general. Talk about where that comes from.
Mark: Maria and I are both very empathetic people and that condition just seems to be getting more acute as we age. I can't speak for Maria, but I am most comfortable straddling the art community and culture at large. I think I'm good at being a bridge. While I have so much appreciation for my artist colleagues, gallerists, writers, arts activists and patrons who drive this whole enterprise, I've never been wholly relaxed as an inside participant. I'm always concerned about the person who doesn't get it and needs to be brought into the fold. I've served as a community college art instructor for twenty five years and I've realized over time my real function there is to be a facilitator. I work with a lot of people who feel like they're on the outside and might not be deserving of or just don't know how to get access to this broader world of information and education and ultimately empowerment. So I try to help them build their confidence and find their voice and it doesn't matter so much in that context if I'm making work of my own, beyond providing the vocabulary. I love these students I work with and I think I'm effectively functioning as an art regular guy.
Above: Mark R. Smith, Stress Formations ( Circle Meet-up)
2023, laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13" x 13"
Below: Mark R. Smith, Stress Formations ( Ornate Tower)
2023, laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13" x 13"
(photos by Stephen Funk)
Maria: I was born in Manila, lived in Nigeria, then came to the states and, as a child, lived in 3 vastly different neighborhoods in different parts of New York. I have met so many different kinds of people from a variety of cultures, and each time lived within their worlds and adapted. There is always commonality to be found, always a friend to make. The work at Pleasant Village and then my volunteer work at my children's schools were experiences that deepened my belief that people are a lot more alike than they are different, and that they want to work together and can accomplish great things. Cooperation and accomplishment can encourage more of the same. Meanwhile, people have a good time and build goodwill and trust. I've done work that literally engages many individuals, and work that just presents the things we have in common. It's fascinating for me and I hope what I do is helpful. I'm happy if my work can connect, even if it is just one person at a time.
Maria T. D. Inocencio: projects underway in the studio.
(photos by Maria T. D. Inocencio)
S-F: Who are you looking at (alive or dead)? Who is inspiring you in early 2023?
Maria: In my job, I get a chance to look at a lot of local artists and it's especially good to see the work of people who are younger than I am. Zeinab Saab (@zeinab.saab on ig), makes thought provoking pieces on paper and she manages to talk about important ideas like identity, in such an elegant way. David Torres (@djtorresll on ig) is a media artist whose work I was recently introduced to. Both of them have amazing energy and I'm looking forward to seeing what they make in the future.
People who are inspiring me include: Michele Obama, for her work and her representation of women of color; Tamar Benzikry, for her ability to raise two small kids while working in a corporate setting; my daughter Rosa, for her fearless pursuit of her art and her desire to have a positive effect on the world; and my son Richard, for his brilliant facility with all things technical and his steady commitment to a job well done.
Mark: I greatly admire the work of George Johanson, who was always a hero for me through his full embrace of color, use of pattern and the general experimentation and playfulness of his work. He was also a genuinely kind person and perpetually curious about everything. I wish I had been his student. I've been inspired forever by the symmetry of lace and crochet patterns, quilts and all that hand work produced anonymously by women for time on end--the patience and commitment required to produce these works is astounding. Maria has a collection of crocheted doilies at home that has crept into my dreams. I have been a big fan of Brice Marden's Gonshi-inspired works--what I call his spaghetti paintings--featuring interlocking webs of calligraphic marks. They are wholly enveloping and mesmerizing to experience. Louise Bourgeois' fabric works are uncomfortably familiar and deeply psychologically felt. And finally the collage-based work of Jack Whitten, who I mentioned before, is monumentally elegant, quiet but expressively powerful. It serves as excellent proof that abstract work can be both beautiful and embody a social conscience.
S-F: What’s next for each of you?
Mark: I am working on an exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland scheduled for March-April '23. The working title is Stress Formations. The idea came about by considering the events of the last few years punctuated by the covid pandemic, the large public demonstrations surrounding Black Lives Matter, the Women's March and of course, the January 6th Capitol riot. There was a fascinating contrast between what people were doing privately at home to cope with stress and the mass events that were unfolding in public. Our daughter Rosa had written a short essay about historical periods of stress such as the Irish potato famine and the two great world wars, where women (for the most part) turned to handcrafts, both as a coping mechanism, and as a means of income and production--think of Irish lace and Victory knitting. I used that as a starting point. My project will include a number of laser engravings which feature groupings of figures (cutouts from the NY Times) overlaid by scanned examples of Maria's doily collection here at home. The figures symbolize the crowds and public manifestation of our collective angst.
Maria: Right now, Mark and I are working on a commission for a private client, and I've got a large-scale commission that is supposed to be completed by September. I also have a show scheduled for November of this year.
S-F: Is there a text that you would consider a touchstone or that acts as a sort of scaffolding for your work?
Maria: Lucy Lippard's Overlay is important to me in the way it connects the art of prehistory to that of the present. Islamic Art by Lucio Mozzati is a book that I turn to often. It's an overview of art and architecture from the Islamic world over the centuries and it's gorgeous. It has an explanation of the relationship between geometry and spirituality that is so poetic, and diagrams of how geometry was used in creating the beautiful tile mosaics Islamic architecture is known for. Also, I read whatever I can find on the subject of time (most recently, Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time) to try to better understand what time is and how we experience it.
Mark: There is a book I've been informed by for several years, (first recommended to me by art historian Sue Taylor), Crowds and Power (1960), by Elias Canetti, which I've used before as source material that is also informing this show. It's a huge poetic treatise on crowd psychology and dynamics which continually returns to the notion of touch as a fueling mechanism. It's a hard read but is full of compelling imagery. As a person of Jewish ancestry in Europe, who somehow escaped the Nazi pogrom prior to and during WW II, he writes with a lot of generous compassion about unruly mobs of people.
You can see more of Smith's work:
- at Elizabeth Leach Gallery
- on his website
- on instagram: @markrsmithstudio
You can see more of Inocencio's work:
- on her website
- on instagram: @mariatdinocencio
Above and below: Maria T.D. Inocencio,
Stones from her installation at Nine Gallery: Sometimes It's Hard To See
2021, stones, glue, hair, varnish, dimensions variable
Above and below: Mark R. Smith, Portals and Rabbit Holes
2021, installation at Meta headquarters, Seattle, WA
Maria T. D. Inocencio, Heirloom Waterfall
2018, linens, baby clothes, 108" x 77" x 7"
A corner of the studio.
A corner of the dining room.