May 22, 2017
Topic: Campus News
One glance at the hundreds of colorful fabric scraps scattered throughout Sherri Smith's office, and it's easy to see she's got art projects on her mind.
Smith, the Catherine B. Heller Collegiate Professor of Art, is the first and only tenured fabrics professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design.
Smith grew up in an art-appreciative household in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and went to Stanford University for her undergraduate degree. She took many biology and other science classes and was torn between science and art. She eventually chose art.
"I think I could've easily been a scientist. Had I not already been so deep into art courses, that's what would've happened. I've always been interested in the sciences," she said.
Sherri Smith, the Catherine B. Heller Collegiate Professor of Art, is the first and only tenured fabrics professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)
She attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, for her Master of Fine Arts degree and, after graduating in 1967, found a job designing interior fabrics for Dorothy Liebes, and then worked for Boris Kroll Fabrics, a top of the line manufacturer of fabrics for interiors.
Her job entailed designing for commercial interior fabrics in her city office and visiting the company mills in Patterson, New Jersey, also known as Silk City. As a fresh college graduate, she was amazed by their top-of-the-line facilities and loved working with the new types of fabric.
"It was the best job I could have asked for as a recent student," she said.
Then in 1969, Smith's work was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. This groundbreaking exhibit called Wall Hangings is credited with legitimizing fabrics as an art form and put her into the limelight. Since then, her work has been featured in major exhibits in Switzerland, Poland, Cleveland and San Francisco, among others. She currently has an exhibit in the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Two years later, her flatmate found a job in Maine.
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"I never intended to stay in New York forever. I either needed a new studio partner or a different job, so I decided a different job was the way to go," she said. Her newfound fame helped her attain a faculty position at Colorado State University in 1971, and she accepted a position at the University of Michigan in 1974.
At U-M, Smith teaches all levels of fabrics work, from beginners to advanced yearlong courses for senior undergraduates. With help from one part-time faculty member, she teaches students how to weave, silk screen yardage, print designs on existing surfaces and other techniques. Additionally, she has taught the senior thesis course and 3-D design.
As Smith's artwork continues, she is concerned about the future of fibers. There's a push for more electronic art, she says, and many fibers departments across the country have been disbanded. Nevertheless, she is confident fibers will live on.
"When you go off to art school, you hope you find something that's right for you, and for a certain number of people that will be fibers. They may not know that when they take the first class, they may take it by accident, but it'll turn out to be the right thing for them," she said.
Q & A
What moment in the classroom stands out as most memorable?
When a student brought in a basket she had made from the wood of poison ivy vines and most people had handled it until it got to me.
What can't you live without?
Time to do my own work.
Where is your favorite spot on campus?
The Hatcher Graduate Library.
What inspires you?
Currently, images from NASA and other space agencies.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls," by Ernest Hemingway.
Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?
Matt Kahn, a professor of art at Stanford University.