Discovering New Worlds with Joni Smith

Atlas & I have partnered with the wonderful Riverford Organic who create plentiful vegetable boxes using seasonal produce farmed by dedicated, organic farmers. Riverford delivers fresh, seasonal, organic vegetables once a week from your local veg team, each week offers a varying box of seasonal vegetables. We have chosen to partner with Riverford because we strongly believe in championing organic farmers, removing GM crops and harvesting quality products over high quantity vegetables which aren’t organic.

Exploration is obviously a key element of our work at the company and we wanted to discover what this means to others. We were immediately struck with Joni Smith's art works, building fictitious worlds using everyday objects, in particular maps. We wanted to delve into her mind to find out how she creates her artistic worlds and what inspired her to use maps as such an integral part of her extraordinary pieces.

Firstly, as fellow map lovers we are intrigued to know what inspired you to use maps as a theme in your art?

During my Masters at Norwich art School I researched the idea of ‘space’, the gap between here and there.  I looked into space in its many forms, from micro to macro, from public to private, and beyond.  My interest in maps began there in some way. I realised that I was interested in where I place myself within the world.  Soon after my MA I did an artist residency, where I was given an old mobile classroom at the back of a college. I began by looking out of the various windows – at what I could see from my viewpoint. The result was a body of work called ‘Views From The Hut’.  These began as a series of drawings, and then ultimately my first paper cuts. As I drew the trees, telephone wires and rooftops I began to see a map forming – the branches became so obviously road networks. So I overlaid a map behind one of the images, so that the tree branches would rise up and tangle themselves with the roads above. This was the moment the map made an entrance into my life.

We know you use various different types of maps and we would love to know if you have a preference to modern or older maps?

I am interested mostly in the colour & the structure of a map. Usually old maps are best for this; in fact my favourite atlas was one I found in a flea market in Berlin while I was doing a 6-month cycle tour of Eastern Europe in 2015. The colours are absolutely spellbinding and there is something about the paper in old atlases that you just don’t get any more, the pages all seem to be glossy & thin these days, not great for cutting up. I also like the bits in the front atlases called ‘Data Maps’ they show coffee production, migration, birth, death rates and so on. The colours and designs are fantastic, great for cutting up. In fact I have made a series of works based wholly on these sections of the atlas.

Map Fair
National library of Scotland
Antique map shop

As we were reading your website we were really struck by this quote that you say influences you: "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” by Sol Lewitt. Do you feel this impacts the way in which you make your art and do you feel it would be relevant to a small business such as ourselves?

This is literally how I work. I have the idea, as the artist, I create a set of rules to be adhered to and once the idea is fully formed I become the machine. The process then becomes meditative and I am able to relax into the making, there are obviously points where the artist has to intervene, but for the most part the decisions are already made.

In terms of this quote being relevant to a small business like yours - as you are largely responsible for each stage of the creation of each product, you are both maker and machine. But you can also look at it like this: You have a creative business model, which you have carefully carved out. This is the “idea” So Le Wit is talking about, but this “idea” also ultimately becomes the machine too – every subsequent idea or design will conform the art package you initially set out – the “machine” replicates your original idea (or model) in many different permutations.  This is why I love this quote, it can be read so many different ways and it has such a great insight into the creative process.

You love creating worlds with each piece and we love taking sneaky peeks into people’s worlds with each piece we make, what is it about the possibility of a new place to explore that excites you so much?

I have always loved to travel.  I love arriving at a new city or town and experiencing the cultural shifts, every place has its own unique signature and it’s own voice. 

In terms of creating my own worlds, I think it is the child in me that loved getting lost in her imagination, building dens and imagining new worlds with their own rules.  So I think that I am still that child building up new worlds around her – in order to question or locate herself.

We know your work is extremely labour intensive and as slight tool geeks we would love to know your top 3 tools of the trade!

  1. I have several Swann-Morton knifes, which I can’t live without.  10A and 11 are my preferred blades; I have adapted this knife with the help of an air-drying rubber product called ‘Sugru’. I’ve moulded the rubber around the knife to give me more grip and support.
  2. Architects drawing board – This addition to my studio has saved me a lot of back pain.
  3. I have lots of shape punches, but my current favourite tool is a pretty neat circle-cutting device by Martha Stewart, which can cut a variety of circles in a quite satisfying swish.

In the real world, where is the place you feel most inspired?

If I am feeling a bit sluggish creatively, a day trip to London to see some galleries always helps.  But it is the journey home that really gets my creative juices flowing.  I love to travel on the train, to watch the landscape drift by, transforming from one scene to the next effortlessly.  I can loose myself easily on the train.  That’s when new ideas start forming. 

Finally, as a last question we would love to know where you place yourself in the art world, do you see yourself as a fine artist or a maker of worlds unknown?

That’s a good question.  Both I think, I will continue to create worlds as long as I need to – which may be forever, but I am also open to change, and if my work takes a different direction I will embrace that.  I think you can stagnate as an artist if you start to recreate the same thing over and over.  I think in order to grow and learn, one should keep moving and stay open to new experiences.  So if I had to choose one I would say ‘fine artist’, that gives me the scope to do whatever the hell I like!

To explore more of Joni's many multi faceted worlds click this link.