Interview 04 – Phillip K. Smith III

Phillip K. Smith III received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. From his Palm Desert studio, he creates light-based work that draws upon ideas of space, form, color, light + shadow, environment, and change.

How early in your life were you influenced by art?

I grew up going to museums and heading out on road trips through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah with my parents. So, I was exposed to both art and the beauty of the desert/natural environment at a very early age. My parents always had a creative eye. My dad still works in real estate development, so I grew up walking through wood-framed homes and construction sites. My mom was an interior designer and trained graphic designer. At a very young age, she helped to hone my eye to the subtleties of color. At the same time, I was happy and quiet for hours if I had a piece of paper and a pencil. Honestly…I still am.

What is the most concise way to describe your body of work?

Distilled. I’m really interested in spending enough time with an idea to distill it down to its core…to the essence of the question. I’m highly inspired by other artists and architects that have followed that same process: Irwin, Turrell, Flavin, Brancusi, LeWitt, Noguchi, Rothko, Kelly, Le Corbusier, Kahn. I believe that all of these artists were tapping into a “universal beauty"…Something that is innate in all of us as human beings no matter our race, backgrounds, beliefs, etc. There’s a reason why all of us feel the need to stop to watch the perfect gradient of the sunset transform before us…or why, in a room full of Rothko’s, everyone is gathered around one of them. There’s something unspoken going on there. I’m seeking to tap into that reality. 

What are your favorite materials to work with?

Anything translucent. I’m initially interested in the quality of the material: Opaque, translucent, transparent, reflective. Then color. Then its ability to be formed or affected. And then durability. I’ve created a lot of works using white translucent acrylic that is then lit within by LED lights. But I’ve also created a lot of pieces using fiberglass or carbon fiber. I enjoy finding the potential in the limits of the material. Acrylic is clear, translucent, and opaque, but limited by sheet size. Fiberglass is opaque and must be painted, but is virtually limitless in terms of shape and scale. With this said, I’ve also worked heavily with glass, stainless steel, corten steel, concrete, and wood. I’m always interested in material innovation and the field of architecture is the number one source for material development as it relates to effect, performance, and machinability. 

How much of your work is a collaboration? Is your work more of collaboration with people or the environment?

I collaborate with the environment by choice and collaborate with people by necessity. I couldn’t do most of my work if it was just me by myself in the studio. Much of my work is art at the scale of architecture. As a result, the development/fabrication process can be similar to building a building. Often, I work with city governments (City Council, Planning, Public Works, Building Department), engineers, contractors, fabricators, laborers…as well as the press, neighborhood groups, concerned individuals, etc. It’s an incredible process that I very much enjoy working within to see my ideas through to fruition.

Sometimes my work requires a skill set that myself or my team do not possess…That’s when we work with fabricators. I really enjoy working with someone that has an incredible skill set that has been used in a particular way for years and then challenging them to use their skills in a new way. It’s an opportunity for both of us to be challenged and to learn from each other. I’m often the guy exploring industrial areas and walking into workshops asking questions. I’m always on the lookout for new ways of working and new ways of fabricating as a potential source of inspiration for new projects. There’s an ever expanding arsenal of tools and materials out there that, more than ever, are highly accessible to the public.

Is the scale of your pieces based on mathematics or artistic intuition?

I’m more interested in artistic intuition…of the idea formulating through drawing or thought. But I’m also interested in mathematics, particularly geometry, as representative of distilled forms that we all understand…a circle, square, triangle, and so on. Those kinds of forms are "ways in” for people. The Circle of Land and Sky is a 165’ diameter circle that creates an equal sense of expansiveness and intimacy. Why 165’? Because 180’ felt too big and 150’ was too small. In the development of that project’s scale and geometry, we brought a number of the reflectors out to the site and tested various dimensions…large scaled sketching, I’d call it. While we were looking for precision in our dimensions, ultimately, it was an intuitive sense of what felt right within the site that was the guiding force.

What motivates you to keep creating? Do you have any hobbies that help you recharge and generate fresh ideas?

I’m not sure what else I’d do if I wasn’t creating. Over the years, I’ve honed down a very simple statement about what makes me happy. Essentially: “If I’m making, I’m happy.” "Making" can obviously have many different meanings and scales, but I know this simple truth about myself.

As many creatives know, there can be moments of brash, unlimited creativity and other moments of potential burnout. It’s important to recognize the potential of each of those ends of the spectrum and to respond accordingly and immediately. I recharge by heading out into the desert landscape. I like driving out or hiking out into the purity, where there is nothing man-made. Being in that quiet and still environment allows me to reconnect with the pace of the natural world. Those experiences allow me to open my eyes and ears anew.

What is the most important thing that has happened in your career so far and why?

Two words: Lucid Stead. When I built Lucid Stead, I had owned that property and the original 70-year old homesteader shack that came with it for about 8 years. When I conceived of the project, it was just something that I felt I needed to do. So, I raised money via USA Projects (now called Hatchfund…it’s like Kickstarter for the Arts) so that I could accomplish this goal. When it was complete, I figured I’d send out the photographs and video to a few blogs and move on to the next project. But it blew up in my face…in a very exciting way. It went viral online, went around the globe, and continues to do so. It was only going to be up for 5 days, but due to demand, we kept it up for 3.5 months. Although I had been working for nearly 14 years prior to Lucid Stead, everything aligned with that project, both in expected and unexpected ways. It not only started me on my experiments in light, space, color, form and change…it allowed my work to become visible to the world and to open up doors of opportunity.

I want to stress here that I didn’t know all of this was going to happen. I’m often asked by other artists or students about how they can find their own Lucid Stead-type of project…Something that will affect the world and themselves. Honestly, my simple advice is to put your head down and make your work. Focus on making the strongest work that you are capable of making at the time. Trust in it. Continue to show it and share it with the world and things will eventually happen…sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. It took me 14 years to find that project that would change things. I had been working very hard up to that point, and really, after Lucid Stead, I’ve found that I need to work even harder. Regardless, you have to be patient…which can often be the hardest part.

What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming works to be exhibited?

Yes. I’m part of a travelling group show that opens this summer called “Unsettled” that’s about art and life on the edges of the Western landscape. I’m working on a couple of permanent public projects, one in West Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, CA and the other in Bellevue, WA. In addition, as a result of Desert X, we’ve been talking to a number of museum groups and collectors and there’s great potential on the very near horizon.

With respect to large scale, I’m continuing my interest in creating large-scaled temporary outdoor installations. I’ve been given a number of sites far out in the Mojave Desert. The project is at the very early stages, but I can say that these sites are in the midst of some of the most beautiful and most extreme desert that I’ve ever seen. So, stay tuned for that.

Also, look for my first book coming out later this summer called Phillip K. Smith, III: FIVE INSTALLATIONS. It’s published by Grand Central Press and will cover my first five large scaled temporary installations from Lucid Stead to Desert X’s The Circle of Land and Sky

All images © Lance Gerber

Using Format