Profile of Artist Julia Kim Smith

By: Grace Jahng Lee

April 17, 2014

In the basement of her house in Baltimore, Julia Kim Smith’s art studio is both spacious and minimalist. Three rectangular white tables form the centerpiece of her workspace. Portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il from her “Leaderland!” project adorn the otherwise bare walls. Jet, a black canine who appears colossal next to Smith’s slender frame, comes galloping in, profusely affectionate and eager to extend a welcome. “He was a rescue,” she smiles warmly.

Smith is an inter- and multi-disciplinary artist whose work engages with themes of memory and identity as well as political and social landscapes. Her work has been featured in GQ, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, The Washington Post, and Angry Asian Man, among others. She is perhaps best known for her new media project “With Banksy,” which exhibited at A.I.R. Gallery and NURTUREart in Brooklyn and Platoon Kunsthalle in Seoul and quickly became a viral phenomenon.

with Banksy great artists Steala home article image

The daughter of a physicist father and an artist mother, Smith was born in Berkeley, California and grew up primarily in Indiana, where her father was a tenured professor at Purdue University. “Everyone we knew was in the physics or math department at Purdue,” says Smith.

At her school, she was one of only three Asian Americans. “We were always grouped together because we were Asian, which annoyed us. I was teased and bullied a lot.” From ages four to sixteen, she played the piano. “Piano taught me discipline, having to do something that I didn’t love,” she says. Smith developed an interest in drawing at a young age. “My family didn’t encourage it at all. It was just a strange hobby I had,” she recalls. In high school, Smith continued to pursue her creative interests by starting an arts festival and an alternative newspaper with friends.

After two years of pre-medical studies at Johns Hopkins, Smith realized she did not want to pursue this path and transferred to Purdue, where she graduated with a degree in graphic design. “As I got older, I realized that being an artist was a way to move between classes. Artists, even though they might be poor, would navigate the class system and move between classes. That appealed to me. I wanted to experience it all,” says Smith. She began to build her art portfolio and was awarded the Rackham Fellowship to pursue the MFA program in visual communication at the University of Michigan.

“The day before I started my MFA, my mother called to say, ‘It’s not too late. You can still go into accounting,’” Smith recalls. “Because my parents were immigrants, they were very careful. I just wanted to cut loose. I craved excitement. That’s the last thing my parents wanted. They had plans for me to become a doctor and be financially successful.”

Upon completing her MFA, Smith moved to Ithaca to join her boyfriend (who is now her husband) and worked for the Moosewood Restaurant, which has been the recipient of two James Beard Awards.

“I started by waiting tables and washing dishes before I became a chef. It’s collectively owned so they rotate people through positions. It’s physically hard work. I couldn’t imagine myself being older and working in a restaurant. It’s really grueling,” she says. She worked there for two years before moving to Baltimore, where her husband, a computer scientist, had secured a new position.

In Baltimore, Smith taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and worked as a senior designer at the PBS and NPR affiliate WETA in Washington, D.C. She also launched a greeting card line called SLANT, which won a LOUIE Award and sold at museum shops and retail locations such as Urban Outfitters and Saks Fifth Avenue. “I loved the creative side but not the business side,” Smith reflects.

Several curators recognized Smith’s emerging talent and encouraged her art practice. As part of a viewing program for emerging artists at The Drawing Center in Soho, German-born Uruguayan artist and curator Luis Camnitzer selected Smith’s work to be included in several shows. Smith had the opportunity to meet Lilly Wei, a curator for a residency program at the Maryland Art Place, who also selected her work for several exhibitions.

Smith names photographer Diane Arbus (“Because I grew up feeling like I was the ‘other’ as one of the few Asians, I could relate to her photos, which featured people who were also the ‘other’”), Yoko Ono (“She didn’t care what people said about her, which was unusual for an Asian woman of her generation”), and the Guerilla Girls (“a group of anonymous women artists who wear gorilla masks and stage protests against sexism and racism in the art world”) as some of her artistic influences.

With art as her medium, Smith seeks to address political and social issues that she is passionate about. Her work is often infused with elements of humor and satire. “Political art can turn off a lot of people,” she says, “and as an Asian American female artist, having an audience is no small task.”

North Korea has been the inspiration for several of Smith’s projects. “One of the worst human rights disasters is occurring in North Korea,” says Smith, “and as someone whose parent lost family fleeing from North Korea, I feel it’s my duty to protest what’s going on there.”

Her film “Pyongyang Style” (2013) won a finalist award in the North Korean International Microfilm Festival, a satirical event staged by China’s Utopia Group art collective.

The film, a spoof of Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” features Smith’s Beating a Dead Horse dance and culminates with an excerpt from Amnesty International’s 2012 Annual Report.

“Groupon Pyongyang” (2012) is a parody of a CafePress shop run by the Korean Friendship Association, which Smith found as a link on the official North Korean government website (the link has since been removed from the website).  Using screenshots she took of the CafePress website’s propaganda-branded merchandise, she created “Groupon Pyongyang.”

In “Leaderland!” (2013), which was exhibited at George Mason University, the audience can download North Korean leaders’ portraits and create their own meme. Smith explains, “There was a YouTube video in which the North Korean government appropriated from Disney to create a totally bizarre fantasy production. I appropriated portraits of the North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il and the image of the Disney castle and editorialized in the background by inserting executions and a rocket launch to portray North Korean political realities.”

Smith satirizes the Tiger Mom phenomenon and high expectations to succeed academically in Asian American families in “Obey TM” (2011). She incorporates her own spin to Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant Has a Posse “Obey” sticker campaign by appropriating the design to include the face of Tiger Mom and author Amy Chua with the commands: “Get A’s! Practice!”

Her project “Grand Teton,” (2009) is an exploration of memory through photography and video. Thirty-five years after her father took a photograph of his wife and two daughters at Grand Teton National Park, Smith restaged the photograph and documented the process through film. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Smith. “Halfway through it, my mother started crying. I imagine she was remembering her journey to the U.S. and how hard it was. She just says life was so hard and leaves it at that.”

The film was featured in the Slamdance Film Festival and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, among others.

“Anonymous Rage,” (2006) which was exhibited at the Maryland Art Place, highlights homelessness as a social condition. “Homeless signs seemed like a powerful symbol of the human condition, of society, a raw expression of need,” says Smith. Using cardboard signs made by homeless individuals, which she framed between pieces of plexiglass and suspended from the ceiling as an installationWith , she built an abstract shelter.

Reflecting on her inspiration for “Anonymous Rage,” Smith says, “I was driving around and struck by how powerful the homeless are with their signs all over Baltimore. It’s more powerful than a lot of art I see hanging in galleries. So I started collecting them. I went to homeless people and bought their signs for five dollars each.” She collected between fifty to one hundred signs. “I created a little economy. ‘Oh, there’s the artist looking for signs,’ they would say, ‘come back tomorrow and I’ll have more for you.’”

Balancing motherhood with her art practice, Smith says, “I work while my kids are at school. I always have my laptop with me so if I have fifteen minutes of waiting, I’ll be working on my laptop.” Her solution to temporary blocks of creativity? Rock climbing. “It resets your brain. You have to focus on the moment or you’re going to fall,” says Smith.


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Julia Kim Smith’s current and upcoming exhibitions include:
Language+: Let’s art a conversation! 
Curated by Qianfei Wang, MICA Curatorial Practice candidate 
Baltimore Lab School 
March 28-May 23.  

With Banksy for auction at: Annual Fundraiser at the Batter Garden, NYC May 14th, 2014
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Born in Seoul, Grace Jahng Lee is a writer of prose and poetry based in New York City. Currently a writer-in-residence at Jentel, she is working on an autobiographical novel.