The West Side frame house Debra Smith renovated nine years ago looked like an explosion in a fabric factory on a recent winter morning.
Smith has been furiously preparing for two trunk shows of her scarves and artworks at Elizabeth Day Lawrence’s prestigious Cladin shops on the East Coast. This fall, she will have an exhibit of her textile abstractions at Haw Contemporary gallery in Kansas City’s West Bottoms.
Smith’s creative effusions join those of dozens of other artists displayed in her house, from a cut-out metal helmet by Jesse Small, to a collection of Middle Eastern quilts, to a dramatic custom wood floor by Tim Griffard.
How did you get into textiles?
I grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and I’m a third-generation weaver. My (maternal) grandmother was a painter, weaver and quilter. My mother was head of the Hannibal Arts Council, so I grew up with raku-firing pots in the backyard and cyanotype workshops.
I majored in fiber at the Kansas City Art Institute. After graduating in 1993, I spent ten years in New York, where I got an associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology. I did a residency in Roswell, New Mexico, from 2010 to 2012.
Woven scarves are your bread and butter?
Yes. I weave them from strips of antique silk Japanese kimono fabric. They’re “sakiori” scarves, a Japanese word that means “left-over-woven.” When I was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, Asiatica donated a lot of leftover fabric, and I began weaving it into scarves. Asiatica’s co-owner, Fifi White, bought one, and I began selling them at Asiatica. Now they’re also carried by Peruvian Connection, and I have the trunk show coming up at Cladin.
I also use kimono scraps to make flower pins with vintage buttons.
You also create fine artworks using textiles.
The first ones were pastel geometrics made from layers of antique Japanese kimono lining. It’s light and sheer, and I concentrated on circular elements at the beginning.
I worked for Jason Pollen after graduating from the Art Institute. I learned a lot about finishing, and I also received my first commission. American Century wanted a piece for their entryway and Pollen wasn’t available, so they gave the commission to me. I made a 16-by-12, hand-dyed, pieced organza textile.
You’re in a lot of big collections.
Twenty years ago I started a relationship with John O’Brien and Dolphin gallery. That led to large-scale commissions. I have a large piece at the Bristol in the Power Light and a series at the Kauffman Foundation. Blue Cross Blue Shield has a set of five pieced silk textiles, and I also have works at Sprint and Hallmark.
Tell me about this house.
Since 1984, it was inhabited by nothing but squirrels. Before that, a blind couple lived here for 60 years.
I bought it in 2005 and added a shed dormer in the attic, where I have my studio and sewing machine. I also added a room at the back, which was my dining room until I moved things around to get ready for my shows.
What other changes did you make?
Tim Griffard, who also built the rolling floor for the Nelson-Atkins in 2008 (for the Michael Cross design show), did my kitchen floor in 5,000 pieces of white oak and cherry. He sanded and stained the rest of the floors on this level and scoured the dirt off the second floor.
All of the wallpaper in the house was floral. I removed it and in the kitchen I painted stripes. I also put in all new mechanicals. When I moved in, each room had one hanging light bulb. The light fixtures are an ode to the blind couple. I worked out how to make them with Dave Smith the Lamp Maker.
The stained glass in the front entryway was gone when I moved in, so I commissioned Allan Winkler to make that window with the design of red birds.
And the furnishings?
All of my furniture was traded or given. That’s an old apothecary cabinet in the kitchen, and I papered the bathroom with old school maps. I traded scarves for the straw rugs, which were hand-dyed and hand-sewn by by two milliners. That 12-foot-long table, which I love, floated into my parents’ yard during the flood of 1993 in Hannibal.
You’re also a collector.
I traded a lot of work during my Roswell residency, and I collect quilts from a nomadic tribe in Middle East. They’re floral prints with embroidery and little mirrors, salvaged from garments. It’s kind of a Middle Eastern patchwork.