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Doug Smarch, construction of feather screen for Illuminations, 2005.
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Doug Smarch, "Illuminations," 2005, installation view, Yukon Arts Centre.
DOUG SMARCH Jr
Yukon Arts Centre, Whitehorse, Yukon
By Kay Burns
Yukon artist Doug Smarch creates work that crosses the boundaries of place, time, and his Tlingit heritage. With a background in sculpture and object construction, he brings a solid understanding of form and technique to his current work in new media and installation.
Smarch’s post-secondary education began at the ASFA Institute of American Indian Arts, which provided a foundation to develop his confidence as an artist. He did his BFA at the San Francisco Arts Institute, and his MFA at the University of California Los Angeles. Interspersed with these programs were other educational opportunities in France and Italy, and he continues to indulge his penchant for travel at least once a year. A recent trip to Peru, where he felt “connected and comfortable,” left him wanting to return for an extended stay. Between his travel, educational, and exhibition experiences, he regularly returns home to the small community of Teslin in the southern Yukon.
Currently his employment at the Teslin Museum helps support him as he continues to expand on his art practice and prepare for a number of upcoming exhibitions and opportunities. His job at the museum is to create replica artifacts incorporating traditional techniques and processes which, in turn, feed his studio practice. One sculptural piece he made a few years ago was a feather robe. He wanted the experience of the creative process of making it, and later to sleep under it. His interest was in feeling what it was like to make it, not what it might be like for a shaman to wear such a garment. While the robe was made entirely of feathers hand-stitched to a backing cloth and reflected associations of traditional processes, he contemporized those connotations through his choice of materials. The feathers all came from store-bought feather dusters. Smarch describes this process as “metropolitan hunting,” bringing into play many questions about commodification of traditional objects and practices, and the nature of the consumptive society in which we dwell.
As an extension of the ideas initially explored in the feather robe piece, Smarch created a 20-foot-long screen made entirely of feathers. Projected on the screen was his 3-D animation offering fictional alternative views of the dreams of a medicine man in reaction to the construction of the Alaska Highway through aboriginal communities. The feathers were painstakingly stitched together, not on a backing but as a free-floating wall of feathers that allowed snippets of light and image to penetrate, offering an ephemeral and mysterious space behind the screen as well as the more direct view of the animation in front of the screen. The audio with the piece consisted of music he created, overlaid with the narrative voice of an elder telling stories of the medicine man’s dreams.
Smarch has been involved in a variety of new media works including a mask worn by participants that converts light into sound. The mask has light sensors situated at the position of the eyes that read the frequency level of the light being looked at (fluorescent light, a candle, the moon, etc.) and translates that frequency into tones. He has also created a performance art piece in which he plays on his flute, something he is frequently asked to do and occasionally feels put upon by the requests. In the performance piece, he is dressed from head to toe in white, including white-face mime makeup. Seated cross-legged on the floor, Smarch’s arms are tied to and suspended from marionette cables and armatures as he plays, signifying manipulation and control of his actions by others.
Smarch’s past exhibitions have included shows in Vancouver, Japan, Zurich, and, of course, Whitehorse. He is developing new work that will be part of an exhibition at the Yukon Arts Centre in February 2007 as part of the Canada Winter Games. This past summer he participated in a mask show there, showing “lollipop” masks made of sugar alluding again to commodification and monetary exchange for traditional objects — in this case, objects consisting of empty calories. Later in the year he will have a solo exhibition showcasing both his earlier and current work. He is frequently invited to participate in other exhibitions and residencies and like most artists struggles to balance time dedicated to his practice with all the other demands of daily life. For now, he is focused on his painstaking work at the Teslin Museum, the creation of new works, and planning his next trip to Peru.