Shavana Smiley: Venus of the Milky Way

By Debbi Kenote and Til Will

‘Maybe’, 12″ x 10″, Oil on Canvas

full audio interview:

Last month we interviewed Shavana Smiley and Ara Cho in their shared apartment/ studio. This is part II of that studio visit, where we now turn our focus to the other half of the dynamic duo.

From moon shoes to ex-boyfriend text messages to selfies transformed into pillows, Smiley took us on a journey through her mixed media universe. We found out that her intergalactic aesthetic is really quite down to earth—drawing from personal loss and the feelings of a breakup.  As we spoke, many questions arose. How has she managed to connect shoe design and painting? Did she really make an exhibition about her dog Snowflake? How does her ex respond to the painting of his nude selfie? Tune in for our exclusive answers!

TIL WILL: It’s the perfect temperature, it’s not too hot, not too cold.

DEBBI KENOTE: And now we are looking at Shavana’s paintings.

TW: Yes. Paintings, and also 3D printed shoes, which are literally out of this world, because they are about the moon and asteroids and some strange space ship.

DK: They seem to offer the opportunity to walk on the moon. Twice, there are two moons.


TW: So, Shavana, when did you start 3D printing?

SS: It was junior year in college I guess, about four years ago now. I feel old! Yea, so I got into it through shoemaking, because I was interested in having that as a way of elevating the human body and form, it’s where you connect to earth, right, your physical connection, so I was interested in that. The making too of every heel or platform, is really not fun because they have to be pretty equal. So I got into it in that regard and I’ve just never really looked back.  

TW: So how do painting and 3D printing as media intermingle or cross over? Are they completely different?

SS: Yea, so there was a moment in college where I made this 3D print of my dog figure, but out of acrylic paint. So I was interested in the way we make things for awhile, I just took paint and squeezed it like you would a 3D printer building up to an object, but it was a painting.

TW: Wow. Did you have to wait a really long time for each layer?

SS: Yea, a little bit, but it was acrylic.

TW: Do you do the foot, then wait like a week, then do the shin….?

SS: Yea there was a couple days in between, and I use a little bit of thread–don’t tell anyone–in between to help give it a little bit of structure inside.

TW: Such a cheater.

‘Astronaut & Asteroid’ (in progress), materials: PLA

SS: Just a little bit, guys. But no I use a lot of 3D programs like ZBrush and such, and I feel like it’s pretty similar to painting. ZBrush especially, it’s like I’m working with clay on the computer, with a tablet, so it feels pretty fluid in that way. I also use rhino and other programs that are a lot more design related. It was a steep learning curve at first and I was so uncomfortable at first, I was like what is this weird digital world that I never thought I wanted to be a part of ever? But now it feels like…you know how I think about it, is like if you know a couple languages, when you first learn the other language it’s at first really uncomfortable, but then it’s a different way to communicate to different people or different parts of yourself, like in Icelandic there’s like 20 different ways to say snow or something, but you can’t describe that in English. So I think it’s nice to be able to describe other things.

DK: Yea it seems like there’s a common thread of technology going on, even between the two bodies of work we have out. Which are, on the right we are looking at some paintings of a former relationship of yours, some screenshots, but they’re paintings made of screenshots, of texts and face-timing instances. And on the left we have the moon paintings. The painting on the left is also a moon painting, correct?

SS: Well this one is actually an in-between painting that I made before the text message paintings, because it shows my interests in the different ways of painting before hand.

DK: And there’s also the shoes which are very space oriented

TW: It feels to me like an abstract color field painting? Or is it to you more a representation of an actual exploding super nova?

SS: Honestly, I made those paintings because they feel so good to make them, so it’s almost like ecstasy in a weird way. So I made all these text message paintings, and then I made all these really abstract good feeling paintings for me to physically make.

TW: At the same time?

SS: Right after. So I made the whole text message series, which was really personal and about letting go of my ex-boyfriend of like 7 years on and off. So, I was like I just want to make something that’s not super representational and that I physically like to enjoy painting and making. Bring that back to it. Because these are actually kind of painful to make in a way.

TW: Oh, painting like that is fuckin’ hard.

DK: Also very personal.

SS: Yea, personal, but also mentally hard and physically so gruelling. So I’m glad I got that done with, I needed to make them for my own sake. So I went into these pleasurable paintings, and then I went back to this pillow, that I had made previously, which is the selfie I had sent to an ex, And I named it ‘Venus of the Milky Way’, because a lot of selfies you have to cut off your arms and your legs, kind of like the Venus of Willendorf, I was like oh it kind of resembles that in a weird way.

Smiley_Venus of The Milky Way
‘Venus of the Milky Way/January’, 19″ x 36″ (painting), oil on canvas, Digital Print on Cotton

So, then from that, I was like ah, I wanna go back to myself again, and re-find who I am in that. So I started making all these shoes for her, and making this environment for her,which is me, but it’s also not, it’s symbolic, for all women. Because I mean my issues I think I’m all by myself, but everyone goes through them, we’re all human and you always think, oh no one’s gone through this but me, but that’s just total bullshit, you know what I mean?

So yea, I was making that. And that’s how I got to where I am now, where I’m painting this moon picture, which is from a satellite image of the moon. And so the stars are all placed in the correct spot and I still have to add the color to them. But the correct spot in where they are in relation to this perspective of the moon, this vantage point. And that’s exciting to me, because it’s more like a map, like I’m painting it physically how it is. The one behind us, is based off a couple different images of space, so I’m creating this new, unknown space that is constantly changing, because our time frame is very different than space, like billions and trillions of years.

TW: Right, so there’s a delay…when a supernova explodes, it happened like a thousand years ago or something—what you’re seeing.

SS: Right. So there’s lot of…

TW: Don’t quote me on that, I’m not a scientist.

SS: Right. I think it depends on how far away it is.

DK: It’s interesting because to some extent you could look at them as totally different bodies of work, but there is something very human I think about almost obsessing over this one relationship, and the actual physical details of it,  and then like zooming out to like, oh there’s the moon, and everything is bigger…

‘Space Sketch 05’, 10″ x 14″, watercolor, colored pencil, chalk pastel

SS: I think it’s just like my universe. My universe is very small when I’m in this very unhealthy relationship and that you’re worried about constantly. And then all of a sudden it’s over and you’re like okay well now I’m gonna go back to pleasuring myself. But then you’re like, oh, but then there’s this huge world that I live on, right? And beyond that, there’s so much space—it’s not all about you anymore at that point, in a way. I much prefer that point of view. So I’m going back to venus of the milky way and what that is today. Because I feel like the world is shrinking and everything….like Cuba, is no longer…everything is becoming Americanized—not Americanized…

TW: The capitalist monster machine…taking over

SS: Yea. I have a friend in Japan, he’s like, why would you ever travel to Tokyo, it’s the same as New York Shavana, and I’m like, ok well that’s really depressing to me. He’s like, I’ll send you shoes, you don’t even have to come.


So, I know at this moment all I have are physical sculptures and paintings of shoes and space and the moon, but I also have a lot of other ideas, like if I had a space to actually show in, I’d want to make it like an immersive environment to show these in. The light and temperature and smell of the room would all be extremely important. I know there was a show at James Cohan [Gallery], where Katie [Paterson] had a candle that was a smell tour of space, which was really intriguing to me. I thought it was a little weird that she would put it in a candle form, I mean I guess a slow burn, but why limit it to such a weird…

TW: Yea, because what does a candle in space look like? The flames just like wooo…what is gravity?

DK: No oxygen! I can’t light.

TW: Oh yea, no flame period.

SS: Fire is the worst thing you could have in a spaceship! That’s like the biggest fear, right, they would never allow that to happen.

TW: Oh right, so you can’t smoke cigarettes…

DK: Alright, so let’s segway a little bit into process, while we are on this point, because I’m curious, you’re doing a lot, I’m curious how you mentally shift between sculpture, as in fashion and sculpture, and painting? And then also, your process, because they’re oil paintings right?

SS: Currently they’re all oil paintings yea.

DK: And how do you go about making them?

‘Robot’, ABS Plastic and Silver Leaf

SS: These little ones are studies. How do I go about making them? I guess the images for my shoes and images for my paintings all come from the same images of space and inspiration that way. So I’ll look at images of astronaut helmets and fashion that regard, and then I’ll design the uppers for it. And I’m also going to make this one but it’s a little too big…

(SS shows us a sketch)

TW: Whoa!

SS: So it’s based off the images of galaxies and the shapes of them. These are saturn’s rings, and there’s going to be the same type of glowing thing that that is. So, I’m looking at the same imagery I’m just reproducing it in 2D or 3D form.

TW: For our listeners, we are looking at a sketch of a shoe design that looks straight up like a galaxy, I can’t even imagine trying to wear that but it would be the most epic shoe ever.

SS: So this is where the foot goes, if you can see that.  

TW: So we’re talking a lift of about 18 inches?

SS: Yea probably about 18 inches.

TW: You’re standing on a galaxy stilt?

SS: Yea. Which hasn’t really been brought back since like, Venice. They had Chopines, those really tall [shoes], and girls fell down…

TW: You just have to be really careful, it’s an art walking in that shoe.

SS: So I have other designs of time warp, which is just going to be like clear plexi silicone that wraps around your foot so it’s like you’re walking on infinity or space. This is the asteroid shoe. This is going to be a leather upper. I was thinking of a black hole shoe, but it seemed a little literal, so I decided against it. But the imagery, like I said, comes from both, these are the images from the previous shoes that I just zoomed through. So that’s how they go.

TW: Do you have background in fashion design as well?

SS: Just shoes. I’m not as interested in garments, I feel like they’re too fashion-y.

DK: What kind of background do you have in shoes?

SS: I just took a class at…the reason I went to school in Chicago was because you didn’t have to choose a major, and you could take a class in shoe making, and they had shoe making and painting, so that’s why I went there.

TW: Very cool.

DK: Yea, it’s not a typical combo. But it’s nice.

TW: Yea it’s really, really cool.

DK: You talked about some feminist themes, do you think about that much when you are designing high heels?

SS: Yea, because they were originally made for men, right, it’s like horseback riding shoes. To like go into the…and like everything, pink and what not, it just gets passed down to women to be sexualized in a weird way. But I’m okay with accepting that. Today its switching and boys can almost wear heels too, I mean these are going to be size 5, because the previous ones I made were size 9 and those are for model feet and it’s harder to walk in those for me, and I want to be able to walk in the myself. But yea, they’re 3D models so they can be enlarged for men too. But I am interested more in the venus of the milky way and the female body too. I think that can be transitioned into the male body now.

TW: So, I’m curious to hear more about your dog, even though it’s probably a sore subject. But you said that you created an entire exhibition about your dog and your dog’s pathway to heaven?

‘Pathway to Paradise’, 60′ x 5′, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas

SS: Yea. A lot of those paintings I made were before she actually passed away, like this pathway to heaven painting, that has her in it. I actually made it before she passed away.

TW: Wait, what’s her name?

SS: Snowflake. Yea, but she also is in the one on the wall over there, and she’s always kind of here with us. It was Ara’s first dog too. But yea, I already showed you guys this print of her fur that I took and then I printed stars all over it and put backlighting in it. But, yea, a lot of my work comes from my own personal experiences, right, because that’s all we know. But I think they are a lot of universal ideas, like childhood. She was with me from fourth grade and then my mom left in sixth grade, so she was like my only stability through moving states and new friends and then all of sudden when I went to college she came with me, a year later and that was rough, but you know.

TW: In an apartment with you?

SS: Yes as soon as we got an a new apartment.  Yea, I think it’s like childhood, your innocence. She had been the longest friend I had. But I think it’s more than that too, it’s like sense of home or sense of belonging to earth in a weird way. Because I had lost…my dad moved in with his girlfriend, and I didn’t have a house anymore, all I had was the apartment in Chicago and that was a weird feeling for me. Then my grandparents sold their house too, so then I really didn’t have any sense of home to go back to, no physical belonging. So it was like wherever she was, is where it was, which I guess is this apartment now. So I think she’s still present in a lot of these ideas of space and maybe that’s why I’ve gone to it. I mean, I don’t want to bring religion into it in anyway, but just the idea of the unknown I guess. Belonging and wanting desire for something.. I feel her presence, even if it’s just within me, but then that space feeling almost leads into the work in a weird way. I mean it’s not physically visible there, but I am making them so I guess it’s there.

DK: It does seem like there might be some connecting spirituality that flows through it. Like a human spirituality or something about the human condition.

TW: Have you shown your ex your paintings?

SS: Yes I have, everyone asks me that. I have. So, I have some paintings like this and then I have some paintings….you know….none of them have his face in it. I wasn’t that mean. I wouldn’t do that to anyone, that would be too cruel. But yea, I started showed him and I was like ‘Oh, here’s one of your chest, ha,’ and then I showed him ones with his penis in it, and then I think he felt a little uncomfortable, but I think he also kind of liked it.

TW: He’s like, “Fuck yeah!”

‘March’, 48″ x 36″ oil on canvas

DK: Men are weird. I will never understand how their brains work. But yea, it is an interesting part of the work, the reversal of objectification and the empowerment of…I can probably count the male nudes I’ve seen painted by women, maybe not on both my hands, maybe toes too, but not compared to the female.

SS: Yea the only female nude is this one (pillow) of me but I’m still in my underwear being like ah hah, and kind of in the corner I guess.  The other one I’m just smiling too.

TW: I feel like now the female nude thing has become so traditional that people are just like okay with it, but it’s at…

SS: When do you see the male nude? How often do you see a penis in the MET? You know? They’re all chopped up.

DK: I don’t know I have seen a few penises  in the MET…although I guess they are often chopped off. Well I think we are about out of time, but do you have anything coming up? Are you in the middle of these paintings now or are you sort of shifting…?

SS: Yea I’m in the middle, I need to finish the moon and the sky and I’m going to create these videos that go with them as well, with the shoes and the space. I know VR is everywhere, but I know how to do it now, so I’m going to maybe jump into that, if I can find one that’s good enough. I feel like it’s so gimmicky right now, remember when the first cell phones came out and they were totally shit? I feel like that’s what we’re working with now.

TW: Yea, but it’s in the Whitney Biennial.

SS: Yea that piece is disgusting.

TW: That means it’s important.

SS: Yea, so I think it will be a really good way to experience new things in the future. And I think we (Ara Cho and Shavana) are going to try and have a show this summer. I know our work is pretty different, but I think we’re going to try and do a two person show.

ARA CHO: That’s our goal.  

‘April’, oil and acrylic on canvas

TW: Wait, while we are still recording, I’ve been wanting to ask this question the whole time. It feels to me like you guys have a really good energy, an exchange of, you know, sharing a living space, you’ve been living together for a while. How does living with a person and working in the studio—it seems like  you’re around each other a lot—

SS, AC: Quite a bit! (laughter)

TW: how does that affect your work?

DK: We have Ara Cho chiming in now too, in case you missed part 1 of this interview.

SS: I think our vibe has become pretty similar in a lot of ways. I mean the way we make things is very different visually. I mean she made this big pillow, and I made this pillow, but they’re visually different.

AC: I mean, somehow we both work on the themes of relationships in a way, but we express it in a very different way too. I guess we worked out because our living style is quite similar

SS: We have similar values, like having shows together…

AC: Yea. Like if there’s some shows we tell each other we should go.

SS: And We like to party occasionally, we have the same level of what we like to do. Painting and art making first, then going to shows, then going to parties.

AC: And also as we share the studio, I mean I’m pretty sure there must be some drawbacks too, but we kinda inspire each other and encourage each other.

SS: Yeah like if she’s like I’m going to be in the studio today, I’m like ah I’m being lazy. So yea, I really like that for having someone in the space. It would be nice to have space, but I think it’s good to have another body.

AC: Yea. And also, since we understand each other, we respect each others values, rather than pushing our ideas, opinions on each other…

DK: Like your separate trajectories with your work…

AC: Yea exactly. It works in a way.

SS: It’s quite fluid now, I think we worked that out like 5 years ago.

TW: It sounds ideal!

AC: that’s why we can’t get rid of each other.

DK: You make a really good team!

TW: Thanks so much for having us, and letting us gaze upon your wonderful existence. 

AC: And it’s quite—the most organized interview we’ve ever had too.

TW: Yes!

Shavana Smiley: Venus of the Milky Way

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