PAEP Teaching Artist Profile: Tremain Smith

Tremain Smith’s work has been featured in galleries across the country, including four pieces in the permanent collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. While Smith is nationally known as an artist, teaching has emerged as another passion. Working with us here at PAEP, she has been teaching weekly at Penn Alexander School in Philadelphia.

PAEP: So how long have you called Philly home?

Tremain Smith: I’ve lived in Philly for 30 years, and been in my West Philly Studio for 20 of those years. It’s great because I only need to walk five minutes down the street to get to the school where I teach!

PAEP:  How did you develop your talents and begin to teach and exhibit?

 . TS: When I was five years old my mother let me paint in one of her friends’ studio. I did my first oil painting then, a bumblebee flying across the sky. After that experience, I took art classes whenever I could – in school, after school, on Saturdays. When it was time to go to college, I decided to go to art school. Then, I stopped making art to focus on other things.

PAEP: Why did you stop being an artist for awhile?

TS: It was during my first year as an art student that I began to doubt whether making art was a significant enough contribution to the world. So I left art school and worked as a community organizer in West Philadelphia. Ten years later, I began to paint again.

PAEP: It’s an odd question, but can you explain the meaning and significance of your work a bit?

TS: I arrange layers of color and shapes in abstract compositions to create compelling paintings.  Underneath there is a concern to make works of art that create access to the spiritual.  I define the concept of spiritual to mean beauty, and I want to portray physical and spiritual beauty through the elements of painting. For me, painting is a way of discovering larger understandings using the elements of line and shape, and color and texture. It is a tangible means of getting to the intangible.

PAEP: Correct me if I’m wrong…your work with abstract, geometric forms is a way for you to ponder and depict abstract spiritual meaning?

TS: Yes. This direction began when I saw a geometric diagram made up of circles and connecting lines in an old alchemical text — I was immediately drawn to its visual impact and began to study the tradition behind it. This tradition depicts the tree of life as a system of spheres and connecting pathways, and assigns numbers, letters, colors, sounds, and other symbols to these paths. The shapes themselves provide unlimited possibilities in art-making and open whole new possibilities of visual and spiritual discoveries with my technique of painting to them.

PAEP: How did your journey from artist to teaching-artist start?

TS: I am a graduate of the Teaching Artist Certificate (TAC) Program at University of the Arts, directed by Pearl Schaeffer and Raye Cohen.  The program was immensely helpful in giving “backbone” to my teaching practice by providing specific skills and information I needed to be effective in the classroom.  When the principle at Penn Alexander (PAS) found out I was in the program, she referred me to the Home and School Association at PAS – because some parents, along with school administrators, had formed a unique art program supported by parents and the community.  I established a curriculum and began teaching weekly art classes at the school. In the TAC Program, I had learned about arts integration and the third grade teachers at PAS were willing to plan an art project that would incorporate their weekly math and literacy goals into the weekly art lesson. PAEP/PCA fully supported this and we were off!

PAEP: Tell me more about Penn Alexander…

TS: My three children went to Penn Alexander. I like teaching in my own neighborhood; I see my students everywhere.  I have also taught art at the local library branch, another PAEP program, in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood where my studio is.

PAEP: Can you describe the program you did at Penn Alexander?

TS:  I’ve been teaching the language of visual arts weekly at Penn Alexander for three years.  I teach 2nd, 3rd & 4th grades, so this year the same students I started with in 2nd grade I now have in 4th grade. They’ve gotten the benefit of a progressive 3-year art curriculum, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them develop as young artists.  I tell my students:  Art has its own language that you use to draw a picture or paint a painting. It has an alphabet: LINE, SHAPE, COLOR, VALUE, TEXTURE, and SPACE.When you make art, you use these concepts in many different ways to express your ideas or feelings, or tell a story.  I made up a poem to help them remember the elements:

Make a LINE curved or straight

Connect it to make a SHAPE

Give it COLOR

Light or dark, that’s VALUE

Give it TEXTURE, smooth as silk or rough like bark

Put it in a special place called SPACE

Now you know the elements of art!

PAEP: Have you done anything like this before? If so, how was this different?

TS: I’ve taught in schools, universities, community centers, homeless shelters, retirement communities, summer camps, non-profit art spaces, and in my own studio in the form of workshops, after-school programs and residencies that range from one day to a full year.  This situation is unique in that I work directly with the teachers in planning and implementing the program, and that it is my third year working with the same students.

PAEP: Your work is very math-based. Were you good at math as a kid?

TS: No, math was my weakest subject.  In fact, I had to be tutored in long division!  It has only been the past few years that I have become fascinated with geometric shapes.  I carry a ruler, compass, pencil and watercolors with me wherever I go and spend hours working out geometric patterns. I have always loosely utilized grids in my artwork; but now I carefully lay everything out with a straightedge and have become absorbed in finding shape combinations that reflect a sense of harmony.  Through teaching symmetry, I have fallen in love with its beauty.

Alongside her studio work and work with PAEP, Tremain lectures and leads community workshops through various venues, particularly in the Philadelphia area.  Check out her website for more information: tremainsmith.com

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