Sable Elyse Smith is a multidisciplinary artist based in Harlem, New York, and Richmond, Virginia. She teaches at the University of Richmond and Columbia University, and is currently an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Four of her works were acquired by the Guggenheim Museum in March 2019, and she is represented by JTT New York. Her chiweenie, Lenox, is a muse in progress.
Let’s talk about your childhood. Did you grow up with any pets?
When I was two years old, my mother got me a Miniature Schnauzer named Gigi. I had that dog until I was 13 or 14. I grew up with this dog, and we eventually had to put her to sleep because she was super ill. I also had different Pit Bulls from time to time. So, I grew up with dogs.
So, is Lenox your first dog as an adult?
Yes! For the past two years, I’ve been saying that I want to get a dog. But previously, my life was not stable enough—I was moving around too much. Last fall, I accepted a full-time teaching job at the University of Richmond. So, I kept saying, “Okay, once I move to Richmond, and I have a permanent place and am more settled, then I’ll get a dog.” I thought, I can’t get a dog in New York right now because it’s ridiculous.
But I had this running joke with this friend of mine: that we would go play with puppies together. One time she came to visit me in New York, and on the last day before she was leaving, she was like, “Oh, let’s go play with some puppies today.” We ended up downtown and I spotted Lenox, the tiniest one. We get in the playpen and we start playing, and then I was like, “Oh, I think I have to take this dog home with me. Should I take this dog home with me?” I was not prepared at all. Then, I was like, “Oh shit. I have to buy a bunch of shit for the dog, too. I need all these things.”
How did you know Lenox was The One?
I liked Lenox because she was kind of small, all black, and very sweet to me. She kept trying to climb inside my pant leg at the bottom, so I was like, “Oh, maybe this is the one. This one clearly wants to hang out with me.” She picked herself!
Where did her name come from?
I live in Harlem so Lenox Avenue is right near us, so that definitely had an influence. But then also I wanted to come up with something that was also gender-neutral, and there is something visually beautiful about a name with an X on the end.
What’s your usual routine with Lenox?
The first thing I do—I won’t say in the mornings because I very rarely wake up in the actual morning—but let’s say in the afternoon, is go to my neighborhood coffee shop, which is also called Lenox Coffee because it is right on Lenox and 129th. In the spring and summer, I’ll walk Lenox there and sit outside with my almond milk cappuccino. In the fall and winter, I’ll come back home to take Lenox for a walk. Then, I go to my studio and work for a bit. Sometimes I bring her to the studio, but right now there is too much shit is spread out all over the floor that’s dangerous to her. But I’ll take her to open studios or events that we have at the studio. Then, it just depends on what else I have going on. The dog goes shopping with me sometimes. She takes a lot of cab rides. A friend of mine even took her to an artist talk.
Have you made more friends in the art world with Lenox at your side?
I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily made friends, but I become immediately more popular anywhere I am with the dog. I do take the dog to the Studio Museum of Harlem to the administrative offices to visit people sometimes. Everybody just falls on the floor and starts rolling around with the dog—even the most unassuming people! If I have the dog with me, I’m going to be talking to strangers so I have to be prepared for that.
Other than Lenox, what else do you call her? Got any silly nicknames?
For my past birthday, my roommate got me this tote bag, and printed a picture of Lenox on the front of it. And it says “Woof Woof Motherfucker” because I cuss a lot, unfortunately. I think motherfucker is a term of endearment, so sometimes I would call Lenox that. And she responds. But I mean, I talk to the dog all the time. Not in a silly voice. Just about my day or I’ll be explaining to Lenox not to chew on something and the consequences of it, even though clearly I know the dog doesn’t understand what I’m saying. But it’s just nice to kind of talk through my day as I’m getting dressed and getting up and trying to prepare for things. She’s definitely making ear expressions. It seems like she understands, but she’s probably just waiting for a treat.
What do you feed Lenox? She’s so tiny!
Health Extension, which is not a very catchy name. It has no chemicals and the most basic ingredients, but they have one that’s for tiny breeds, and so the little pebbles are as small as beads.
“I think motherfucker is a term of endearment, so sometimes I would call Lenox that.”
How does Lenox like to play?
With any ball. Lenox loves fetch, which I also got excited about on day one with her because I was like, “That’s all I want to do with the dog: Throw the ball, you bring it back.” She’ll put it back in my hand. Or sometimes she’ll knock on my bedroom door, and I’ll open the door and she’ll throw the ball at me. She likes this rubber ball, which has all these cutouts that she can put her little paw through.
How do you identify with Lenox?
Lenox is my sidekick. I think our personalities are a little bit similar. Crazy. Hyperactive. Too much energy. Jumping around all the time.
Tell us about your coloring book series, which was just acquired by the Guggenheim. Congratulations, by the way!
It’s an ongoing series. Basically, I found this coloring book on the street in Harlem on 125th Street. Something compelled me to pick it up, and I started looking at it once I got back to my desk. It was partially colored in already. It was propaganda. There’s this judge in the book, a white woman named “Judge Friendly” and a pigeon named “Pat the Pigeon” who teaches children how to navigate the court system and do things like go through metal detectors and sit in courthouse waiting rooms.
In the fall of 2017, I had a solo show at the Queens Museum. In the context of the show, that’s where I made the first coloring book painting. After that show, I was bouncing around to a bunch of residencies, and some teaching gigs. I was without a studio or with these very temporary studio spaces. I wasn’t really making a bunch of physical work—just was focusing on some video stuff then. I knew that I wanted to come back to this series because something in the decisions I made about those paintings worked for me. The images and the text exist as this real object that circulates outside in the world, and not just in the art context. That’s the thing that I truly try to point to.
How do you make each painting?
So, the aesthetic intervention is to approximate or replicate the affect of what a child-like mark might look like or represent through mark making the multiplicity of people who might interact with the coloring book. The first move is very frenetic, so there’s something performative about just trying to cover some of the surface area with color, and then I slow down, step back, and start to think about composition a little bit more, and start to think about color. Some of them are completed faster than others. Sometimes it takes time to kind of sit with the image and then figure out the next move.
I use oil sticks—they look like big, fancy crayons. Or I use a mix between oil sticks, sometimes oil pastel, and graphite or occasionally some other types of pigments, but the majority of the material is oil stick.
What does being a multidisciplinary artist entail?
I primarily work with sculpture, video, and texts. Obviously there are these larger topics that some of the projects that I’ve been making in the past focus on. But even within those subjects or topics, my attention is really acute on thinking about language and language as a system. Maybe some of the ways that we make assumptions or take for granted the kind of structures or mechanisms of oppression that might be built into the way that we use language or assign language to certain people, systems, or things, et cetera.
Has Lenox influenced your work as an artist yet?
Not yet. It’s too early for that. Lenox needs time to develop as a muse.
Photography by Tayler Smith