CARTER SMITH. Photograph by Elizabeth Sweeny. Photographs by Carter Smith except where noted.
Carter Smith

The Creative Miracle

ISSUE 32.4

The heart beats more quickly when we take in the kaleidoscopic colors bursting from the lustrous surfaces of Carter Smith’s shibori garments. His works do not evoke calm and tranquillity, but, au contraire, invoke emotional passions and raw desire, stimulating mental and physical energies. Transcendent and pure, color is an eye to the cosmic and we appreciate its complexity, and do so each waking moment when we observe the natural and material world surrounding us. Color’s beguiling state is due to its intrinsic miraculous quality based on how light waves refract off our eyes. Smith must have his eyes always fastened on the creative miracle of color, as he intuitively juggles its impact based on the infinite variety of combinations of hue, saturation and luminance, given his lifelong practice of shibori.

RAINBOW SHAWL of silk chiffon; pole wrap shibori. Model: Megan Minger.

His phantasmic clothing is not another fashion affirmation of art, culture and society but rather stands aside of that constantly ever-changing, selfish world as he reasserts the strength, power and drama of the individual woman in timeless draperies. One could easily wear a Carter Smith whether in pharaonic Egypt, the Japanese Meiji era or the French Empire periods. They just fit the time and space of the universal. Smith reminds us to what degree in our clothing we mysteriously experience our bright, vivid world through the wonders of light and brilliance of color and how perpetual and enduring it really is, not a here today gone tomorrow fashionably superficial exercise.

Well known as a shibori artist in the United States, Smith has developed over his career an international following also in Asia and Europe where he shows in galleries and conducts workshops. Shibori, the traditional Japanese method of dyeing cloth, is a totally hands-on interactive experience of wrapping, binding, pleating, stitching, twisting, and compressing fabric, and Smith is its masterful practitioner.

K DRESS of silk double georgette; shibori, 2008. Model: Ute Gfrerer.

Shibori’s unique quality is due to the degree by which there is no formal control—until a piece is untied there is no way of knowing what is the result, so therein lies the creative miracle. Dye is applied to the fabric but when the fabric is pulled from the dye pot it is a solid color until it is unwound. No matter how much a work is repeated it is never exactly reproduced, with its own unique nuance and expression.

The mindful practice of shibori has inspired Smith’s creativity, evolved his philosophy, stimulated his dedication to dyeing, refined his aesthetics, and kept him going throughout his decades of persistence in this craft. What these accomplishments reveal of the human spirit, the hand, the eye, the brain connections that lead to such beautiful textiles is authentic testimony to what is possible when we work to create.

Innovative, experimental and openly improvisational in his approach to making, Smith demonstrates his metier with the assuredness of a confident professional. The line is a fine one between his technically proficient textile methods and his ready abandonment to the expression of feeling. It is ‘the chicken or the egg first’ kind of dynamic: do his textiles transmute into feelings or do his feelings metamorphose into textiles? That ponderable has helped motivate Smith’s extraordinary work, since the tie-dyeing of the 1960s was first introduced to him by his mother. Colors and patterns take form in wonderfully unexpected randomized ways over the sweeping expanses of silk. Each piece by Smith is a unique individual; together they form a distinctive, expressive and visually dynamic group, just like the creator’s personality.

KIMONO SCARF COAT of silk double georgette; shibori, 2007. Model: Ute Gfrerer.

We inhabit a universe that has been touched everywhere by nature’s sublime beauty. In the union of creation, of the coming together to make something, there is an intrinsic, indescribable purity to this vital force that overwhelms and transcends itself through its pleasurable consummation. And it drives artists to repeat this process over and over again. Each artist’s work is an expression of bliss and is an attempt to distill the plentiful beauty of the world into a particular essence.

Personal adornment is an art that celebrates the human form and spirit, with elegance and grace, and with motifs that range from the realistic to the abstract, the literal to symbolic. It is a transformative artform that manifests both the body and the soul of the beings who wear these objects of adornment. It is also the most sensual of arts, excited by and responding to the human form, decorated still with paganistic relish in this twenty-first century.

Through personal adornment, Carter Smith’s mission is showing that as artists their purpose is to explore and be excited by that exploration. “When we do that, the energy of creating an idea, concept or a new piece takes over, and that energy becomes imbued in that piece; it becomes part of it,” he says. With his personal journey, Smith has found that by intimately observing the world, he has discovered his vocation for revealing the beautiful and the infinite and for providing inspiration of what is possible from the material realm, that which is most natural and suitable to his innate creative drives. And it has helped him to better understand his own world and to share it with others, to celebrate and appreciate our humanity, ennobling the human spirit and sensibility by his graceful tributes to the native elegance and dignity of the physical body.

KIMONO SCARF COAT of silk double georgette; shibori, 2008. Model: Elizabeth Sweeny.

When, not long ago in his sixtieth year, a fire completely burned his gracious turn-of-the-twentieth-century Victorian home in Nahant, Massachusetts, Smith focused his considerable energies on designing and building another beautiful but contemporary-styled home in its stead. The result is warm, light-filled, comfortable, and also deliberately designed to host students in its capacious interior as he conducts shibori workshops in the nearby studio. Up to six students at any given period from spring through the autumn seasons receive the benefit of Smith’s technical expertise, aesthetic and personal viewpoint on living well in an age of anxiety and uncertainty. Students also benefit from Smith’s culinary skills as he throws himself into cooking delights over the long weekend sessions with as much intensity as conducting the workshops themselves. After a long day of absorbing Smith’s illuminating lessons, students unwind at the long broad kitchen table as dinner is prepared and then enjoyed, with discussions wide-ranging from art and spirituality to politics. Instruction includes the techniques of discharge dyeing, layer dyeing, color setting, and pole wrap dyeing using an arashi shibori machine. Smith designates the workshops as creative retreats and with its rustic Nahant location the time passes both collaboratively and cordially among the intimate number of attendees as each pursues her or his specific technical and aesthetic goals.

K DRESS of cut satin silk/rayon; shibori, 2005. Model: Ute Gfrerer.

While the astonishing circumstance of the total destruction of his long-time home, with every vestige of his life vaporized, was not desirable, the disaster made possible Smith’s realization of a dream. Thus a phoenix rose from his habitat’s ashes. Since he began his creative journey over the last four decades, from that one special time when his mother taught him the simple art of tie-dyeing, the accumulation of Smith’s professional expertise has been considerable. He is truly a master shibori artist who personifies in a particularly American way the boundless search for a sustainable artistic life—the passionate dedication to craft and work; how one perpetually evolves; the role of self-discovery throughout this process. Yes, there is the consistency of a life’s personality but also it evolves, matures, developing out of personal experiences, loves and travails. Here the unique and universal commingle, interconnected and interdependent with the human intellect and soul. So it has been a fervid part of Smith’s life desire to share his insights and personal take on the nature of being an artist and speak of the way an artistic life can be both imagined and lived. And one important avenue he can utilize to spread his keen vision is through his challenging workshops—personal, open, frank, supportive, and caring exchanges—communicating not solely through the glowing colors and patterning of his sumptuous garments of silken shibori.

Artists like Carter Smith continue to plunge deeply into the recurring themes of their repertoire, built over years, decades or a lifetime of work, delving into aspects of a bold statement or a subtle distinction with a steady, sure concentration that will be ultimately transformational. Artistic evolutions, like spiritual ones, breathe positive energy into the human worldview. Through their creations, and for us it is personal adornment, artists range without restriction within personally imaginative territories, exploring novel forms, looking for unusual modes of expression and for new ideas in the development and enrichment of their artforms. It is important to note that they persist not only through confident and benign periods but during fearful and tumultuous times, contemplating and embracing shapes and forms, creating objects of integrity and beauty, balancing substance and intangibility. Artists, as with scientists, dwell in this our native home—the land of possibility. This domain, taking us from the sure terrain of the known into the infinite potentiality of human endeavor and spirit, does not belong to artists and scientists alone. We live there too and it is a place from which we all can profit.





Benesh, Carolyn L. E. “Carter Smith: Stirring the Soul.” Ornament Volume 21, No. 1 (1997) 42-47. ––––. “Shibori Unbound.” Ornament Volume 24, No. 2 (2000): 12-13. ––––. “Teri Jo Summer: Embracing the Creative Spirit.” Ornament Volume 27, No. 3 (2004): 42-47. Brito, Karren K. Shibori: Creating Color & Texture On Silk. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications: 2003. Duncan Aimone, Katherine. The Fiberarts Book of Wearable Art. New York: Lark Books: 2002. Frankl, Elizabeth. “Carter Smith: Shibori Treasures.” Ornament Volume 30, No. 3 (2007): 20-21. Leventon, Melissa. Fashion And Anti-fashion. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.: 2005. Patterson, Sunita. “Dyemaster, Designer, Philosopher, Teacher.” FiberArts Volume 34, No. 4 (2008): 44-47. Wada, Yoshiko Iwamoto. Memory on Cloth. Shibori Now. Toyko: Kodansha International Ltd.: 2002.



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Nubian Jewelry

Kate Mensah

Philadelphia Craft Show


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