This term we have welcomed Lara Smithson as St John's annual Artist-in-Residence.

Lara works across a variety of media, spanning drawing, costume, video, installation and sculpture. In 2021–22 she was a Bridget Riley Fellow at the British School at Rome. The work she is undertaking during the residency is looking into ‘the juxtaposition of the body as sacrosanct, yet also as something to be torn apart, simulated, cloned for the sake of devotion and science’, and looks to contrast historical and traditional knowledge with the modern scientific understanding of the human body via the medium of art.

What are you looking forward to doing during your residency at St John's?

I am excited for the new directions the residency is taking me in and look forward to making connections to a variety of academics working on subjects both familiar to me and new.

I want to use the time here to gather as much information, visual and written, as possible and hope to make a film incorporating some of this. I am very excited to film with Missy, St John’s visiting Hawk, who her handler Dan has very kindly introduced me to. I will be looking at some of the Bodleian’s collection of illustrated manuscripts and prints relating to my interest in the history of healing, medicine and the body, plants and alchemy. I am also hoping to have a closer look at some of the reliquaries housed at the Oxford Oratory across the road. Last Sunday I visited the Botanic Garden and would like to return, possibly to gather plants for some experiments making my own colours for drawing or printing with – such as walnuts and plant debris.

Lara Smithson, Unnamed Saint, Relics, 2023 3 Lara Smithson: Unnamed Saint, Relics, 2023

Where were you before you came to John's? What were you doing?

I live and work in London. Recently I have been preparing for my first solo show in the UK ‘Unnamed Saints’ which opened at Coleman Projects on 5 May and which runs until the 4 June. It includes lots of work responding to my time at The British School at Rome where I was the Bridget Riley Fellow 2021/22. Last week I even met Bridget Riley for the unveiling of her new ceiling mural ‘Verve’ in Rome, which was a fantastic night and experience. I also work part time at Central Saint Martins as a technician in digital print and recently visited the Orto Botanica in Padua as part of a research trip into how natural dyes and medicinal plants can be incorporated into the University of the Arts London’s drive to move into more sustainable technologies.

What inspires your practice?

This changes all the time. It can be something I have read, watched or seen. It can be a place, dream, or connection. Often conversations with different specialists, for instance scientists or historians as well as other artists have had huge impacts on my work. As an artist you have to listen and look all the time, absorb as much as possible. Work begins when you start filtering, what you choose to use or leave out. Life and lived experience have also had a huge impact on how I create and my chosen directions of research. I need to feel like I have some sort of connection or understanding of the directions I take my practice, even if some are more tenuous than others. For instance, when I applied to the British School at Rome, I proposed research into anatomical votives from the Etruscan and Roman period. I had a personal reason for thinking about reconstructions of organs and body parts due to medical conditions and my time in Rome also acted as a kind of pilgrimage, or search for healing following the isolated time of the Covid pandemic.

Your favourite artist?

I have a lot of friends that I could describe as my favourite artists, but at the risk of leaving one out I won’t begin naming them.

There have been a few artists who have changed how I think, make work and consider what it is to be an artist. These are Joan Jonas, Mika Rottenburg, Veronica Ryan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Nathalie Djurberg along with her collaborater Hans Berg.

How best can we get involved with your residency?

Please email me or introduce yourself if you see me around the College and feel like you can knock on my studio door at the Barn if you pass by. I want to hear about what you do, especially if you have research that touches upon bodies, brains, medicine, history (in particular medieval), votives, relics, saints, voices, hands, touch, germs, plague and pandemic, plants, dyes, costume and performance. I am interested in finding out more regarding how artifacts, relics and human remains are dated, how touch ties us to history, be that the thumbprint on a manuscript or the worn down material of a reliquary. I will be running two workshops using plants to print with and to make ink. I hope to finish my time here either by presenting a film or performance, incorporating some of the strands of research.

Your favourite artsy fartsy fact about yourself?

I had never heard of Chat GPT, an AI software, until my first lunch at St John’s in the SCR. I decided to answer this question I would ask the software – here is what it came up with:

“Lara Smithson's artwork often involves a combination of painting, drawing, and printmaking techniques, which allows her to create intricate and detailed compositions. She has stated in interviews that she is interested in the interplay between different materials and textures, and that she enjoys experimenting with layering and transparency to create depth and complexity in her pieces. Additionally, her artwork often incorporates elements of mythology and religious symbolism, which adds an additional layer of meaning and complexity to her work.”

I would like to finish by saying if you find yourself in London please go and see my show ‘Unnamed Saints’ at Coleman Projects in Bermondsey, SE16 4DF. It includes two installations of drawings and prints as well as a video work and is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 12–6 until the end of June.

Lara Smithson's website