We had the good fortune of connecting with Whitney Lewis-Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Whitney, putting aside the decision to work for yourself, what other decisions were critical to your success?
In my early years as an artist I spent a lot of time worrying wether the work I created would resonate with the public while simultaneously absorbing comments from mentors like a map for success. This is a necessary process for all young creatives, of course, but there was a definite turning point when I decided to let go of that stress. Having integrity of vision and embarking on projects that felt authentic and challenging allowed me to develop my own visual language. That Language has absolutely become my creative currency.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My studio practice is a bit multifaceted. Essentially I build detailed nature related sets, sometimes massive, sometimes tiny. I usually do this in my workspace and then photograph the scenes with an 8×10 view camera and glass plate negatives. Once in a while I’ll build interactive installations in galleries or other spaces that the public can wander through and immerse themselves in. Each set tells it’s own individual story about our interaction, relationship, or impact as a species on the natural world. Years before I ever seriously picked up a camera I studied sculpture and drawing at Concordia University, then became a master scuba diver trainer and travelled quite a bit doing fieldwork on marine science bases around the world. I had always searched for ways to learn about ecosystems and biology, but knew that if I went into the world of scientific research full time I’d likely end up writing papers or in a lab most of my life. That was a hard no for me. I ended up coming to photography as an aid to help classify unusual specimens I was recording during research, which then led me into documentary work. From there I decided I wanted some formal education and dove into photos full time at The School of Photographic Arts Ottawa. I’d say being landlocked and in a city contributed to the work I began to make. Though themes change and my artistic exploration evolves constantly, it’s always about Biophilia and finding visuals that engage viewers with nature in a way that’s unexpected and new to them.
Over the last decade and a half there were definitely years where I felt completely lost and unsure of the path I was on. The puzzle pieces weren’t fitting together and I was tired by every new thing I threw myself into. I could never have anticipated ending up in this unusual sort of job but, at the same time, being someone who won’t settle for anything less than constant challenges and learning, it does make sense that I carved out my own niche somewhere between science, photography, and sculpture. This work is so authentically all of the things I love at once. The meandering path allowed me to build an invaluable roster of friendships and connections with entomologists, taxidermists, experts in art history and symbolism, and a plethora of creatives and scientists just as fascinated by the natural world as I am. Looking back on the journey now feels nothing short of poetic.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Since Mexico City is my home I’m going to go ahead and share some regulars of mine from here. Having a schedule in CDMX doesn’t really work so let’s just go through it all from top to bottom. Everything is about food here so I’d start by taking you to my most treasured hidden spot, Pollos Sin Aloas in Santa Maria la Ribera. Order everything, find your own secret favourite, I won’t tell you mine. Le Tachinomi Desu is a tiny Japanese standing bar with the absolute best sake and natural wines, that would have to be next. Cicatriz is my biweekly place to eat and meet people, day or night. Expendio de Maiz is another beloved afternoon hang out. Last for food would be Contramar, the cult classic seafood spot. I’d also encourage everyone to ask around about the best street tacos, food markets, and other food stands in their neighbourhood, there’re a million memorable places and these are definitely the heart of the city.
The way I’ve always gotten to know a new city is by wandering it. This one happens to be big enough to walk endlessly. Coyoacan, Juarés, Roma and Condesa, and Santa Maria, are all pretty good places to start. Definitely do this by daylight if you don’t know your way around. Each neighbourhood is punctuated by its well known food spots, shops, and cultural monuments.
When anyone visits me I also take them along for my flower market days. Xochimilco is always where I start. This market and surrounding areas have profoundly changed my understanding of what farm to table means. Read a little about the history of this place, it’s fascinating. Mercado Jamaica is the largest indoor flower market in North America and another mind blowing spot to visit.
If you like art and creative events @onda_mx is updating the best of the city daily.
Mexico has endless cool small businesses, coffee shops(Quentin, Forte), and restaurants. I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t let you discover these on your own. The only thing I’d add is to bring an extra suitcase and shop from the local street vendors and artisans. They make some of the most incredible crafts and housewares, among other things, I’ve ever seen. These people are the veins that keep the city vibrant and I appreciate their hustle deeply.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
So true. I don’t believe anyone on this earth finds success without support. Artistic peers and friendships are the single most important piece of the puzzle for me. Deanna Pizzitelli, Meryl McMaster, and Zachary Logan are three Canadian artists I respect immensely. I’ve also been lucky enough to make a home in Mexico City where the support and collaboration of the community is something I’ll be eternally grateful for. Miguel Gomez Counahan, Jorge Rosano Gamboa, Carri Fernanda, Mateo Pizarro, and Ismael Senties are a few artists and curators from a long list that have impacted my life in a big big way. If I had to dedicate this to just one person it would be my father, Neville Smith. He’s the one person who isn’t afraid to tell me if something I’ve made is terrible.
Nicholas Castel, Ioana Todosia