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Following Curiosity: Faculty Spotlight on Kendall Reiss


Professor of the Practice Kendall Reiss has spent twelve years at SMFA teaching sculpture and metals. All along, she has nurtured her own creative practice and business, practicing what she will soon be sharing in a new course with students: Art Entrepreneurship. The course will be launching in Spring 2024 in partnership with the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts.

In her teaching, Reiss encourages students to explore ideas such as the three-dimensional and the multiple through casting and mold-making. In beginning courses, students use alginate, a cost-effective and body-safe material derived from algae used in dental mold-making applications, to pour and cast wax, plaster, chocolate, or even ice before moving on to more technical processes such as bronze casting. In the Metals studio, fourteen student-dedicated benches allow for soldering, enamel, centrifugal casting, vacuum casting, and the use of traditional forging tools, some hundreds of years old and dating from before the school’s inception.

“Casting was developed as a production process for the mass market. Some artists use it as a tool to make one thing. It’s the antithesis of the way it's supposed to work. It’s a small subversion- using an industrial and large-scale process for poetry.”

Like some SMFA students, Kendall’s academic background is not just in studio art. Her undergraduate degree was in geology. “I do too many things. I’m driven by curiosity and investment in a topic.”

These curiosities, such as geology, weave through Kendall’s practice. She noticed that the town she lives in, Bristol, Rhode Island, has a landscape dotted by stone walls. A curiosity about who built the stone walls led to an investigation of the history of enslaved individuals in Bristol. Kendall is working with emerging scholar, Courtney Garrity, and a group of research volunteers to construct a database to locate Bristol’s enslaved population, 1,000 people who lived in Bristol between 1680 and 1808. The East Bay BIPOC Research Project remains an ongoing work in progress. Currently, a timeline of the group's research is available on Vimeo.

She was again inspired by her environment when she noticed a 250-year-old tulip tree that lives alongside her in Bristol. Several projects have been inspired by the tree, which she sees as “an ancestor in the landscape.” During the COVID-19 lockdown, she reckoned with the fact that her practice would need to adapt and become, in a sense, “hyper-local.” She applied to and received a grant from Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. She created a booklet about the tree as she explored questions surrounding what the tree has witnessed and whose lives have been supported by the tree. Currently, she is working on casting the fruit of a persimmon tree. The social media branch of the project, Being [with] Trees, can be viewed here.

Reiss is in the process of applying for the SMFA Travel & Research Grant – supported by Carol Daynard and Lily Yun to support the BEING [with] TREES: Mobile Field Station & Studio. She is hoping to embark on a research trip to visit old-growth trees in the Great Smoky Mountains, camping and communing with communities of 300-year-old oak, sycamore, and tulip trees. She is hoping her research could augment the new SMFA Seed Library, a project set to launch in the spring, that Reiss has been consulting on alongside SMFA Library Assistant Manager, Lauren Kimball-Brown.

When she’s not teaching at SMFA or getting inspired by her outdoor environment, Kendall spends much of her time in a converted storefront studio space. Reiss has a special connection to the area, as generations of her father’s family worked in the now-converted factory across the street. She has been thinking about what it means to have her practice in a public space. Curious passersby often approach the space, asking if it is more a shop or a studio. That very question is one that Kendall herself is interested in. Her space has served as both, as well as an exhibition space. These are the types of overlap that lie at the center of her creative entrepreneurship.

“I don’t fit easily into these categories as an artist,” she noted. “I allow the intent of the work to direct the flow of material investigations and ways of working - feeling my way into new realms of media is part of the process and is dependent upon what is needed, what is called for. It’s a give-and-take. Likewise, my business doesn’t fit into clear categories, it is able to be molded to fit the needs of the evolving art community in Bristol and my own as an artist and educator.”

Currently, Reiss is working on a collaborative exhibition, Across State Lines between students from Rhode Island College, and students from SMFA that will take place this spring. Tzu Ju Chen and Dr. Emily Stoehrer, both Museum of Fine Arts, Boston curators, are jurying the exhibition and will select several works to be awarded prizes. SMFA Metals is partnering with Lindsay Minihan at Gesswein, a jewelry tool manufacturer, who will donate tools as part of the gift for student awards.

According to Kendall, “So much of the work of being an artist is finding your community.” She feels it is important to give a foundation to emerging people in the creative field. This belief underscores how she approaches teaching at SMFA.

“Teaching is really a learning opportunity for all. I learn a lot from colleagues and how they solve problems- both material problems as well as [problems of] who we are, what we’re doing here, and how we can be kind to each other.”

This summer, she is looking forward to participating in a glass casting class at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. Between learning, teaching, making, and organizing exhibitions, Reiss stays very busy. But this winter she noticed a change of pace. “Winter gives permission to slow down, to listen, and to hear the sky in a different way. There are fewer people outdoors. I’ve been getting outside, going back through old notebooks, preparing for my upcoming class, and thinking, “What are the possibilities?” Winter gives thinking space in a different way.”

Header image courtesy of Kendall Reiss

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