Q&A with our next artist who we will be profiling at SMITH: Grace Cross

Tell us where you are right now?
I am currently living in snowy America, pursuing my MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Your childhood greatly influences your work, tell us more?
I spent most of my childhood in different parts of world, which I think opened me up to myriad belief systems and cultural societies. For me, the act of looking into different cultures from the outside, created a formative distance that contributes to the things I make today. I think feeling like you don't quite belong somewhere is an incredibly rich place to make work from.

This is a bit of a difficult one to answer, but who are the heavy-weight artists that have influenced your work?
The formative artists I turn to again and again are Oyvind Fahlstrom, all the Chicago Imagists painters (especially Gladys Nilsson), Anish Kapoor (his use of red!), Amy Sillman, Phillip Guston, Cy Twombly, Edvard Munch, Moshekwa Langa, and the list goes on. More recently I have been looking at Forrest Best, Hilma af Klint and some sculptures found in Neolithic archaeological sites.

What are your impressions of being an African artist in America?
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It is a strange and invigorating feeling being an outsider in America. America, built on immigrant labour, (this still being true today), has a conflicted relationship with outsiders. It has been very emotional being here over the past few months, when the country is reeling with racial tension regarding recent events. Chicago, like South Africa is a very socially segregated place, but the artists I have met, like in South Africa, make it work. There is an engineering spirit of start-ups here, people invent new ways to be makers and change their environments. So saying that, I guess I have been surprised by the similarities between American and SA artists; in their ways of making it work. The strange thing about being a foreigner in a place, and especially in America (where Africa looms big in the exotic imagination) is feeling a conflicting relationship of nostalgia, criticism and identity with my nation state.

How would you describe your work?
I use paint to stitch different symbols to one another to create my own cosmology. The slippery material of paint and animal felt create immersive environments for the viewer. I use a lot of red in my work - it is such a generative colour to me. I depict people, symbols and events all inhabiting the strange field between the canvas frame. The works I make are residues of the ritual of painting; the process in which conjured images and symbols emerge through paint. My work interacts with the viewer, creating an unsystematizable viewing experience. I like to look at things in the world and become fused with them.

Have you seen some great exhibitions while you have been there?
Yes! I feel so lucky to be able to see such incredible art year around in Chicago. The shows I have seen which have really stuck with me are James Ensor's show Temptation at the Art Institute of Chicago, a show called Unbound: Contemporary art after Frida Kahlo at the MCA was very interesting, and I am really excited about going to see the Matisse Cut-Outs at MoMa.

Was this your first white Christmas?
As a child I spent a few years living in Washington DC where I had a few white Christmases. In spite of all the shimmering snow, I am really missing the African sun at the moment!

Have you managed to make a braai yet?
Not yet, the weather has not been permitting!