An Interview with Keri Smith

Artist and author Keri Smith talks about why she writes creativity books, the importance of play, imperfection, and impermanence in her work, and why we need to aim for "the all-consuming place."

Keri Smith

Photo credit: Jefferson Pitcher.

What got you started making creativity books?

I’ve been trying to figure this out for myself. For some reason I cannot stop making activity books based on the subject of creativity. I seem to be obsessed with it, even though I will admit that I get tired of talking about it directly and would rather just have people do something (as opposed to talking about doing something) — a conundrum for an author, yes?

I can tell you a few things that I know about it in list form (just because I like lists):

  1. My medium is most definitely books. I have been obsessed with books my whole life and worked in bookstores for years. As a child I had a favorite activity book (called Good Times) that I think had a lot to do with forming my creative brain.
  2. I love the idea of creating books that give people more of a direct experience with life instead of walking through it passively. Get up out of your chair and take a look at things around you for crying out loud! Turn off the TV and use your brain cells before they deteriorate completely! There is no time to waste. Aren’t we all just aching for a bit of adventure? It’s all there in various forms. It’s just about a conscious decision to “tune in.” My books are just a little reminder of why and how to do this (for myself too).
  3. I am drawn to experimenting (in various forms). My favorite artists and authors are often those who are “playing,” trying things, not necessarily succeeding at them, but seeing where an idea takes you. This concept of play comes up constantly for me and is in large part the foundation for all of my work. To truly conduct an experiment, you must not know where you are headed. It can be scary at times, but that fear is what excites me about it. What happens when I try “this”? A direct confrontation with the UNKNOWN. It is such a great metaphor for life because none of us truly know where we are headed. We can try to control it but at a deep level we aren’t ever really in control.
  4. My family life growing up was not about taking risks (make sure you have all your bases covered, don’t attempt things unless you know what the outcome will be, take the safe route). I think in part my life/creative work is a form of rebellion against this and about choosing to do the opposite in a given situation to see what happens. I had to learn to trust in my ability to deal with whatever comes up in the moment. And guess what? You really can deal with “whatever comes up.” You are much stronger and more creative than you think. But you have to jump off a cliff all the time to figure that out. Every time I do, I learn how amazing a feeling it is. There is nothing that can hurt you in this. Fear of taking risks is a fear of living.
  5. For a while now I have enjoyed working with the concepts of imperfection and impermanence (the Japanese refer to it as wabi-sabi). I think this concept is quite rare in Western culture, which seems obsessed with making things as perfect as possible — technology, bodies (plastic surgery), mechanization of life, etc.

So I see the books as another way to present the idea of embracing imperfections and actually incorporating them into your process (Wreck This Journal is a good example of this). I guess what I am saying here is that books are a way to share my philosophies and get some different ideas out into the culture at large. At some level I enjoy the thought of taking ideas from some slightly edgier artists and thinkers and incorporating them into my work so that a new audience can experience them.

I think the all-consuming place is where we need to be with regard to creative work. So the question becomes, ‘How do you know what you should work on?’ to which I would answer, ‘What makes you feel giddy and excited and a little tense?’ That is what you should dive into.

Can you talk a little bit more about play and how that shows up in your creative process?

When we are in the throes of play, we are not trying to control the outcome; we exist more in the moment and are open to trying things to see how they feel without attachment to outcome (i.e., removal of ego). This is the main goal for me — to create without placing any value on the creation (as something to sell, to seek approval from others, or with some goal in mind). Easy to say but harder to do.

This is not to say that having some kind of outside goal in mind is bad, but I personally find that work created in this way is always somewhat contrived or targeted, and not where my best work comes from. As I suspect John Cage figured out, it is really difficult to release control completely (is it truly possible? I’m not sure), but I am enjoying experimenting with it.


Keri Smith is an author/illustrator turned guerilla artist, and the author/illustrator of several activity books aimed at jump-starting creativity, including Wreck This Journal(2007, Penguin Books), The Guerilla Art Kit(2007, Princeton Architectural Press), Living Out Loud (2003, Chronicle Books), and Tear Up This Book!: The Sticker, Stencil, Stationery, Games, Crafts, Doodle, And Journal Book For Girls! (2005, American Girl).

As a freelance illustrator she’s worked for a variety of clients, including Random House, the New York Times, Ford Motor Co., theBoston Globe, and Hallmark. In the last few years she’s lectured and run workshops on the topic of living creatively for the HOW Design Conference, U.C. Davis, and schools across North America.

On the Web: Keri, The Wish Jar

How do imperfection and impermanence influence your work?

Our culture teaches us that there is a standard that is most desirable and that things that are imperfect are less desirable. You can also see this applied to the emotional realm — dark, ugly, or negative emotions are deemed dysfunctional; if we are not happy, we need to take a pill to feel better. So we all grow up with some kind of ideal that really has nothing to do with our personal beliefs or reality (accepting what actually exists and saying, “I am not perfect, and that is okay”).

Over time we create a set of standards that none of us can possibly live up to, and so we have a tendency to beat ourselves up or become critical with much of what we attempt (which leads to depression). The goal for me at some point became to examine those imperfections, in the emotional realm but also in my creative life. I used to become frustrated when I would make a mistake or when a drawing didn’t turn out the way I had intended. This is a natural part of creating, but I wanted to consider what would happen if I approached it from the perspective that those imperfections are not just beautiful but actually the thing necessary to make my work unique.

This is where the need to treat everything as an experiment came in. If you watch children creating, they often treat everything as an exercise where everything that happens is just a part of the exploration process (not a means to an end). It is adults that place value on the final product; children see it more as a journey — “What if I add blue to the page?” Through my own research process I was introduced to the work of John Cage, who in his own work had tried to incorporate the concept of indeterminacy, a process by which the control of the artist is given over to some other means (decisions are determined by chance operations, such as dice, I Ching, or randomness). I became interested in this concept as a way for [me] to let go and not have to control the work.

At first I played around with not controlling the medium as much, letting ink wander and roll around the page, adding water, dropping things. Then it evolved into letting work become altered by outside influences, weather, etc. (letting the work be influenced by the place I was working in) and more recently incorporating happenstance, finding objects out in the world. All of these exercises were used in Wreck This Journal, and I continue to work with them on a daily basis.

With your illustration, do you have a routine that you try to follow?

No. I am not one for routines. It doesn’t fit with my personality. I think I got into illustration because it is a field where what you [do] changes constantly. You finish one job and go on to the next, something with completely different subject matter. In terms of drawing routine, I go through phases where I’m drawing a lot and can’t get enough of it and then through a phase where I am not drawing at all for periods of time. As I am in a book-creating phase right now, I am working mostly up in the mind, thinking and forming connections between thoughts. It is constantly changing for me. When looking at artists that I most admire, I am drawn to those who have a multidisciplinary approach (those who don’t limit themselves to one creative medium). I like the idea that I can wake up every day and decide that I might like to try something new. Maybe I want to make a film next month. I want to be always changing and growing.

For many people, starting and finishing are two of the biggest creative challenges. What helps you wrap your projects up?

I have a short attention span so I find that if I do projects that are manageable in size (read: smaller), then I have a much better chance of finishing them. I think it’s about looking at your personality and working with it instead of fighting it. I know that if I set out to work on a book, then it must be broken down into chunks or essays. To take on the whole thing is overwhelming.

And what helps you put aside the urge to put projects aside?

Sometimes I do put projects aside. If it’s not really speaking to me, then I think maybe it was not meant to be. If I’m not completely fired up about something, then maybe it’s a bit too forced. It’s when an idea grabs me and takes over my life that I know that this is something that is meant to exist. I think the all-consuming place is where we need to be with regard to creative work. So the question becomes, “How do you know what you should work on?” to which I would answer, “What makes you feel giddy and excited and a little tense?” That is what you should dive into.

What’s the biggest creative challenge/setback you’ve faced?

This is a tough one to answer. In some ways I feel very blessed with everything I do. But I would have to say that my greatest challenge has been caring what other people think. I’ve gotten much better with it in the last few years through speaking out more on political topics ([for example,] questioning the role of advertising in our culture,

Whenever you take a stance on something, you have to be prepared that there will be people on the opposing side. This was a hard pill for me to swallow at first because I wasn’t used to having people angry with me. I learned so many things in the process: that I have a right to speak my opinion, that it’s okay if people get upset with me, that the more I speak my truth, the more I am rewarded in the long run. I am a much stronger person and artist for it. It affected my work in the sense that I really don’t care as much how it is received now (there will always be people who don’t like what you are doing). And in many ways it can be good when your work stirs a strong reaction in others, good or bad. I take it that I am doing something right. I won’t say that I like it when it’s happening, but I’m able to stand back from it and not take it as personally as I did before.

Why did you name your blog “The Wish Jar”?

This was an experiment that I did in my twenties where I wrote down all of the things that I wanted for my life on little pieces of paper, folded them up, and put them in a big mason jar. I didn’t look at the jar for several years and when I did, I was amazed to see that everything I had wanted had happened. I think it was just about the ability to create the life that you want, and I didn’t actually believe it was possible at the time. As I go along in my process, I am much more excited about seeing what comes up for me and less interested in trying to form it in a specific way. Part of the reason for this is that I want to allow for things to come in that I might not know about or things that I didn’t plan on, as often those are the most interesting. [For example, maybe] I am invited to speak in a country that I have never heard of before, to a group of engineers. You can never know what will spark some new path or encourage your greatest growth. I think you just have to be open to all of it.

9 comments on “An Interview with Keri Smith

  1. the world would be a much better place with many more keri smiths. fascinating interview. her perspectives on imperfection, fear and risks are provocative and most welcome.

  2. thanks, cecil, for another great interview/introduction. it got me to click through to the wish jar, which i can see i’ll be browsing for a while (keri, i particularly liked your observations about setting aside all that “getting ahead” stuff; looking forward to reading more of your thoughts).

  3. I love the stuff about embracing imperfection and impermanence, my biggest challenge. Really nice interview. Wish I could be as free and experimental in my art. Very inspiring.

  4. Very inspiring artist and now mom too!

  5. I love to read about Keri. Her blog is very interesting.
    Elle m’inspire beaucoup.

  6. keri is always thought provoking. She articulates beautifully.
    i enjoyed reading what she has to say and will go back, read and think about this over again.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview. I have been trying to practice wabi sabi in my own life. Not always easy but it certainly leads to a more relaxed way of living. I enjoy Keri’s views on creativity and being more open and allowing things to happen.

  8. I love Keri’s for her enthusiasm and belief in what she does. Her blog is a treasure trove of inspiration and wonderful, thought-provoking quotes that made me wonder about my own creative path. And she has propelled me to make the leap into the unknown.

  9. Interview with artist, author, subject of Parabola/Sentient Publivations videos Jerry Wennstrom?

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