Trench Art, Craft, & Service

May 25th, 2011 in Archive by 0 Comments

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Blanket making, porcelain cup decorating, wrap doll assembling, and video tutorials were just some of the activities happening in room 207 of San Francisco’s War Memorial Veterans Building during Memorial Day Weekend last year. The building was the original site of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and in celebration of the museum’s 75th anniversary Allison Smith led the Arts & Skills Service project. The event reenacted a collaboration between SFMOMA and the American Red Cross during World War II that provided hands-on projects for returning and convalescing GIs. In researching for the project, Allison looked back at the museum’s early calendars and discovered that all kinds of craft activities were occurring along with support for the GIs. “The museum lost almost half of the staff to the war during World War II and so it was really fascinating to look at these calendars and kind of imagine a time when the modern art museum was so involved in the war effort,” says Allison.

Performing History Through Making

Her work draws from an interest in historical reenactment and ways of bringing people together to engage with issues hand-on. “I’m really interested in the idea of taking history into your own hands and in my projects I’m constantly trying to encourage people to insert their own narratives, to shift those histories, to really claim those and critique those, and own those narratives for themselves.”

“When I went to art school I majored in sculpture, but I also was strongly influenced by readings that I was doing in psychology. When I was doing lots of research into Civil War reenacting I was really thinking about how these objects that are used in reenactments are kind of keys to the past, like keys to time travel, and so I was thinking about these objects as props that could take you back to visit a trauma that was unresolved. I’ve always been fascinated with living history museums and the way that people are performing history through making.”

Trench Art

“One of the biggest inspirations for me as an artist is trench art and that is art made by soldiers in the context of war either on the battlefields, in training centers, in convalescent zones like hospitals, and sometimes in prisoner of war camps,” says Allison. “One of the most powerful forms and one of the most common was to make flower vases. They would take these expended artillery shells and they would fill them with molten lead that they melted over a camp fire from bits of shrapnel they collected. Then they would hammer into them with really prude tools from a bent nail to a piece of shrapnel. But usually they are incised and hammered with all sorts of patterns and one of the interesting things is the imagery that they used was often from ladies’ magazines.”

“These objects of trench art were used as a form of currency. They were traded on a sort of black market on the trenches for things like food, writing materials, or cigarettes. They were sent home as love letters. A lot of the times if a soldier passed away his friends would send one home to that soldier’s family.”

Martha Stewart meets CIA

For Allison, the combination of making things and a history of her family’s involvement in the military industrial complex was a large influence on her as she was growing up. From an early age she was introduced to the art of crafting by her mother who taught her how to do patchwork quilting, decorative painting, candy making, and cake decorating. “She’s sort of the early Martha Stewart acolyte,” describes Allison. On the other hand, her father made spy gear. Growing up with a CIA dad, she recalls a tool chest that he promised to give her in his will that “has all sorts of amazing tools for opening people’s letters without opening it and prisms that kind of off sets laser beams and really sort of 007 kinds of things. So I grew up in a really creative household but one that was very much about patriotism and always with this kind of underlying sense of ominous things happening in far off lands that I had thought were terrifying and couldn’t really fully understand. I definitely see myself as a product of that environment and sort of thinking about the idea of what it means to perform nationalism in the everyday and kind of questioning that.”

To learn more about Allison Smith’s latest work visit her website www.allisonsmithstudio.com.


[clockwise from top: Allison holding a shell art vase. Sewing station. Ehren Tool and his cup workshop.]

Music from the Story

Heart Harmonicon by Colleen
1/1 by Brian Eno
Sea of Tranquility by Colleen
Piano Recording & Guitar played by Chris Skebo and Justin Nash at the event

Special Thanks to Allison Smith, Frank Smigiel, Ehren Tool, Patrick Gillespie & SFMOMA.
Portrait of Allison Smith photographed by Vincent Dillio. Additional photographs by The Kitchen Sisters.


This story was produced by our intern Patty Fung in collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. Patty has been a contributing blogger for the Hidden World of Girls series and has produced multimedia work for the Kitchen Sisters on various projects.

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