When numbness in her right arm forced Krista Louise Smith to leave her job as a painter’s assistant, she was devastated. The nine-hour workdays that were keeping her afloat in New York City were also destroying the reason she’d moved there: her own art.
Smith usually paints stoic, photorealistic portraits of nude women, frozen in a kind of pure, unadulterated state. The paintings carry the immediacy and honesty of looking in the mirror. After leaving her job, Smith couldn’t lift her arm, let alone paint with that kind of nuance. Instead, she had to internalize the possibility of never painting again. The thought knocked her sideways and confined her to her apartment. There, she instinctively sought comfort in alternative creations: instinctive, crude drawings with her healthy left hand and comforting, plush pillows shaped like breasts.
The anxiety of unemployment stirred an urgency within Smith. She felt that as an artist, with or without the use of her dominant hand, she needed to maintain a practice. Out of necessity, she started drawing with her weak hand. Unlike her right, capable of surgical precision and trained at the New York Academy of Art, her left hand produces hard lines laced with effort. She’s come to love it for that.
“I allowed myself to take the pressure off and just make lighter work because I needed it,” Smith tells the Creators Project. “If I went into my studio and tried to paint and failed at it, I would have crumbled.”
At first glance, the drawings feel like a far cry from Smith’s hyperrealistic paintings, but they capture a different form of realism: an artist’s day-to-day struggle with unemployment, appropriately captured by a hand that’s been forever “unemployed.”
To stay positive and productive, Smith gave herself a quota of three drawings a day, but they weren’t a cure for loneliness. For that, she needed something tangible to hold onto. “I had some fabric lying around and I was like, ‘I wanna make a pillow’ and I did. It was all very impulsive,” Smith says. She made a pillow and stuffed it with hypoallergenic material. This one she slept with. She also sewed a nipple onto the pillow. “I wanted to be a kid and be taken care of again, and I kept coming back to nuzzling boobies and how everything is fine after that,” she explains.
In the art world, one of anything is a problem. Why is it there? What does it mean? But when one becomes one of many, it has purpose. With her second pillow, Smith found purpose and something to nuzzle.
She expanded her production of Nurturing Pillows (which she also refers to as “lady bits”) to include four models, each with their own name: Confetti Betty, the Tear Drop Tittie, Sweet Dreamers—a breast-shaped eye mask, and Travel Teets—a neck pillow with nipples that she wears on flights home to Canada. “Someone would look to me and I would just kiss the nipple and give them a ‘yeah, they’re boobs’ look,” Smith says.
These days, surrounded by pillows, Smith finds her left hand drawings colliding with her painting practice in ways she never expected. “When things are going smoothly, your work gets a little boring,” she says. “And I think when you get shaken up, and you regress into survival mode, your brain is just doing things that it normally wouldn't do. From that you can pull out something surprising.”