Princess Smith, MFA Class of ’16, Elevates the Art World with Her Powerful Paintings

Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Princess Smith inspecting a painting installation.

Princess Smith inspecting a painting installation.

Princess Smith expresses and explores different concepts of womanhood, loss of innocence, racism, slavery and sexism through her emotionally powerful paintings. Masterful with oil and watercolor, she paints female subjects who often defy conventional notions of beauty. Striving to represent African-American women in the most positive and productive way that she can, she depicts their innocence and deviance, beauty and imperfection, and struggle and strength.

A star in the Tampa Bay arts scene, Princess won the 2013 Emerging Artist of the Year award at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts. In 2016, her work caught the eye of GRAMMY Award-winning producer Swizz Beatz, who selected her to be featured in a campaign that projected her art onto the Brooklyn Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City, and culminated in a silent auction at the world-renowned Sotheby’s Auction House.

The same year she participated in that campaign, Princess was completing her MFA Project and Exhibition at the University of South Florida, where she would earn a Master of Fine Arts degree. She did not want to go to graduate school at first; she did not think it was something within reach for her. “But when I talked to the staff at USF, it just kind of seemed right. It started to seem like it was something that I wanted to do. Also, I was offered scholarships and an assistantship with a full tuition waiver. I was able to quit a job that I worked for eight years. It was a struggle to work and go to school at the same time.”

Knowing that she wanted to grow and learn more as an artist, Princess became excited about the program at the USF School of Art & Art History. She looked forward to establishing relationships with other artists, explaining that “that part of the program exceeded my expectations.” As her skills expanded and evolved, she found herself able to experiment, “The faculty members encouraged me and helped me get over my fears of stretching and moving beyond what I was comfortable doing. I learned how to spread out in that sense.”

Portrait of artist Princess Smith.

Portrait of artist Princess Smith.

Princess gained insight into art theory not only through the course material in class, but also from the knowledge that professors shared in conversations about certain theories. It excited her to learn about what shaped art movements, the different works artists had done in the past and how those works inspired contemporary art. Though the information was a lot to take in at the beginning, Princess discovered that the theories she was studying supported what she was making, and they added depth to her work. “It was really useful when I was writing the academic papers because I felt that it would help especially when it came towards the end of the program, when you are required to develop a written thesis paper and come up with our studio thesis project.” She recalls conversations specifically in the Critical Perspectives and Professional Practices courses that helped her develop her ideas and enhanced her writing on identity and feminism.

Meeting artists invited by the school to exhibit their work at the USF Contemporary Art Museum meant a lot to Princess. She vividly remembers the experience of seeing and hearing African-American artist Renee Cox talk at a symposium before the opening of the a show. “She was deconstructing ideas about race, gender… which went hand-in-hand with what I was working on. To see that work in person, to be able to talk to that person, it had a profound impact on me. The way the school and the museum made those experiences available to us and opportunities to meet these people and to have them come in to our own MFA studios—I can’t even tell you how many purposeful, meaningful conversations I had with artists who came to my studio.”

Princess also had the chance to meet Cuban-born artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who though she spoke little, said things that were meaningful and eye-opening. “From among the visiting artists, you find the ones you want to spend time with, so they come to your studio and you have great, unscripted conversations. They look at your work and they give you critiques; all of that is important when it comes to having a young artist’s mind and not really knowing where the heck you exactly want to go.”

In addition, Princess embarked on field trips with her classmates and faculty to New York and Miami, for which she received financial support from the school. Even though she had been to both places before, going with her MFA professor helped her learn how galleries worked and how to submit portfolios to them. Having the guidance of faculty made the trip more thorough.

Reflecting on the artwork she created for the MFA Exhibition, she considers the piece more of a conversation or dialogue. Through her piece she had explored topics close to her heart, questioning identity, womanhood, racism and more, and the final piece represented many different ideas. “I was adding to the conversation. I realized that it was okay to not have all the answers to the questions. As I went through that process, certain things started to make sense… like the history of African-American slavery. I knew that I wanted to include the main figure that I had been thinking about for a long time and utilized that character to do all the talking for me. I don’t know, I think to this day I’m still exploring that idea of what exactly is the place of that character and I know that’s okay. I will figure it out.”

Currently an artist and full-time teacher in Tampa, Princess has contributed artwork to the Florida Holocaust Museum, Gallerie 909 and the Hillsborough County Public Art collection. She has a commissioned piece featured in the Robert W. Saunders Library, and a permanent painting installation at the Seminole Heights Library. Committed to highlighting the works of fellow African-American women artists, she curated for the exhibit A SiSTAR Movement, which featured art by her and other African-American women. In January 2018, she held a solo show, Unfiltered, which featured as part of the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival.

Photography by Bryce Womeldurf.