It’s street art, but not as you know it. It’s not painting or pasting onto walls, it’s filling gaps and ensconcing nature-like shapes in metropolitan cavities.
It’s called ‘Urban Geode’ and it’s an on-going project by Los Angeles-based artist Paige Smith, which aims to inspire playfulness and discovery.
“My first public installation was in the Arts District of Los Angeles. The area is what really sparked my passion for wanting to participate in street art. I noticed a few areas where some perfectly-shaped rectangles were missing from buildings and I decided to start there.”
At the beginning, Smith hand cut, folded and stuck together crystal shapes from paper, and then arranged them into geode formations, to fit into the nooks and crannies she’d spotted in her neighbourhood.
It’s all done “guerrilla style” — “every once in a while I’m invited onto the streets, but rarely” — so Smith doesn’t get the chance to stick around to see how her installations are received.
“The most I can hope for is for them to notice it — many people will miss the same detail even if they walk by it every single day. Any impact would be up to the viewer. But I hope to instill a bit of wonder, magic, and beauty into mundanity.”
Although surprisingly, Smith says the “best” reaction she’s experienced to one of her installations was “when a large phone booth I had done out of paper was systematically torn apart over a few months. Eventually, at the very end, it was lit on fire”.
Since the project began in 2011, Smith’s work has evolved from making paper crystals to casting them in resin.
“I’ve definitely honed the shapes and methods I’ve used over time. It’s ever-changing, my process is constantly morphing to work with unusual sites and different installations.”
Those installations have ranged from the perfectly-rectangular brick cavities, and phone booth mentioned above, to exposed open pipe ends, and more rough and ready gaps in grout and stone walls.
A trip to Istanbul proved to be a particular highlight: “The city is crumbling all around and it was basically a playground for me,” she says.
To date, Smith has created around 50 or 60 installations, in seven cities around the world. A map on her website charts the position of each, inviting people to participate in what she calls a “glorious, global treasure hunt”.
She’s also received requests from the public to install their own Urban Geodes, too.
“Within the first year of working on this project, a woman in Amman, Jordan, asked if she could participate somehow, and I said ‘sure!’”
Casting a bunch of crystals in resin, Smith “sent them out in a little geode package and this woman put them up all around Amman”.
Another section on her website marks the locations of these public-installed Urban Geodes, of which there have been 16 at the time of writing, from Mexico to Manila, Philadelphia to the Phillipines, as well as Australia, and, most recently, London, to coincide with this very article.
The concept for the urban geode project came to Smith in a series “incremental ideas”.
“Someone taught me a method of writing ideas down in a list as soon as they come to you. I keep notepads of ideas and look back upon them often.”
Several related ideas scribbled down, and the influence of a youth spent “constantly investigating whatever I could find — plants, animals, rocks… I remember from a very young age that I had a rock collection and held a strong fascination with how they formed. It was always a wonder to me”, coalesced into Urban Geodes.
She says the process of hand-making structures that are traditionally formed over many years in nature, and then placing them in major cities, “concurrently signals the tension between nature and industry and celebrates the beauty of urban space”.
It seems fitting, then, that an artist whose work imitates natural history should be extended a rare invitation to install that work at the Arts and History Museums of Maitland, in Florida.
“Their site is an actual historical grounds, and I was completely stunned they would invite a street artist to alter their walls. The man who built the place, Andre Smith, had a Mayan revival style, and much of the exterior is decorated, painted, and very sculptural. It’s a work of art every place you look.”
Careful to honour but not harm the original architect’s work, Smith says: “Where old art had naturally broken away, my artworks grew up. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve worked.”