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Alumna profile: Celeste Smith '13

Photo by Joshua Franzos, 2018, for The Pittsburgh Foundation

You might say that Celeste Smith’s take on the arts is supported by two pillars. One is discoverable the minute you ask her about “the arts”—dollars to donuts, her answer begins by requesting that the conversation be about “arts and culture” (she counts watching her mom bake and choose home décor among her earliest experiences of “the arts”). Art blossomed in Smith’s family: Not only is she herself a writer, artist, photographer, filmmaker, fashion blogger, and stylist, her grandmother was a writer, and her sister is a novelist, as yet unpublished. “If we don’t receive support or encouragement, we’re still artists,” she says, “just not ones that have been strongly supported.” That’s the other pillar. And as program officer for Arts and Culture at the Pittsburgh Foundation, she’s well-positioned to use both pillars to elevate the experience of art for creators and audiences across the region.

Smith grew up in Chicago. She started working as a shampoo girl at the age of 12, worked in an ice cream store in high school, and ended up taking the civil service exam. “I was raised Jehovah’s Witness and we thought the world was going to end, so I figured I would just learn to type,” she says. Smith spent several years rising through the ranks in several government agencies. Then her partner, artist and activist Jasiri X, proposed and they moved to Pittsburgh, where X grew up.

In Pittsburgh, Smith continued working in government while X worked in Pittsburgh Public Schools and got more into both activism and performing hip hop. “One day Justin Laing, who was a program officer at the Heinz Endowments, called Jasiri and said ‘You know you can get funding for the type of music you do, right?’,” she says. “So Jasiri came home one day with a grant application and said ‘Hey, you think you can write one of these?’ I was like ‘I don’t know; I’ll try!’ And we started getting them.”

In 2008, Smith decided to leave her day job to focus on managing her partner’s ascendant career and on being CEO of 1Hood Media, which grew out of an organization that X had co-founded in 2006. That was the year that a group of men, including X, came together to address violence within and against their community. The scope expanded quickly. “It’s an intergenerational arts/activism/social justice/entrepreneurial hub with all these different facets and I’m so proud of it and all the people we work with,” says Smith.

After a few years of managing X and leading 1Hood Media, “I was like ‘Yo!” Smith laughs. “I took German for eight years in grammar school; how does he get to go to Germany! I grew up reading about all these Biblical lands, and he finds himself in Israel and Palestine! Then I heard this voice—you could say it was God or whatever, but I say it was my baby I was pregnant with—whispering to me, ‘You can live your life and support others, too.’”

Photo by Joshua Franzos, 2018, for The Pittsburgh Foundation

Smith realized that she was one class short of completing her Associate of Arts degree at Community College of Allegheny County. She did that, then turned to Chatham’s Gateway program for adult students for her bachelor’s. “Chatham had the dopest teachers ever,” she says. “(Adjunct Professor) Deborah Prise was super helpful and looked at me with eyes that I did not look at myself with. She had me write prior learning assessments for life experience that I myself did not celebrate. (Adjunct Professor) Deborah Hosking used to let me bring my baby to her media literacy class, and that was how I got through Chatham.”

Smith had been pursuing a degree in Film and Digital Technology, but, she says, “one day I went to a job fair at CMU and saw an arts management booth, and I was like ‘There’s a title for this thing I’ve been doing all along?’ So I shifted my major, because I had been doing the videos to help my husband with his videos, but if God forbid something should happen to my marriage, I’m not making videos.” With prior learning assessments and testing out of courses, Smith was able to earn her B.A. in about a year and a half, with, she says, “three kids, a business, a husband who travels, and a 3.6 GPA.”

Smith graduated in 2013 and started “running 1Hood not in the shadows, but really up front.” She handled marketing, fundraising, staff management, budget management, public relations, and program development while continuing to involve herself in Pittsburgh’s artistic and philanthropic communities. “Just by being in spaces and taking opportunities, I ended up on the radar,” she says, noting a consulting job at the August Wilson Center she did in 2017. “Then the Heinz Endowments invited Jasiri to speak at an event around moral leadership, but he was going to be out of town. So they asked if I would speak, and I did. I got so much love from that speaking engagement. I’m still getting emails about it.” Maxwell King, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation was in the audience that day. When he interviewed Smith for her current position, he told her how impressed he was.

So what is it like to be a program officer for Arts and Culture? “People think that program officers can just write checks but it doesn’t work like that,” Smith explains. “My job is to make sure artists have what they need to apply for grants, then review their proposals, and advocate for them. When I was a grantee, I had support from program officers, and a big part of my job is to pay that forward. And mentoring young women–that’s part of not only my work with the Pittsburgh Foundation but also my life’s mission, to share what I know.”

As for her goals for her new role, “I want to see more equity in Pittsburgh’s arts and culture landscape,” Smith says. “So many reports show that funds are distributed in an unequitable way, and I see part of my role as bringing attention to that. We support smaller arts organizations, but also ask people in large arts organizations to look at their programs and see if they align with racial equity and equality of voice, and holding them accountable if they are not. I can’t make anyone do anything, but I can ask what they’re doing to help advance our initiatives.”

“We need to listen to the field, because the field talks all the time. Whether it’s a Facebook post or a sigh. The field is always telling us what we need to do.”

While Smith has devoted her professional life to helping others get the recognition they deserve, the pendulum is swinging the other way. She was a Walker’s Legacy Power 50 honoree in 2016, an Artist in Residency at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2016, a Coro Individual Leadership Nominee in 2017 and 2018, a Coro Organization Leadership Nominee in 2018, and a SXSW Community Service Awards honoree in 2018.

Smith maintains ties with Chatham, both as an alumna and as a program officer. She spoke at Hosking’s Media Arts class (“Deborah said to me, remember that presentation you gave? Can you update it and come back?”), has a meeting scheduled with the MFA in Creative Writing’s Word Without Walls program, and plans to meet with some others, too. “If I’m going to be there, I try to reach out to the professors who have helped me, because there might be other ‘me’s’ there. There might be a sister who needs encouragement.”

We asked Smith to tell us about five underrated Pittsburgh arts and culture organizations. Here’s what she said: 

Kente Arts Alliance 
“They are a husband and wife team on the North Side, doing jazz, on the ground work, mentoring, that we need to pay attention to.”

Staycee Pearl Dance Project
“They really do great work, traveling all over the place. So innovative, so on point, so in touch with the younger generation.”

The Flower House
“They are doing so much in terms of opening space for artists. What with the entire city being gentrified, affordable places for artists to present are so scarce. Very socially conscious, very open.”

Yoga Roots on Location
“I think the work that Felicia is doing is incredible in terms of putting people in touch with their own bodies and their own minds…I think a lot of the stress management that she offers is absolutely essential in our field.”

The Legacy Arts Project
“If you’re an artist but you don’t have a 501c3, you can’t accept grant money directly, you need a conduit. That’s what Legacy Arts did for 1Hood before we got our own non-profit. They host Dance Africa each year, which is so dope and incorporates an intergenerational approach to the arts.”

Students Curate Art Show in Downtown Pittsburgh

Frenetic drums mingle with downtown traffic. A dancer, raffia costume bouncing in rhythm, reels in the endless circle of a looping video. On her head is a helmet-like mask just like the ones displayed in the center of the room. But unlike many art gallery objects, these masks transcend the dusty stillness of museums. They are not inert— they are poised, as if waiting for their turn to dance.

For the first time, these and other objects from Chatham’s collection of Sub-Saharan African art are taking a trip off campus to appear in “The Dynamics of Gender: African Art from Chatham University,” held in Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center. This student-curated show presents African art objects donated to the university from alumna Cheryl Olkes ‘70, as well as pieces on loan from alumna Vivian Lowery Derryck, ’67, and a gift from Richard and Marilyn Finberg.

“Both Vivian and Cheryl recognize the value to a small school like Chatham—one with lively arts and museum studies programs—of students having direct access to art objects from different cultures,” says Associate Professor Dr. Elisabeth Roark. “At most institutions, undergraduate students rarely get to handle, research, and display actual works of art.”

Elizabeth Grace Carr ‘18, one of the student curators, agrees. “One of the reasons that I came to Chatham is because of the Olkes Collection and wonderful museum studies program. The ability for students to put on gloves and interact with museum-quality objects is not something that every museum studies program offers.”

Indeed, the students who curated this exhibition as part of their senior Capstone Project had a hand in almost every facet of the show. Seniors Raven Elder, Elizabeth Grace Carr, Abigail Bennett, and Jennifer Panza spent a semester focusing on individual research papers. Then came meetings, presentations, discussions. The students took great pains to consider their roles as curators and the assumptions and privileges they might bring to the show.

“We have to ask ourselves how to properly engage with cultural heritage that is entwined with colonial history, and how we can best avoid replicating past problems of prioritizing colonial narratives of Africa,” writes Raven Elder ‘18 in her capstone presentation. “The history of how African objects ended up in American and European art museums is undeniably complicated and problematic, and cannot be divorced from the history of colonialism and the division of Africa among European powers.”

From left to right: Student curator Raven Elder, Dr. Elisabeth Roark, student curator Liz Carr, and student curator Jennifer Panza (not pictured: student curator Abigail Bennett)

The spacious gallery was something of a double-edged sword. Dr. Roark and the students worried the art would get lost in the space, about four times the size of Chatham’s Woodland Hall Gallery and with much higher ceilings. Another issue was the safety of the objects themselves. Being made of vulnerable materials like raffia, fabric, and wood, the objects needed to be protected by specially-designed Plexiglas vitrines, or museum cases.

Jennifer Panza ’18 was able to use her expertise gained in her family’s framing and gallery business to create these vitrines from scratch.

“Though my father, his assistant, and I built, packed, and delivered the cases, all of us students designed the custom cases together,” says Panza, noting that the experience was tough but rewarding. “I built relationships, friendships, and memories. I learned so much. I will most definitely use this experience in future projects.”

It’s a strange thing to spend so much time on something you hope people ultimately won’t notice. Once inside the center, the vitrines melt away. Though the gallery is spacious and airy, the feeling of intimacy is overwhelming as one contemplates, for example, an Akua Ba, an Asante fertility figure primarily used by women hoping to conceive a baby.

The emotions expressed here—from desiring a child to honoring ancestors and beyond—are universal, timeless. The art is not, however, ancient. “Most pieces are from the 20th century, as is typical for African art since so much of it is made of ephemeral materials,” says Dr. Roark. “The art is traditional, in that it was created by traditional cultures, although these cultures continue to evolve and modernize.”

Nevertheless, these objects seem eternal in a way that Western 20th century artifacts might not, perhaps because of their particular lineage.

From culture to alumni collector, from collector to student curators, and from curators to the community—these objects have travelled an extraordinary path to sit where they are now, viewed by denizens of Pittsburgh, many of whom have ancestries as touched by colonialism as the art pieces and cultures themselves.

One of the most common misconceptions about African art—and Africa in general—is that the culture and people the art represents is monolithic. One only has to look around the gallery space to know that this is untrue. Each group has its own aesthetic sensibility and cultural ideals it seeks to express, and objects range from ceremonial to practical: Fertility icons share space with hair combs, wooden dolls, and giant spoons used as hostess gifts.

One four-legged stool is striking in its simplicity, low to the ground and unadorned. Stools like these were used by women to provide a sturdy seat during domestic chores. The intention behind that extra leg, the deferential thoughtfulness given to women whose lives were often defined almost in total by their role as caretakers, is powerful.

Meanwhile in the Lobi culture, the men have stools with only three legs, two in the back and one in the front, a not-so-subtle reference to the “third leg” of male genitalia. For some contemporary viewers, the patriarchal overtones to these and other objects could be overwhelming. Take the Spirit Maiden mask of the Ibo people, which denotes the downcast eyes of the ideal woman. But it’s important not to drape contemporary expectations onto these objects, says Elder. “A lot of our early conversations were surrounding issues of interpretation and contextualization. How could we most appropriately analyze these objects through the lens of gender without forcing the works into a preconceived narrative or framework?”

And indeed, while the very title of the show includes the phrase “dynamics of gender,” objects are presented free from curatorial judgement—in fact, many of the students and Dr. Roark cite the Spirit Maiden mask as their favorite, full of artistry and grace, remarkably light for its size.

It faces off—conceptually and physically—with a large Gelede mask. Though this mask was worn exclusively by men, they did so in a dance that honored high-ranking females in Gelede society—ancestral, supernatural, and living. The mask’s expression is serene, her forehead high and noble. Her eyes are wide open.