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Smere Tactics gets immersed in fear

Madison artist Sara Meredith’s exhibit “Into The Deep” is up at Communication, and online, through November 11.

Madison artist Sara Meredith’s exhibit “Into The Deep” is up at Communication, and online, through November 11.

Photos by Heidi E. Johnson except where otherwise noted.

The woodcuts and paintings that Madison artist Sara Meredith makes under the name Smere Tactics bristle with texture, often using imagery from the animal and microbial worlds to prod at the suppressed thoughts of the human viewer. Much of her work has spread about local shops and surfaces in the form of stickers, patches, and magnets. The stickers especially maintain the rugged quality of Meredith’s intricately hand-cut woodblocks—I’ve got one of her nautilus stickers on a laptop, and it’s got a tactile depth that you don’t usually see in stickers, a portrayal that captures both a scientifically informed perspective and a sinister primordialism.

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Meredith incorporates her woodcut work into expansive, atmospheric paintings with the exhibition Into The Deep: Exploring Fear. The show is currently up through November 11 at Communication and available on the Smere Tactics website, with a special online presentation that includes close-up details of the paintings and a video. You can visit in-person between noon and 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, or by appointment. Communication is also holding a special event over Halloween weekend that will use special lighting to showcase the glow-in-the-dark paint Meredith has cleverly mixed into the work, and will feature accompanying video projections by Heidi E. Johnson on the back of the building. (Full disclosure: Communication is Tone Madison‘s partner organization.)

The show also incorporates an accompanying zine made in collaboration with Amanda Mesi McGuire, and Meredith is using a Google Form to gather viewers’ responses to its themes. The body of work on display here isn’t actually finished yet: Meredith plans to make four more paintings for Into The Deep, and will be showing the complete set at the Overture Center Galleries at some point in the next few years (the actual date is up in the air due to the pandemic).


“Conception.”

“Conception.”

One of Meredith’s starting points for Into The Deep was her own fear of drowning, which stems from a childhood accident. All the paintings in the show take place in water, depicting a figure who sinks from the radiant sapphire just under the surface and on down to the speckled black of the abyss. But there’s little in the way of overt threat or terror here. In paintings with titles like “Surrender” and “Detachment,” the figure is going through various phases of accepting fear and trying to understand it, and maybe at times getting some distance from it. 

Even the giant squid in “Conception” isn’t necessarily there to devour. One of its tentacles drapes halfway around the figure’s wrist, hardly the attitude of a vicious beast about to draw a helpless person into its maw. Who knows, of course, but the squid could be offering a guiding hand, or just prodding at this strange creature as it inspects with its giant eye. The two panels of “Giant Siphonophore Praya Dubia” depict sinuous colonies of tiny bioluminescent creatures—living examples of strength and light in the vast, forbidding depths.

Meredith spoke with me recently about the scientific and emotional grounding of the show, why her explorations of fear aren’t necessarily scary, and how she hopes to encourage more people to value art as part of their daily lives.

Tone Madison: The show has a very contemplative feel, despite being about fear. 

Sara Meredith: Most of my work has darker undertones but it’s not in-your-face, so I think that’s just naturally where I live. I framed [this show] around fear because I feel that’s what’s needed, and so part of the context of the work is about drowning, which is definitely a fear of the unknown, which is a great big fear out there right now on many fronts. I thought that it would be best to talk about that context, but there’s many more contexts about how and why I made the work. I’m very much into helping guide people to find themselves, and that’s probably why there’s less in-your-face terror. It’s a scary process for people to try new things and to really dig in sometimes, and to confront things in their own psyche or their own lives, so that’s already a terrifying process. I didn’t want things to be not safe enough to encounter.

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Even the piece where the figure is encountering a giant squid, which would be downright terrifying, I created in a way where you could look at it a few different ways. That figure is encountering that giant squid, and maybe there’s some fear there. While the encounter itself might be terrifying, it’s also kind of a climax where you’re getting over a hump and it’s a good thing to be there in the moment and encounter it and stick with it. What’s up right now is only half of this series that’s taken me two years to make… Into The Deep is going deeper into yourself and how you create your own life in the darkness of the unknown. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like, or what’s going to happen with climate change or the presidency. There’s so many different layers to peel away. I’m creating the work as a primer for my own understanding, but also for other people to be OK in the moment right now, which is a lot.

Tone Madison: I was specifically going to ask about “Conception.” The giant squid is one of the great canonical monsters in the world—it’s real, but legendary, and it is itself very unknown because people have only been able to study it to a limited degree. But the title suggests that it is playing a nurturing role, or helping something come into being. 

Sara Meredith: I’m very careful about title choice and the words I use, even though I don’t consider myself a writer by any means because I’m not very concise. Etymology of words is very important, and conception is a creation, the initializations of an idea, it’s the beginnings of something new. I feel like confrontation is the start of something new, or the resolution of something. Because the series isn’t done yet, that’s pivotal—you have this moment and you can turn around and go back to the surface, or you can continue to use what you know and go deeper and find all the pieces you need before you have a real resolution. Does the fear end up controlling your actions, or do you end up detaching from it in a way, and understanding it’s there and letting it help you when you notice it, to make your decisions going forward?

Tone Madison: A moment ago you used the word “guide,” and you’ve set up this show very much as a coping process that you’re kind of walking people through. What do you hope different viewers get out of that as they’re also trying to deal with their fears and related problems in their own different ways?

Sara Meredith: I’m totally into visual aids, obviously. I think there’s something to be said for connecting through images versus words. Even the first image, “Surrender,” people end up connecting with the most, at least from feedback that I’ve heard. I hope that people end up connecting with the panels as they get deeper, because I think it signals that they’re aware of all that deeper stuff that happens. I don’t know if that’s true—I’m not a psychologist—but it’s interesting to see which pieces people are connecting with more. But overall, everybody understands “Surrender”—it’s almost giving up, but it’s not. You let things happen and there’s no resistance to the things that are happening, and it’s almost easier to resolve. I think just coming away with the understanding that if you can’t control everything, just to be in it and experience it, instead of pushing it away, that would be my hope that people understand that.

I guess if I had a wishlist of what this could accomplish, it would be pretty large. I got a [Madison Arts Commission] grant [along with funding from Dane Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board] and then I was like, “Oh, I have to do this by a certain time,” and then COVID happened and then [I thought], “Well, what is going to be most useful for people right now is to try to manage the amount of fear that we have, and there’s a multitude.” If people can recognize that much of what is driven today is coming from fear and our reactions to political movements or to each other, can sometimes arise out of fears that we haven’t dealt with. If that’s more of a conscious thing that people can do, then I think a lot of the contention and polarization would kind of dissipate. That’s obviously a large order to fill. I think not immediately having it be a political thing is also helping bridge the gap between sides or between polarizing issues.

Tone Madison: How has the process of working on this show impacted your own relationship with fear?

Sara Meredith: I think that’s why it’s taken me so long… just the process of making the pieces means I’m at the level that I’m talking about, of the ocean and of my own psyche, so I find that it’s very close to me when I’m working on it. They take longer because the emotional connection and just where I’m at in my own level of fear is more conscious. It helps me really know when I’m having a fear response to something, other than just my fear of drowning—why am I reacting in a certain way? Why am I angry about this? Are there things that I can more easily step away inside of my own head and be like, “Oh, you’re upset because this is actually just fear talking and not your deeper self. That reaction isn’t warranted.” I’m less reactionary, basically. Or I know if I’m going to go into a social media environment, my fears are going to be triggered more, and so I’m not going to say as much because that’s not going to put me in a spot that’s going to be able to help more people. Don’t go where you’re going to be triggered.

Tone Madison: And as you’re going through that as a person and an artist, you had this other traumatic event recently—a car crash, where luckily no one was injured.

Sara Meredith: Yeah, for sure. To be honest, that was probably helpful in immediately recognizing where I’m at. The initial hit, my glasses flew off of my face, I couldn’t see. I have horrible sight… And then, have this guy who just hit me, and I was able to talk to him without screaming at him, and being calm when I talked to other people, and then feeling that buildup of emotion in my body, and knowing that there was a point where I was going to have to go let it all out, or it was going to affect me. I think all of those things, in dealing with that, was helpful to know already. 

Going through the process very, very slowly, through the artwork, did actually help me not be super stressed-out about this. There’s so many thing you have to do after a car crash. You have to contact insurance people and go to the doctor, and all of these things were just more easy because I was just like, “Things are gonna be OK. I’m not gonna worry about this. I’m alive. Any ailments that result from this aren’t going to stop anything, so I’m just not worried about it.” Which I think is a weird reaction for most people. I don’t seem to be as traumatized as I could or should be. It’s a broader perspective.


“Surrender.”

“Surrender.”

Tone Madison: Right, it’s possible to react to something going wrong without freaking out, but it takes time to get there.

Sara Meredith: Absolutely.

Tone Madison: What draws you to animals and microorganisms as subjects in your art?

Sara Meredith: Just in general, a connection with nature is a deeper connection to yourself and to everyone else, so if you can recognize beings that humans typically take for granted—like, I’m not human-centric, I’m eco-centric, I’m part of an environment, part of all these other creatures’ lives, they are a part of mine. And so we’re not really separated. I mean, yes, I live in a house. But the more I realize that, the more interaction and deeper interactions and realizations I have with just birds outside. There’s this call for me to specifically deal with creatures in the water, even though I’m terrified [of water]—I would not be able to go deep-sea diving. I’m not to that point yet. 

But I think that fear is also now a fascination with those creatures of the deep that we know very little about. My fear of the unknown is also a fascination with these things we know very little about because we don’t even have the capacity to get into the ocean like we do to travel to space. We’ve mapped, what, two percent of the ocean floor, and there are all these bioluminescent life-forms that exist that we know nothing about. 

Bioluminescence is actually the number-one form of communication on Earth, which is just mind-boggling. Us talking right now is not even a blip compared to all of the creatures that make light to communicate with one another, or to dodge predations. There’s thousands of ways that animals use and emit bioluminescence. That science bit, I think, pulled me in more to explore all these other pieces. It was actually a children’s book that started the whole idea, and it was about bioluminescence. There was a line in there specifically about dinoflagellates, the phytoplankton that emit bioluminescence. Individually, they don’t really have an impact, but together they make the tides glow. And that was a really beautiful metaphor for now that I could not overlook. That was just an instant connection in my brain: “Oh, these microorganisms are us, if we could just work together.” But we often don’t.


Detail of  “Giant Siphonophore Praya Dubia.”

Detail of “Giant Siphonophore Praya Dubia.”

Tone Madison: In portraying all these different creatures—which are in some ways very primitive and in some ways very primitive and in some ways very sophisticated, or just different from us—you’re maybe inviting people to confront the more primitive aspects of their own humanity. The reptile brain, for lack of a better term. 

Sara Meredith: These animals feel very foreign, and part of wanting to depict them is also educational because, unless you’re seeking it out right now, you don’t really see that. Unless you’re following all of these organizations that actually do sea dives, which I do, you don’t see that information. It’s the only unexplored region of the earth, really… I think it’s important to introduce people to these creatures and make them care. Initially it started out with the creatures, and I was like, “Well, people don’t care about things that they don’t know about, unless there’s a human point of interaction.” So then it became, I have to add the figure into these pieces to make it about how humans interact with these creatures and with ourselves. We don’t see ourselves in creatures that look so foreign. I guess my want is for people to feel the connection to things that aren’t physically very like us, and to find that place where you feel like everything matters. 

Tone Madison: Last year, you posted something about coming to terms with putting out much of your art in the form of stickers and patches and other small, portable items. Can you talk about why that was a struggle for you as an artist?

Sara Meredith: I see not everybody being on the same page about why artists make art, and not everybody is taught about how valuable art is. Getting art into people’s homes, even in the forms of a sticker or a magnet or something that feels very light, is still very important [to change the attitude] that art is not affordable. If people start buying these things from actual artists and they’re very affordable, then they can better make the next step up. Even if they’re not purchasing my art, then they’re one step closer to purchasing something from somebody else. It’s just an entry level into the art world. If you’re comfortable buying a sticker, then eventually you’re going to be comfortable owning a print from somebody and then maybe you might eventually own an original piece from somebody. 

I think as artists, our job is also to educate people who did not grow up with that understanding about how easy it is to actually have art in your life. That’s why I create stickers. I’m actually going to not be hand-making them [anymore] because part of that process is so laborious, and I don’t actually make enough for it to continue existing, so I have to do what everybody else does and farm it out and get it printed on vinyl, which I hate, because everybody wants to put them on water bottles and have them be water-safe. I just have to come to terms with that, and that’s a separate issue, but you see a big movement of artists actually making stickers right now, and people buy the shit out of stickers. I think it’s actually the beginning of a shift, culturally, into accepting art into our homes. Especially now, if you’ve been starting at your walls, and there’s nothing on your walls, and you’ve been at home for, what, eight months now, you begin to realize how important it actually is, if you’re not going out and interacting with these things in your life, to have these things in your home to give you hope, or whatever it is that you need. That’s why you buy art.


“Nautilus” sticker. Photo by Scott Gordon.

“Nautilus” sticker. Photo by Scott Gordon.

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