Visual Art

Gillian Bradshaw-Smith Makes Scary Art and Cuddly Toys

It was enough to scare people away. The soft sculptures were looming, abstract but not geometric, with elements that were not plain so much as creepy. In the 1970s, Gillian Bradshaw-Smith was living in a New York City loft. Several other artists who lived in the building opened their studios for a show. Some of the crowd was too scared to enter her loft.

The freestanding, soft sculptures were enormous and it was hard to tell exactly what sort of creatures they were. Some of them looked like elephant trunks or kidneys. As playful as her works ultimately are, there is something intensely psychological about them. “Some people were actually afraid of my pieces,” says Bradshaw-Smith. “It kind of delighted me in a way.”

Bradshaw-Smith is working on an exhibit for the new Ro2 location in the fall. She has had solo exhibitions in New York City and participated in local group shows. But this will be her first solo exhibit in Dallas. Some of these new paintings will also appear at the Dallas Art Fair. Her new works are based on Daphne, a nymph from Greek mythology. “She was a wooden nymph and she was chased by Apollo, who wanted to rape her,” says Bradshaw-Smith.

After Daphne appealed to Zeus, he saved her by turning her into a tree. She plans to call the show “Finding Daphne.” She got the idea while walking around looking at trees and seeing human forms in them. Bradshaw-Smith often finds elements of Daphne in crepe myrtles. When she finds a tree that seems to resemble a nude figure, she takes pictures and uses them as a starting point. From there she makes small paintings based on the photographs before building large paintings made of cloth.

Bradshaw-Smith was born in British India and her uncle had an elephant. This is why some of her early soft sculptures resemble elephant legs and trunks. Her parents were British and her father was in the British Army. Gillian Bradshaw-Smith earned a fine arts degree at the University of Reading. In the early 1960s, she moved to Dallas to live with her aunt and uncle. Four years later, she moved to New York City.

Her art was featured in group shows at several New York galleries, namely Madison Avenue's Cordier & Ekstrom. Isamu Noguchi and Romare Bearden also had work in the gallery's shows. “He was the nicest man,” Bradshaw-Smith says of Bearden. She pulls open a drawer in a cabinet full of archives and finds a note from him. In the handwriting of a doctor, he apologizes for missing her and says he loves her work.

She eventually started putting snaps on her sculptures, which allowed her to alternate the positions of tentacles and breasts. Some of these new works appeared in a show after textile designer Jack Lenor Johnson recommended her to a gallery owner. After the show, she had an idea while lying in the bathtub. “I was having a soak,” says Bradshaw-Smith. “And you know how you get into that dream state? Suddenly this image popped into my mind of a pig with snap-on fasteners for tits. And the little pigs would snap on to the tits.”

In 1969, she made a prototype of the child’s doll she imagined. After showing her toy to a few investors, it got the attention of a consultant firm hired for a government program set up to create work for one of the poorest counties in the Appalachian Mountains. They were great toys and could be produced simply, by cutting and sewing. “I had to come up with a collection of toys in an absurdly short time,” says Bradshaw-Smith. “Like two weeks.” Then she went to the factory to train the employees.

She wrote a successful book, Adventures in Toy-Making, and the company, Designed Soft Toys and Dolls, was in business until 1996. Bradshaw-Smith also has an extensive background in set design, mainly working for New York City ballet companies. She designed two sets for The Nutcracker that are still in use today. In the 1980s, a gallery dealer recommended her for set design on a production. “I was a total amateur,” Bradshaw-Smith says. “And then I did sets for forever after.”

Bradshaw-Smith returned to Dallas after living in New York City for nearly three decades. She started painting murals in Texas and Oklahoma. “I really love painting,” says Bradshaw-Smith. She is not a welder or a carpenter and spent plenty of time sewing. “Making sculpture is more difficult.” But her new work is the largest series she has ever produced and the first to add an overarching concept to the imagery.
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Jeremy Hallock