At 7:36 p.m. on Monday, March 11, Julia Hembree Smith stands up on a rather doddery folding chair. The pint-sized gallery is packed. The show drew people from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and, of course, Manhattan. We’re lucky for the oddly warm March day because the doors literally opened when the gallery was set and ready and the clock struck seven. Prospective viewers are congregating in the doorway. And the miniature mob on the sidewalk is watching through the glass storefront.
The twenty-something guy next to me is wearing a navy blue jacket. There is actually a lot of navy in the room—scarves, pants, jackets, overalls. The oddly coordinating blue is the perfect complement to Julia’s warm aesthetic displayed on the walls around us. Julia, who also wears navy, stabilizes herself on the chair, but being five foot one and all, it hardly helps her visibility. An abrupt silence trickles through the crowd, seizing attention all the way out the door.
“Um, well. . . this is like everyone I know in New York, probably, in one room which is awesome.”
The crowd laughs.
“Lots of different people I’ve worked with, people from my church, people from the community, um, just everyone, which is awesome. Oh, even Nick, where is Nick? He was my backyard neighbor when I was little.”
Julia thanks individually everyone who helped her make the exhibit happen, but it’s all very succinct—heartfelt, but to the point.
“A lot of people posed in pictures which is funny. I feel like every time I approached someone they were like ‘Why me? Why do you want to take a photo of me?’ But, a lot of it is because I want people who are in my life and look normal and real. And so, thank you for multiple people here who have been in photos and, yeah. So this body of work was kind of born out of noticing trends in my old work. I felt like, before, every project I was doing didn’t make sense as a whole. It felt weird. I’d just do random projects that when I put them together didn’t feel like a complete series or something that I could show. But I noticed that I kept taking photos of people looking for something, or longing. Or, um, there’s a lot of nature involved. I saw, like, little things that would kind of come together and so this is actually one of the older ones.”
She gestures to her left, our right, toward a photo of a young man peering over a fence.
“. . . that resonates with me. Like, why do I like this? Why am I interested in this idea? It was something that other people kind of resonated with as well. . . I tried to think about ‘how do I narrow this work’ and ‘make it more cohesive.’ I was trying to think about things that I cared about, and how I could execute them. Since I made [my focus] narrow, it opened me up to a lot more ideas. One thing I have always been intrigued with is the in-betweens of our lives. I think especially being younger I don’t necessarily feel like I’m hitting, like, very concrete moments of ‘this is where I want to be’ and ‘I feel very present in this moment.’ I think I always feel like I am transitioning to something else. And I’m very aware of it. And sometimes it brings me anxiety, and sometimes I just feel like I’m stuck in it. And so, that might be something, like, well, for instance, this one addresses being a boy but not yet a man, or feeling like you are being what you’re supposed to be by society’s standards.”
She continues to direct our eyes to other photos around the room.
“Or, on your way to death, but still being alive. Being pregnant but not yet having a child in your hands. These transitional moments of ‘it’s here, but it’s not yet. It will come, but it’s not here now.’ How do we sit in that moment when it does take up the most hours of our lives? To do that I tried to create a sense of untraditional icons to help us reflect. . . I’m creating something material and tangible for something that is not tangible and hard to understand. . . What I ask is that you would explore with me, think through how can we use what we do understand, very human things, to understand things that are not graspable or not our reality, something that is harder to understand, and [ask] is that enough. . .”
Her brief pause allows us a moment to hear a car drive past and a few feet shuffle to find a more comfortable position.
“. . . I think that’s all I have to say about that.”
Smiles light up around the room.
“So, guestbook. Please sign it. There are prints for sale you can either Venmo me or, well, leave some money around. I don’t know,” Julia laughs and the crowd with her. “Feel free to eat food and drinks. . . And! Also, my friend, Nick, is going to take a photo of us. . .”
We all squish together and cheese at the photo-spitting Polaroid till the film runs out.