Carla Smith SUGO
Smell bubbling, rising to the surface, red drops bursting. One of those aromas, tangy and complex, that instantly sweeps you somewhere else with a pang of love, a twinge of homesickness. Usually, to childhood. To comfort. To a time when you were cared for, by the simple measure of a ladleful of deep sweet red sugo.
Artist Carla Smith’s multidisciplinary project SUGO explores the highly personal, intimate ways that relationships and acts of love and care are articulated and transmitted through food. The project considers how the significance of preparing and sharing meals changes as relations shift and grow over time, with a focus on memory and the preservation of something ineffable as the care embedded in a meal prepared by someone you love.
As the recipient of the Peacock Prize at the Gray’s School of Art’s Degree Show 2022, Carla was awarded a year-long Graduate Artist Residency at peacock & the worm. During this time, she was able to hone her printmaking skills and explore new techniques, with the support of peacock printmaking technicians. Carla has developed SUGO while on residency, with the support of Look Again, (Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University). SUGO comprises of a pasta-making workshop and an exhibition of edible prints, artist books, ceramics, and a moving image work, both hosted at the Look Again Project Space on 32 St Andrew Street, Aberdeen.
The research and study behind Carla Smith’s works are rooted in moments of being together, such as a shared meal, which generate material and ideas in a spontaneous, collaborative way. In this way, her practice is not limited to the artist’s individuality, even when it deals with personal, intimate matters, but stays open to a plurality of resonances. Carla has developed this way of working organically, through projects including her Degree Show work as well as more recent works realised as part of her Residency, such as Comfort Foods, a cookbook where she collected recipes anonymously that were avenues for sharing memories of comforting, nourishing food secrets.
The first element of SUGO consisted of a public pasta-making workshop, during which participants were invited to explore mark-making and creativity while making fresh pasta, which they then cooked and ate together. Inviting in playfulness and open conversations, the workshop invited considering what it may mean to look after someone by preparing a meal. Approached as a skill-sharing opportunity, the participants explored transmitting knowledge and techniques by working together, mimicking the way that recipes are often fed down by watching the hands of others work.
A Risograph and screenprint book realised by the artist with recipes for fresh pasta was shared with the participants. Considered as a working document, the participants were invited to add notes, comments, suggestions and their own stories. The workshop book was a precursor to the one you’re holding in your hands, which is expanded with recipes for sugo and secondi, as well as a record of the workshop, photographed by Phoebe McBride.
The recipes for fresh pasta that the artist shared in the workshop came to her from her mother, who in turn had learnt them from her grandmother: a handing-down of knowledge, skill and memory. With the final exhibition, sharing meals comes into focus as a concern for the difficult preservation of memory, the transmission of techniques and tools for care against the dispersal of time.
At the core of the project is the artist’s relationship with her maternal grandparents, amongst other family members, explored in an artist film that the exhibition revolves around. Attentive to small details and moments of connection, the film is aware of the fragile territory surrounding work made around family members, yet handles its material delicately, with awareness and gratitude. The film features a score realised by Saoirse Horne.
The works collected in the exhibition space form a delicate archive of the way these memories, and the people in them, have shaped the artist’s life. Through the various elements within the exhibition, the artist aims to recreate the practices of care inscribed in family recipes and their transmission. Family recipes, passed over, from hand to hand, take on new life each time they are made; they can be seen as tools for a kind of knowledge that is changed and adapted, varying according to what is at hand, the ingredients available, the situation, who’s around.
By introducing interactive elements in the exhibition, and by including a workshop element in the project, SUGO moves away from a solely documentary, memoirist impulse, instead opening up to a work that is communal, situated and relational. Beyond familial relationships, the work also elaborates a form of care that aligns closely with that of friendship. A unique kind of relationship, based on presence, attentiveness, selflessness, and enjoyment as an end in itself, friendship is reciprocal but the exchange is always balanced and equal: the continuous gift of presentness, of being there, of spending time together in a considered, yet light and playful way. In the fact that Carla’s work reproduces acts of nurturing as transmitted by family but through an act of caring for friends, or people who come to take on that role, the work distances itself from gendered aspects of caring as nurturing and opens it up to an alternative way of being together. The workshop participants, as well as the audience, are an integral part of the project, which then comes to be about more than the artist and her personal story: just like a recipe, it moulds and adapts and speaks to whoever is in the room, whatever their story is. And their version of sugo.
Just like the sauce it refers to, SUGO brings concerns around family, memory, care and conviviality together, pushing them close to one another, simmering and reducing them down to a new essence. ‘Sugo’ is Italian for a kind of tomato sauce, boiled down for a long time, then filtered and bottled, to keep for months—a storing of time. But sugo is also a meal from another country: it holds a form of longing within it, the struggle of a word that doesn’t quite fit, that takes you to a somewhere else. This becomes Carla’s own way of preserving, not as a form of conservation, but closer to the way a recipe works: it passes knowledge on, by allowing something new to be made each time.
Sugo is one of those preparations that exists in variants, rather than in a single, stable form. There is no origin; rather, a proliferation. I let the oil infuse in garlic and dried chilli, then take the garlic away, before adding the tomatoes. Carla adds onions, chops them generously large, and carrots, following her family’s recipe which always eluded her as a child, full of coveted ingredients she wasn’t always privy to. She rakes through the jars of herbs and spices, seeking to follow the recipe as closely as she can, walking through its steps into memories of days spent cooking with her loved ones side by side. As the sugo bubbles away, memories are made anew, to nourish and nurture, tending to relationships old and new, time, and time again.
SUGO is jointly supported by peacock & the worm and Look Again, and delivered as part of LACER project by Gray's School of Art, RGU on behalf of Culture Aberdeen.
Featured image by Phoebe McBride.
About Carla Smith
Carla Smith is an artist based in Aberdeen, originally from Edinburgh. She graduated in Contemporary Arts Practice at Gray’s School of Art in 2022, when she was awarded the Peacock Prize, which consisted of a year-long residency at the printmaking studio. During this time, Carla has explored and perfected a variety of printmaking techniques, under the guidance of our printmakers. She has worked on several prints, including The Apple Tree, an etching with screenprint and writing on calico, which was exhibited at the Moray Art Centre (Feb 2023). Other prints from this body of work, as well as other works realised during the residency, have been exhibited at Compass Gallery, Glasgow. She also realised a cookbook, Comfort Foods, a three-colour Risograph book with cyanotype cover containing recipes collected in secrecy, ‘stories of guilty pleasures and meals that remind you of simpler times,’ as the artist writes. Sugo is her first solo project and exhibition.