Earlier this month, the 90th anniversary celebration of Disney rock star Mickey Mouse was held at the Lupetti Pizzeria in Los Angeles, California, and it also celebrated the artists involved in Mickey: The True Original Exhibition for his 90th celebration. During the event, Shinique Smith, the Black female artist at the center of the exhibit, was on hand to discuss her contribution to the exhibition. Smith discussed the significance, her involvement in this grand project, as well as the representation of working Black artists. “Art is universal and, I’m even surprised at that question just because I live in a world where there are so many…I mostly only know artists and there are so many [Black] visual artists doing so many different things,” she told ESSENCE. And of course, Smith is one of those artists and has the history to back it up. Born in Baltimore Maryland in the ’70s, Smith, also—by her own admission—a lifelong fan of Mickey Mouse (and a healthy obsession with movies like Moana, which she especially loved since it honored her Maori heritage), is a celebrated visual artist and sculptor behind Bale Variant No. 0026 (Ode Mickey Mouse, My First Love), the focal piece of the Los Angeles pop-up exhibition. Prior to this collaboration, Smith has enjoyed a particularly prolific career. Back in Baltimore, she attended the notable Baltimore School For The Arts (known for other alumni like Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur) and would eventually attend Maryland Institute College of Art where she received a BFA. Her degree initially took her down the film track, where she was a prop and costume assistant on films like Serial Mom and Guarding Tess and eventually launched Seattle’s first African-American Film and Video Festival known as Flav’a Fest, for which she served on the 911 Media Art Center’s Advisory Board from 1995 to 2000. Her groundbreaking festival would go on to boost the career of some now prominent filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou).

Smith would not become the visual artist she is today until she circled back to Maryland Institute of College of Art and Tufts University (in 2003 and 2000 respectively) to obtain her MFA and MA in Education. She then relocated to New York where she found a home in Brooklyn and began to focus on what unique ideas she could bring to the art of sculpting. And as it pertains to sculpting, Smith is known for combining media rooted in fine art and visual art with ordinary objects, articles of clothing, particularly used clothing and stuffed animals. This allows her to create 2D and 3D kaleidoscopic works that she has described elsewhere as a “journey of associations between object and color, between lyrics and fabric, between the viewer and me.” This style has garnered her plenty of awards, including the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award in 2013, as well as the inclusion of her work in an array of prestigious art collections. With her diverse background, one might wonder how it is that Smith would eventually become one of the titular artists in the Mickey: The True Original Exhibition. “I think I’ve been a lifelong fan of Mickey Mouse, so when I was asked to participate I didn’t really hesitate,” she said. “As an artist out in the world sometimes you think, oh, how would that look? How does that work with my aesthetic? And the trajectory of my work? And it totally fits. I didn’t even question any of that. I just wanted to work with Mickey and I wanted to work with Disney. I listen to Disney soundtracks when I’m working in the studio, so it was kind of a no-brainer.” Her comments on the collaboration being right up her alley are especially true, considering that her piece, Bale Variant No. 0026 (Ode Mickey Mouse, My First Love), she informed me, for Disney was comprised of over 95% Mickey Mouse plush dolls (“all brand new and from different eras”), with the rest being Mickey Mouse plush comforters and bedding. And when speaking to people while conjuring up plans for the sculpture, Smith found that nearly everyone she spoke with either had some kind of Mickey plush toy or had received some semblance of a hand-me-down from a friend, relative, or sibling and associated fairly warm, positive, and most important, comforting feelings and memories from everyone’s favorite mouse. Which is exactly the kind of feelings, coupled with culture, connectivity, and openness, that she sought to evoke with her piece. And when it comes to comfort especially, Smith wanted to make sure her sculpture was above all “huggable” and inviting to all who seek to see it. “It’s huggable and you’re drawn to and in by it. His [Mickey Mouse’s] very nature is open,” she stated.

She also humorously recalled that one of Disney’s division heads confessed to being so drawn to the sculpture that they actually went up to it and hugged it. Of course, the venerable Smith ain’t no snitch, so she didn’t divulge who exactly it was, but judging by the fact that her creation was able to elicit a candid moment such as that from a respected executive, I would say that she certainly accomplished the job that she set out to do. The exhibition remained at the Lupetti Pizzeria up until October 23 and is now currently in the process of moving to New York City and will become part of a larger exhibition (which you can read more about in its press release here) at 60 10th Avenue, New York from November 8th, 2018 to February 10th, 2019. And if you’re not going to be in New York during that time, Disney still has you covered, as they plan to unveil all sorts of brand new fashion items, electronics, accessories and such during the star-jam-packed Mickey’s 90th Spectacular television special airing November 4 on ABC.


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