Keri Smith: The Reward of Risk Taking

Written by in Profiles

Take the leap: Launch pad Lookout Mountain Flight Park.

 If John Bielenberg teaches people to “think wrong,” Keri Smith teaches them to think again. Her tools and observations are influencing generations of creative minds to step beyond their [perceived] limitations and to see things in an entirely new light.

“This book started with a list that I wrote one night when I couldn’t sleep,” begins Keri Smith in her stimulating little book, How to be an Explorer of the World (2008, Perigree Books/Penguin Group). “These ideas are an accumulation of things that I have learned from various teachers and artists over the years and have become the basis for all of my own exploration. They all spewed out a once…”


Keri Smith: Self portrait with found objects lying around the studio.

Keri Smith, “author, illustrator, guerilla artist,” came to our attention when Ryan Fitzgibbons mentioned her list “How To Feel Miserable As An Artist (Or, What Not To Do)”.  We only regret that we had not made the acquaintance sooner.  No matter, her blog, The Wish Jar, has a huge archive of past blogs. She has been posting almost daily since 1998, making her blog one of the longest continuously operating in the world. (Go ahead, find more 12 that are have been around longer). Her hit tracker counts more than 10,000 daily.

I ordered copies of two of her books, Wreck this Journal and How to be an Explorer of the World.  Penguin Group soon will release her latest, Mess: A Manual of Accidents and Mistakes. I took Explorer with me on a long weekend trip to Cloudland Canyon Park in northwest Georgia on a recent weekend. The book opened my eyes to “seeing” again. The exercises are not only good for the creative spirit; they are good for the soul.

In our long conversation in late February, Keri spoke with us from her home in Troy, NY, where she lives, writes, designs, illustrates, creates with her husband Jefferson Pitcher and two year old young son, Tilden. A native of Ontario, Canada, Keri embraces the cold, even recently taking up barefoot running.

Fitness is a family tradition: her husband once biked from California to Maine. Upon completion, he asked her to marry him. “It was a ritualistic end to his single life,” she shares, “we had known each other for less than a year at the time and he told me if he finished the ride I had to marry him. I have learned a lot form him —because he’s nuts.”

Her advice on breaking free from traditional thinking and paradigm-shifting exercises have attracted fans from all over the world — “I have some weird cult following in Holland and the only reason I can figure is those people are from a smallish, water-logged country that embraces absurdity. They are raised to get out.”

Thumbing through Explorer (“in no particular order,” as she advises) you find yourself discarding much of what you are trained to think. What Keri advises is not revolutionary, it is elementary. It is not new learning, it is “unlearning.”  Her ideas could appeal to a five year olds and 85 year olds — anyone willing to set aside suppositions.

“I don’t believe in writing or creating something to suit a particular audience,” she says, “Why make assumptions? I stopped allowing comment on my blog. They inhibit me. If you create for someone else, you second-guess yourself. The more confidence you have in your ideas, the more risks you take. The more risks you take, the more you are rewarded.”

Keri’s genius for inspiring others lies in her liberation from the prescribed. “When we are young, we are taught to make the teacher happy. To obey her. Critical thinking is not encouraged—it is viewed as disruptive, subversive. What people crave, I think, is authenticity and honesty.”

She says teachers often write her to thank her for the tools she has provided them. “Why should your life and work just be about gravity? Why should it about holding back? There is joy in going where you are uncertain. There is reward in the vast unknown.”

The Infinitude of Bed Rest
“I could not get around. I was pregnant. There were complications. I had to rest a lot in one room. I was restless. So in order to make things more interesting I started investigating things right in front of me. I looked for patterns, details, juxtaposition and similarity. Each new observation pushed me further, to observe more closely, to dive deeper. This exploration became the basis for the book, How to be an Explorer of the World.”

Regrettably, the interview concludes. Afterwards, I get an email from Keri. She has posted an image of a face made up of pieces of paper and other things she has been tinkering with while on the phone with me. The image is published WHILE we are still talking on the phone. “I did this while we were on the phone together.  Does it look like you?  Maybe I was channeling your essence.  Remember: lighthearted.” (see February 18th blog entry).

A light heart is not weighed down by gravity: it soars on the thermals of life.


A little confidence is all you need. Riiiiight.




  1. 03

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by kiwiberry: RT @NeenahPaper Keri Smith: The Rewards of Taking Risks

  2. 03

    […] her hubby, from Neenah Paper: A native of Ontario, Canada, Keri embraces the cold, even recently taking up barefoot […]

  3. 03

    […] Smith, The Reward of Risk Taking « Lola goes to […]

  4. 05
    QUEEN NELSON said:

    I don’t believe I have seen this said in such an informative way before. You actually have cleared this up for me. Thanks!