About Notion Nanny

Notion Nanny Doll

Notion Nanny is a collaborative touring project in which Allison Smith takes on the role of an itinerant apprentice traveling through rural and urban districts in search of traditional skills and revolutionary dialogue. Through a series of residencies and exchanges, Smith builds a temporary guild, a platform for discussion, and a sculptural installation, which together form the basis for a cumulative traveling exhibition making stops in Cumbria, London, Shropshire, North Adams, Mass, and Berkeley, CA.

The genesis of this project was Smith’s research into the historical phenomenon of peddler dolls, or “notion nannies,’ popularly displayed in British and American households during the Victorian era. Traditionally dressed in a red cloak and holding a basket overflowing with miniature wares, the peddler doll commemorated the disappearing social custom of itinerant traders traveling the countryside, their baskets containing a tiny world of 18th Century material culture including examples of numerous craft traditions such as ceramics, tin ware, printmaking, and needlework.

As a part of the exhibition, Smith has re-created the peddler doll, life-size and in her own image. The doll’s basket is a repository, filled with wares made by Smith in collaboration with local artisans, tradesmen, and craftspeople she meets along the way. Distributing handbills “door-to-door” and making contacts through word-of-mouth, Smith, as Notion Nanny, seeks to engage self-described traditional makers in a dialogue about their relationship to political and social histories of making. Thus, the doll and her basket stand side-by-side with Smith’s own activity, offering up larger metaphors and questioning assumed “notions’ about art and craft in contemporary life. As the re-imagined personification of a village character type, Notion Nanny tells the anthropological folktale of the contemporary artist, “post-studio,” peddling ideas and objects as well as crossing borders and advancing dialogue in a global art market.

At Berkeley, Allison Smith will use the MATRIX gallery as her base of operations throughout May, seeking collaborators to create handmade crafts of all sorts that will accumulate over time in the gallery. From radical quilting bees and collaborative artists' zines to traditional papermaking and ceramics, the project will survey a broad field of current material culture in the Bay Area. As a social project of working, exchanging, and sharing, Notion Nanny will provide opportunities for the public to interact with Smith and her co-conspirators in their process of making. The exhibition will also include newly created textile works that illustrate the project's context and background, and a repository of objects created during Notion Nanny's travels in the U.K. and the U.S., offering a counterpoint through which to explore the role of place in the differentiation of culture and craft.

Notion Nanny was conceived originally with London-based curatorial team B+B, Sarah Carrington and Sophie Hope, and appears in California as part of the MATRIX series of contemporary art exhibitions at Berkeley Art Museum.

About Allison Smith

Smith was born in Manassas, Virginia in 1972. She received her BFA and her BA in Psychology from New School for Social Research/Parsons School of Design in 1995, and her MFA from Yale School of Art in 1999. She participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2000, and received the Jerwood Foundation Fellowship in 2005 and an ArtPace residency in 2006. In 2005 she mounted The Muster, a large-scale public art and performance project, as a commission of The Public Art Fund, New York (http://www.themuster.com/). Smith has exhibited her work widely, including venues such as P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, NY New York; Hunter College, New York; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Socrates Sculpture Park/ High Desert Test Sites, Long Island City, NY/Joshua Tree, CA; Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams; and The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.



MARCH 1 - MARCH 5, 2007

Smith travels to Berkeley for a site visit to Berkeley Art Museum, and research trips to museums and archives, including the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, The California Historical Society, Pioneer Society, Oakland Museum, etc. etc.

MAY 1 - MAY 22, 2007

Smith travels to Berkeley to engage with East Bay makers, learning such skills as Arts and Crafts-style stained glass, textiles, and ceramic tiles; bookbinding, letterpress, and enamelwork.

Exhibition-related events

MAY 13, 3:30 pm

Berkeley Art Museum hosts an artist talk with Allison Smith and curator Elizabeth Thomas; opening reception for Allison Smith: Notion Nanny to follow.

MAY 20, 11 am to 3 pm

Allison Smith hosts a Day of Demonstrations at Berkeley Art Museum. Join us for a festive day of skill sharing and demonstrations related to the practice and politics of the handmade. The expanded Notion Nanny guild will include portable looming, activist ceramics, letterpress, traditional quilting, marmalade making, appliqué, macramé, block printing, adaptive knitting, counterfeit crocheting, stained glass, textile mending, and radical knitting, among others.


AUGUST 1 - AUGUST 31, 2005

Smith travels to Cumbria to engage with local makers to learn skills such as basket-weaving, lace-making, and straw craft. Hosted by The Wordsworth Trust, Centre for British Romanticism (www.wordsworth.org.uk) and Grizedale Arts (www.grizedale.org), Smith takes part in a communal residency living with six other American artists in an 18th century hamlet of stone cottages once inhabited by William Wordsworth.

AUGUST 28, 2005

Smith is an exhibitor at the Grasmere Sports Day, one of the oldest and most popular traditional events in the Lake District, where she presents a market stall display of her wares and research.


Smith travels to London to seek out traditional and revolutionary makers in the urban setting, visiting workshops and markets, guild halls, museums and archives. Here she is hosted by B+B and Studio Voltaire, an artist-led gallery located in a former chapel and metalwork factory.


Studio Voltaire presents the “Notion Nanny” exhibition, a sculptural installation and an interactive context for making and dialogue featuring on-going projects, meetings with makers and other activities.

OCTOBER 15, 2005 2 - 9PM

“The Notion Nanny Tea Party,” a social gathering that explores the notion of demonstration: sharing craft skills as a form of political organizing, with speakers, demos, conversational exchanges, craft barters, special guests and refreshments throughout the day.

OCTOBER 19, 2005

Studio Voltaire presents “Artist Talk: Allison Smith in Conversation with B+B, Sarah Carrington & Sophie Hope.”

DECEMBER 3, 2005

Studio Voltaire presents Art Unwrapped: “Family Day Activity: A Storytelling Workshop” exploring the multi-layered meanings of peddlers in children's stories and folklore.


Smith is a visiting artist at the Printmaking Department of University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she works with students to make a limited-edition lithograph conceived as a Notion Nanny storybook illustration.

FEBRUARY 23 - MARCH 26, 2006

Smith travels to the town of Oswestry, on the border of Wales and Shropshire, England, to lear skills such as linen weaving, clog-making, felt-making, tatting, rag rug weaving, and blacksmithing. Hosted by Craftspace Touring (www.craftspace-touring.co.uk), she participates in the Transborder Crafts project, exhibiting Notion Nanny at Qube, Oswestry Community Action (www.qube-oca.co.uk).


Notion Nanny exhibition at Qube gallery. Smith demonstrates her skills, works with makers, and is available for visits every Friday and Saturday at the gallery and by special appointment throughout the exhibition.

MARCH 17, 2006

A morning symposium for artists, curators, museum professionals, and local makers around ideas raised by the Notion Nanny project, with speakers, an exhibition tour, group discussions by topic, and lunch. This is followed by “The Notion Nanny Trade Fair,” an afternoon of conversation and exchange on the revolutionary potential of traditional skills: makers bring craft projects to share, demonstrate their skills, peddle or trade their wares, tell stories and share ideas. Refreshments are served.

MARCH 23, 7-9 PM, 2006

Allison Smith gives an illustrated presentation of her work with local traditional makers and discusses the Notion Nanny project with local makers and the public at Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown, Powys, Wales.

MAY 5 - 21, 2006

As a related project, Smith travels cross-country to visit America's Living History museums and to engage with makers at each location. Stops include Calico Ghost Town, Clark County Museum, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Sauder Village, Living History Farms, Hancock Shaker Village, Old Sturbridge Village, and many more. Along the way, she collects, makes, and imbues hand-crafted objects with messages and insights, later displayed in a “trading post” campsite installation. This project was part of "Interstate: The American Road Trip," a project of Socrates Sculpture Park and High Desert Test Sites, curated by Alyson Baker and Andrea Zittel.

MAY 26, 2006 - APRIL, 2007

Notion Nanny sculpture on display at MASS MoCA, Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History exhibition.

FEBRUARY 23 - 24, 2007

Smith participates in Ahistoric Occasion: The Uses of History in Contemporary Art, a symposium at MASS MoCA and The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, North Adams and Williamstown, Massachusetts.



Notion Nanny appears May 13-August 12, 2007, as part of Berkeley Art Museum’s MATRIX series of contemporary art exhibitions.

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis. Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Joachim and Nancy Bechtle, Maryellen and Frank Herringer, Noel and Penny Nellis, and Paul L. Wattis III.

Notion Nanny's MATRIX exhibition website   

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