The journey that brought Philadelphia artist Aubrie Costello’s “silk graffiti” work into the second season of Showtime’s Boston-set dramedy SMILF started in Philly.
That’s also where the season starts on Sunday, as Bridgette Bird (Frankie Shaw) comes to the city in search of her long-lost father.
“I met Frankie Shaw when I was 19 years old,” Costello said of the show’s creator and star. “Our boyfriends at the time were actually best friends, so we kind of hit it off and built a relationship many moons ago.”
Shaw appeared in the 2009 independent film Explicit Ills, which was filmed in Philadelphia. Since then, “I’ve been watching her creative journey and, you know, unbeknownst to me, she’s been kind of looking at mine, too,” Costello said.
“She reached out to me three years ago to do a custom piece for her wedding in the redwoods of California. It was kind of an unexpected reconnection, which was cool,” she said, and “I got to kind of hang out and see her beautiful wedding” to writer and producer Zach Strauss.
A few years later, Shaw reached out again "to see if I wanted to be involved in the show,” and the two collaborated “to pick a language for the pieces I made,” after Shaw sent her scripts for the season, from which Costello came up with “lists of words that I thought would be cool to … highlight.”
For the new season, whose episodes are each titled with alternative meanings for the acronym SMILF, Shaw "has a lot she wants to talk about, … at first we were thinking it would be the title card. Because early on, she knew she was going to play with that SMILF,” and give it different possible meanings, Costello said.
“But then we just thought it would be more interesting … to have it in the actual set, and just be brief, just a few words that would reiterate the tone of the episode,” she said. “Frankie picked the colors. She knows my work. She loves the white and red. So that’s a common theme throughout every episode. She wanted that to be visually consistent.”
Working with Shaw, whose show draws on the writer and actress’ past as a young single mother, the two "had a lot of back-and-forth — FaceTiming or email. It was very collaborative,” Costello said.
But the production of a piece for each episode was on the artist.
“I made 10 pieces in a very short window of time, which is different from how I normally work. It was kind of exhilarating and it was crazy, because I was one of the later elements added to Season Two. So I had to just hustle," she said, laughing. "I was hand-sewing up a storm. I would make a piece and ship it overnight to Boston.”
The pieces — essentially large, hand-sewn flags with a few words written, graffiti-style, in strips of red silk on a white background — appear briefly in each episode. “It is supposed to be a little bit of a surreal [image]. ‘Why is that there?’ "
As for Costello’s chosen medium, “I have not come across anyone [else] writing graffiti in silk,” she said.
She “started more than a decade ago in response to street art and graffiti culture. I was using silk in a very different way at the time. I was creating installations where I took same kind of strips and ripped pieces of silk that I was binding objects [with and] creating piles of wrapped objects in silk,” she said.
“Silk graffiti came out of a desire to make street art. I was sick of working traditionally. I was sick of being cooped up in my studio. … But it was really a response to this boys’ club culture of graffiti. I had a boyfriend who was a graffiti artist, I dabbled peripherally in the scene, and I was a fly on the wall and a voyeur into this graffiti culture,” she said.
“I wanted to use a material that historically has been associated with a more feminine quality to write graffiti in … wanting to give a feminine edge and sensibility to street art,” she said. “Now it’s kind of evolved. They’ve become backdrops for things, or like in the show, it’s kind of an interesting element to further a story and give context to … a performance."