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Creativity Q+A with Shanna Robinson

Shanna Robinson, 63, moves fluidly between media. “I’m a fiber-sculptor,” she said, “but I work in whatever medium suits my idea at the time.” The Horton Bay resident, newly retired from academia, lives a five-minute walk from Lake Charlevoix, and it’s this part of Northern Michigan that suits her temperament and feeds her work: translating the personal and conceptual into visual forms, informed by her surroundings. This interview took place in August 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


What draws you to the medium in which you work?

The tactility of it. I like having the ability to manipulate materials in space. I want to be able to manipulate materials in a three-dimensional way. I’m more interested in that than making an image on a two-dimensional plane. I think more clearly about it. My ideas takes shape in space.

When you say you “think more clearly” when you work in 3-D: What does that mean?

I think through my hands. I make sense of the world around me through my hands.

Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in visual art? 

My formal training in the arts started in high school [Tecumseh High School, a Michigan city located between Ann Arbor and Toledo, Ohio]. I had a really great high school art teacher. It was the thing I was good at and committed to in high school. When I went to college, I had an unusual college experience. For various reasons, I went to five different colleges, and kept trying different places, always studying art and general studies. I just kept moving around, and actually, that served me well. It helped me understand what really worked in education for me. By the time I got my bachelor’s degree — I joked that I did it on the eight-year plan — I was old enough to realize what I wanted to get out of [her education] … I also have an MFA. Both degrees [BFA and MFA] are, finally, from Eastern Michigan University.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

It introduced me to the world of ideas, images, mediums, messages. It opened up the whole world to me. It also gave me mentorship. It gave me time and space to experiment in the visual realm within prescribed [creative] problems. That taught me to think about what kind of problems I might want to set for myself. And, also, to think about problem-solving within a structured set of criteria or rules, and how this enables creative thinking.

My formal education also gave me access to constructive feedback, which is critical to growth in the visual arts. It gave me access to others who took the development of my work seriously — that was a big thing. And, peers I could work with and work against — not in opposition, but bump up against them and their ideas. My experience in the last two years of undergrad and grad school were exceptional. I think that Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s was the perfect way for me to study …

Describe your studio/work space.

Ideas pinned to the studio wall.

My work space/studio space: There are three of them in and around my house. One is a bedroom — it has two giant looms in it, and a lot of storage space my husband built for me. And then I have a loom in the living room as well. The upstairs of our house is a 200 sf bedroom space under the eaves. That space serves as a [storage space for] two-dimensional work. I have my sewing machine there. This year, I also took over the garage. We have a stall of the garage that is my studio space. I wanted to make big work and I wanted to make it out of natural materials — like branches — that would barely fit in the house.

How does your studio/work space facilitate + affect your work?

Even in grad school, when I had a studio, I shared it with a really great studio mate. I always felt like I didn’t have enough space to make the things I wanted to make, so I learned to make units, or components that become a whole. I don’t know which came first — if I always thought like that and the studio space reinforced it; or if the studio made me think like that. When I was in graduate school, there was much of the work I made for my MFA show that I’d never seen until I put it in the gallery. I’d made all the parts, but I couldn’t put it together because I had no space to do that. It was little nerve racking … I made the things that would fit in the space that would gang up, group up to become the thing I wanted them to be.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

Being human. And being a human in the world. And what is my place as a human in this world?

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?

Things just come into my head. I’m going to say: walking, being outdoors, looking around, kayaking, interacting with the world around me. Sometimes reading. Sometimes my dreams. Sometimes learning a new technique makes me think about things in a new way. I’m not sure where they come from. I recently discovered the work of a woman whose name is Ann Coddington Rast. She had a quote that I thought was apt. She said, “Feeling over thinking, always.”

How much preplanning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

It depends on the project. Some projects are planning-intense. If I’m weaving something and I have to warp the loom, there’s a ton of planning that goes into that: math, sampling. Often the planning I need to do, for the things I like to make, is technical problem solving. This is a common one: How do I get this thing to look like it’s standing up on a tiny, spindly, little legs, and supporting a lot of weight, that looks like it should fall over? Since undergraduate school, that’s an idea I can’t let go of. A lot of my work seems tenuous, precarious, and so there are often technical issues about how do I solve the physics of this?

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Pod [twined vessel], hemp, waxed hemp, linen, wool, cotton, 6 “ h X 15” w [approximately].
I do. With various levels of intricacy. Right now I’m making these twined vessels, and they’re really hard on my hands so I have to have something else to go do so I don’t injure myself. So, yes: a variety of projects going at the same time, in various states of completion.

Do you work in a series?

I do. Often. I don’t know if it comes back to that idea about making small things that group together to make a whole, and they end up being a series of work; or, I make one and I think, “Oh! Then I could do X!” and so I make another one. Different ideas, different problems arise as I’m working, and those beget more in a similar vein.

What’s your favorite tool?

My hands. Because I think they’re the easiest extension of my brain for me to facilitate. For instance, when I worked in clay I was always a hand builder by choice. I could throw on the wheel, but I didn’t care for it. I didn’t like that machine between me and what was happening. Which is funny. When it came to firing of the thing I made, I wanted the process to have input into what came out of it afterwards; but in the beginning I want it to come from my hands …There’s something about the use of my hands and some hand tools and mechanical things that feels true to me. I’m not sure why.

Shanna, that’s an interesting point. We live in a world that equates time with money. Because of your preference for hand work, you are by design a slower worker.

Yes. It drove me crazy, and it was a curse when I was younger. And then the slow food and slow fashion movements happened, and suddenly all the things I believed in and loved became part of the mainstream art world. Suddenly, what I loved to do, and the time it takes to do it,  no longer seemed ridiculous. It’s hard to do slow work when you have a day job because it takes so long … Sometimes I think I’m so obsessive about working these things but it’s because I’m working through these ideas and it takes a long time.

Do you use a sketchbook? Work journal? What tools do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?

I always wish I were better at that. I have a sketchbook and I don’t use it as much as I should; but I do sketch and write notes in that book when I have an idea I don’t want to lose. Off and on throughout my life, I’ve kept a written journal poems and quotes from other people. My response when somebody asks me about a sketchbook is that I’m really bad at that. I always think a “real” artist would make sketches. I do make little three-dimensional maquettes, and they’re pinned up all over my garage studio so I can see them out in the world instead of having to open a book.

How did you think about hand work before you began practicing seriously?

It was the 60s and the 70s, and I thought [hobby handwork] was what women did; but not serious women out in the world. I thought that it was like being told I could be a nurse or a secretary. It was gendered ghettoization. And then Second Wave Feminism came along [when] I was old enough to be aware of it, and they were using women’s work to make a political statement. Suddenly I realized, because I loved to do all those things, all of the important women in my world knitted and crocheted and sewed. My grandmother sewed for a designer, and they were accomplished at those things, I felt — once I realized I could be serious about it —  somebody was giving it back to me in a way that was powerful, and I was off and running. I was taught to embroider from a sampler that somebody else designed. I was taught to crochet from a pattern that somebody else designed. I was taught to do those things, but not to think about them as a broader creative expression of my ideas.

Colony, branches and inner tube, 9’ h X 6’ d [approximately].
Why is making-by-hand important to you?

First because I think with my hands. I believe that humans, at our very core, in order to be whole, we need to use our brains and our emotions and our physical self. I think  it has been a huge disservice to the human race, at least in the Western world, to remove the making of things and reduce it all to a click. I think the making of things is part of what makes us human and fully human. Without it, we’re only partway there … That’s why we have opposable thumbs. Right? To make things with our hands.

How do you come up with a title?

We’re back to feeling-over-thinking. I always want to name my work something that will allude to my purpose in creating it, my feeling about it; but I don’t want it to be too obvious. I want the viewer to do a little work, to think about what how that title might apply to that particular work. I want the title to allude to my ideas about the work but leave enough space for the viewer to have their own ideas about the work. I want some mystery to still be there. So, if I painted cows, I would not call it “Cows.” I’d call it “Field Work.” I like to use titles that people who are dedicated to figuring int out might have to look up. I love words. And I hope I can encourage other people to love words through my artwork.

The way in which you talk about titling your work implies a confidence on your part — that you don’t have to take the viewer by the hand, and explain it all to them in one title card. 

There are two things playing into that. The first is: There were two very influential institutions in my artistic development, and one was called Marylhust School of Life Long Learning, right outside Portland, Oregon. I had an art history professor there who was extremely influential because he believed in me and thought I had ability and skill, which at that point was very needed. He would take us to the museum and say, “Do not look at the title card. Do not look at anything written on the wall. Look at the art first. Decide what you think about the work, and then you can read.” That was his rule. We were not allowed to read anything until we’d had our own thought process about the work. That was very influential for me.

The second thing that happened was I taught at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, and many of my students never had an art class, weren’t art majors, were taking art history or one of my studio art class to fulfill a humanities requirement, and they came to the work, to looking at and talking about the work with a surprisingly sophisticated ability to process what they were looking at. I was so impressed by that, and it made me believe I had not been giving people enough credit. I decided that my penchant for being mysterious in titles was probably good … It became clear to me that my students were completely capable of [understanding her titles] if somebody had the faith in them that they could do it, and asked them to. It made me say, “OK. I don’t have to tell people everything on my title card.”

What’s the job of a title?

The title should leave the viewer to think about the work; but I don’t think the title should tell the view how to think about the work. It should open a pathway for the viewer to think about what the artist might be saying. The pathway should be wide and open rather than narrow and prescribed.

When did you commit to working with serious intent? What were the circumstances?

I think that I actually committed in high school, but I didn’t know how to do it, and then I …. went to Eastern Michigan University [and studied with] Kathy Constantinides. It was the first textiles class I’d taken in college that really got my attention. She took my work seriously. She took everyone’s work seriously. It was art. Not craft. I had taken weaving at a small college, and I had learned how to use a four-harness loom, and that was great. But the focus of it was making functional goods, and that’s fine, but I found what I really cared about was what Kathy trying to teach in her textile class: the world of ideas expressed through fibers. It was Kathy who introduced me to artists like Harmony Hammond and Jackie Windsor who were taking women’s processes and applying them to political problems of gender and identity in the 1970s and 80s.

What role does social media play in your practice?

I really love Instagram. I’ve discovered many wonderful artists on Instagram. It exposes me to things I might not find … It’s a tool for me to open up what I’m exposed to.

What’s its influence on the work you make?

It’s a barometer. I don’t know if it influences the work I make, but it often tells me things about what people like about the work I make. And sometimes the feedback I get from social media surprises me about what is popular, or what people like about my work.

Give me an example of being surprised.

Tree ring drawing, walnut ink and gel pen, 18” X 18”.

I make these very simple tree ring drawings with walnut ink. I’m quite a minimalist, and often think people don’t respond to my work because it’s not intricate. When I put those drawings on Instagram I get so many comments from people about how much they enjoy them … It made me feel validated. I really wanted to do this. I thought I was just doing it for myself, but guess what? Everyone else is really responding to it as well. I often think my work is too simple for a lot of people to really notice it.

What’s its influence on how you let the world know about the work you make?

This Is My Path, cotton thread, handwoven linen panels, 45″ h x 36″ w.

It was huge influence on me. I started doing posts [in 2016] on Facebook of the This Is My Path [series], pictures of where I was walking. I stopped doing it. I decided that after a couple years [of posting] that was enough already, that people were probably not that interested in it any more; and I got so many inquiries: “Where’s your Path pictures?” I went back to doing it. I do think of that as part of my practice. It was directly influenced by social media. I would have stopped; but they said, “No no no, you gotta do it.”

What do you believe is the visual artist’s role in the world?

It’s our job to show people things they wouldn’t see or notice, and that might be the world around them; that might their interior world. It’s our job to draw attention to things we think are important to notice.

What part or parts of the world find their way into your work?

The natural world — especially up close pieces of the natural world. And, the interior world — mine and, hopefully, it illuminates other peoples’ interior world. I always want people to think about my work; but I always want to feel something.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice

Living here has opened me to a regular interaction with the natural world, with the outdoors around me, and that includes woods and water and sky in a way I hadn’t experienced them where I lived before. Sometimes I lived in a  city. Sometimes I lived in a small town; but I’d never been as intimately involved with the natural world as I have here. It has opened my perspective about what materials are available for me to work with, especially the plant material, rocks. The things that are around me are starting to figure more into becoming part of my work. I don’t know if that would have happened if I hadn’t lived here.

Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan? Would your work have a different look or appearance?

Genius Loci, mixed media, 26” h X 41” w.

I think it would. It’s hard to say. I can tell you that the work I make now looks very related to the work I did when I lived in Southeastern Lower Michigan. I believe if I had stayed  there my work would have become darker and more urban … Coming here, while the formal aspects of my work are similar, the feeling of it is softer and more natural. It’s the power of the water, and the vastness of the water, and the up-close experience of the natural world.

Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?

No. My sister, who’s older than I am, did know one painter, and he was that starving artist stereotype: drank too much, lived in the little cabin down by the river, and he was kind of disheveled and unkempt. And he was a man. And, he was a painter.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

I would say those professors I mentioned: Kathy Constantinedes; [Marylhust art history and contemporary art professor] Paul Sutinen Jay Yager, [sculptor, Eastern Michigan University]; and [the late] Richard Fairfield, who was my printmaking instructor at Eastern [Michigan University]; and my sister Jeffyn Peterson. She was a second mother — she’s enough older than I am and my parents both worked full-time — and Jeffyn moved out and started having a family when she was young. She often took me under her wing because my parents were busy. And she was an artist. Not a professional working artist, but always interested in painting and needlework. She’s always been a big influence on me, in a good way.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

Barbara Bushey. She is a quiltmaker and art historian who teaches at Hillsdale College, and she was my studio mate in graduate school [1985-88]. We developed a friendship, and a very strong relationship around being to talk about our ideas with one another. And we do that a lot still. We talk about what we’re trying to do, and it’s very beneficial.

What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?

It makes me finish stuff. Sometimes it makes me think about new ideas; but mostly, it has a role in thinking about a body of work, and finishing the body of work.

You had a day job.

I taught art and art history at North Central Michigan College [2003 – 2020], and before that at Eastern Michigan University and Henry Ford College for about 25 years total.

How did teaching cross-pollinate with your studio practice?

I don’t know if I know how it cross-pollinated; but I know that it did. The first way: Being able to articulate and communicate ideas effectively to my students made me think hard about articulating those ideas to myself. And caused me to put my ideas into concrete terms that the kids could understand.

And I think seeing their work develop probably gave me a lot of faith in the process of each person developing their own ideas, and the validity of each person’s own process for doing that. It caused me to have a lot of faith in my viewer. When my students demonstrated to me that as people who weren’t art majors and may have never have had an art class in their life, their responses to the things they were looking at gave me total faith in the viewer.

What challenges does teaching present to practicing your own work?

It ate up all my time. I was teaching often five different topics each semester, so I had five different prep. And, I was the department head because I was a long-time faculty person, so I was in charge of all the equipment and supplies for the whole department. My time was consumed. And my brain space was consumed. If you want to be a good teacher, it requires a lot of thought and care.


See more of Shanna Robinson’s work on Instagram [@shannagrobinson].

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

 

 

 

 

Creativity Q+A with Lynne Rae Perkins

As part of the GAAC’s Everyday Objects exhibition, we spoke with Leelanau County author + illustrator Lynne Rae Perkins. Lynne, 66, is the author of 14 books for children, including the young adult novel Criss Cross, for which she received the 2006 Newberry Medal for excellence in children’s literature. In May, her 14th was published, a delightful picture book entitled The Museum of Everything. This interview took place in June 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


The Museum of Everything  is about the mundane — a rock, a puddle, a bush, a skirt made from a bush. It’s about everyday objects that are of interest to one little girl — the story’s narrator — who thinks they’re all museum-worthy. Talk about this. 

A skirt that is a Spirea bush [modeled by the clothespin doll].
I think that in some cases, the objects might start out as everyday objects; but her imagination transforms them into something more transcendent. A Spirea bush is something you might see everyday; but a skirt that looks like a Spirea bush would look pretty spectacular. As with the idea that a rock in a puddle might be a boulder in a pond on an island in a lake, on an island in an ocean. A museum is a place for special objects; but I think a museum is also a place for thoughts. That’s what makes the objects [in the story] rise above the ordinary.

In 1936 Ralph Waldo Emerson published the essay Nature, and said this: “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” The common things you’ve singled out in this book all have something a little marvelous inherent to them. Can you talk a little about your interest in common objects?

Sometimes a metal ballpoint pen clip isn’t just that.
George Jetson and his astral ride.

I think that, for starters, I’ve always been a day dreamer. I learned to read early. My sister taught me to read before I went to school. When I went to school I always finished my work before everyone else, and I had a lot of time to sit and stare at the room and daydream. I would fixate on something. I drew a little picture to illustrate this. Pens used to come with a metal clip that wasn’t part of the pen — so you could put it onto your pocket. I can remember looking at this, and thinking it reminded me of the little craft George Jetson used to ride around in. Looking at it for the longest time and imagining it as a space craft — in a similar way as the book’s narrator looks at objects in her world.

At Christmastime, my family put those electric candlelabras in the windows. There was one in our bedroom that was left on for a while after my sister and I went to bed. And because we had two layers of curtains — there was a sheer layer, and then a thicker one — the light shined up through the curtains, and made this picture on the ceiling that looked like a landscape. I felt like I could see a river with the near shore and the far shore. I liked looking and imagining it was a landscape. I would fall asleep to that.

Looking isn’t always something turning into something else. When I went to art school at Penn State University in the late 1970s, I would spend hours looking at something — a still life or figure — while drawing. I think drawing things in that prolonged and focused way becomes a habit you take with you out into the rest of life.

Museums, by definition, are filled to the rafters with things. But museums keep chaos at bay by organizing their things into manageable bites. Conversely, the world is full of things — but without the benefit of any museum-like organization. It can get overwhelming. Your narrator opens The Museum of Everything with this thought: “When the world gets too big and too loud and too busy, I like to look at little pieces of it, one at a time.” This child is wise.

Favorite things on a windowsill.

I think this is something instinctive we do, in a lot of ways, although it might not look like we’re doing it. When somebody’s looking at their phone, or when a child is playing video games, or if people are dancing for hours at a time, or if we’re reading or housecleaning or making art, we’re keeping out a lot of things, and just focusing on this one thing. [The book’s narrator] has her windowsill full of favorite things. I have a windowsill in my studio that has stones and shells — who doesn’t go to the beach and pick up their favorite stones and then find a place for them. Why do we do that?

 

I think your narrator’s thought is good counsel for young readers — about how to manage an overwhelming world, which is part of being a kid. There’s a lot of stuff coming at you.

That’s true. I was telling a friend, when I’d come up with that line for the beginning of the book, she said that I was giving kids a tool. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

Mock-up for the Sky Museum.

The museum that your narrator talks about has many different locations, and not all of them are represented by buildings with four walls. Tell us about one of these: the Sky Museum.

This part of the book started with an idea I had years ago. Many of us have had the experience of flying in a plane on a cloudy day — when you rise above the clouds, and all of a sudden everything is sun lit and beautiful and golden. I remember having the thought that it was like a page of a book you could turn over. At the time I did this scribbly sketch of what the other pages of the book would be — I was a printmaking student so I made a lithograph that was really unsatisfactory; but I kept it because I liked the idea. I wanted to visit that idea again, and do it better. So I started trying to do that. I think that’s where the idea of the Sky Museum came from. It was tricky. I had to make the book shape, which is many pieces of foam core board cut in the curvy shape of an open book. Then, I used wool to make the clouds. Then for the fleecy, lacy page … I used interfacing, from the fabric store, with little pieces of fleece laid onto it. The blue page is paper, and then the next page is velvet with little rhinestones on it, and then there are lights.

The illustrations in this book aren’t just paintings and drawings. You’ve given the story a rich, textual, visual life through sewing, collage, sculpture, and by creating dioramas. How do these media tell the story differently than painted or drawn illustrations?

I got to go to Moscow in 2006, and we went to a National History Museum there. This museum of history went back to ancient times. We were looking at a piece of jewelry that was thousands of years old. Another artist I was with said that the impulse to make something beautiful has been there from the beginning of human life. I think this desire to make something beautiful starts in childhood. My hope is that when someone looks at these things, part of their mind is engaged in wondering how they were made; that makes them connect with the idea behind it, and they connect with it in a different way.

Talk about how you created the island diorama?

I can tell you where it started. A few years ago I was a visiting artist on a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts called Cuttyhunk Island. It’s 3/4 of a mile wide and a mile and a half long. It was an interesting sensation spending a week on an island so small … If you stood on this hump in the middle you could see every edge of the island. When I came home I tried to make a watercolor of the island. I was starting to like how the water was coming out, but the island didn’t feel quite the way I wanted it to, so I decided to embroider the island. I’d been there in November. There weren’t a lot of trees on the island — I think they’d been logged hundreds of years ago — but a lot of bushes and grasses in fall colors. I started embroidering the island — before this book even began.

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea was published in 2018.

I’d been on the island as a visiting artist. The 12 year-round residents of the island had had a community read of my book Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea. The students at the school had made dioramas of different scenes in the book, so I decided to make a diorama for my island … I’m not sure how to answer the question about how a diorama tells the story differently. I think they’re just fun to look at.

Inherent to this story is the message about slowing down and looking. We have so many things to look at these days, and not a lot of encouragement to slow down and be still. That seems to be one of the book’s central themes.

That’s true. Sometimes, when I watch a Disney or a Pixar movie, I think they’re so marvelous — why would anybody, why would any child choose to look at a book instead of these amazing movie? And yet, I think there’s something absolutely vital about slowing down, about being quiet, about making things and going deeper. I don’t find it boring at all. One of the premises of making books is if you feel something, other people will feel it also. Making this book is an act of faith. That kids will respond to that sensation.


Learn more about Lynne Rae Perkins here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curated Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibition. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

The Everyday Objects exhibition runs through October 28, 2021. Read more here.

Creativity Q+A video with Michelle Stitzlein: The Art of Repurposing

Ohio artist Michelle Stitzlein, 53, is a creative force whose sculptures elevate familiar objects to a new level of art. As part of the GAAC’s exhibition Everyday Objects, we talk with Michelle about using scavenged and collected objects – garden hoses, bottle caps, and piano keys – to name just a few of the multitude of 3D things that come together in compositions of great beauty and thought. [NOTE: At the end of this recorded conversation, it was incorrectly stated the Everyday Objects exhibition runs through August 19. The correct end date for the exhibition is October 28.]

Creativity Q+A Video with Steve Palmer: Maker of Fish

As part of the GAAC’s exhibition Everyday Objects, we’re in conversation with Leelanau County artist Steve Palmer, 65, maker of mixed media fish from found and antique objects. A former public school educator of 32 years, his fish offer very teachable moments about the connection between his use of things that might otherwise be discarded and the pollution of our waterways. . https://www.running-dog-studio.com/

Creativity Q+A with Susan Thompson

Benzie County artist Susan Thompson believes “Art is a gift that is meant to be received and that touches others. Art is an essential and primary means for mutual understanding, belonging, and commiseration.” She brings these beliefs to life through many media including works on canvas, paper, paint, collage and sculpture. This interview took pace in June 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


What draws you to the medium in which you work?

I work in many 2D mediums on canvas and paper. I’ve also done series of 3D sculptures, assemblages, and wall reliefs. I love combining multiple media in ways that create unique textures, forms, and colors. My primary medium is oil painting. Oil paints are very multi-dimensional in their rich, luminous quality. With oil paint what one sees and works with are the actual color pigments in their variety of hue, transparency, viscosity, and reflectivity of light.

Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in visual art?

I started learning about art from my mother who was an artist. She introduced me to watercolors, drawing, and oil painting at a young age. In middle school and high school in northern Virginia I went to art classes in watercolor, printmaking, and painting. I was friends with a couple of other budding teen artists and we would hitch hike into D.C. to see art in museums and galleries — not formal training, but one of the best ways to learn. I went to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA and graduated in 1977 with a BFA in painting and printmaking. In 1985 I received an MA in art therapy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

When I was in art school in the 70s, the art world was in a process of a shake-up – Abstract Expressionist and Action Painting gave way to Color Field Painting, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Performance Art, and Neo-Expressionist Art. I experimented with many art modalities including installation, collage, and very large format painting. Experimenting and trying new ideas in my art continues to inform my process. I also value knowledge of art history, especially contemporary art. Some styles of art that I studied continue to integrate into my work today: Surrealism, Expressionism, Chinese brush painting, and the work of the Chicago Imagists.

Describe your studio/work space.

Susan Thompson’s studio.

Soon after my partner and I moved to Lake Ann, I renovated an Amish-built garden shed on our property and made it my art studio. All my various mediums, collage materials, and tools are organized in the relatively small space (11 x 20 feet) while completed work is stored on shelves in our basement. I love having many material options available that I can spontaneously incorporate into my work. Working in my studio reminds me of being in my room as a teenager where I would listen to music, draw or paint, read or write. It was a private world I could step into.

Working in the studio.

I spend several days each week in the studio working, usually 3-4 hours at a time. I don’t paint every day. I’ve learned and accepted that taking a break is fine for my process, even several days in a row. Often I need to step back from paintings that are in process in order to let the paint dry and allow ideas to steep. I also work on “quicker” collage and mixed media on paper or assemblage as alternatives to paintings on canvas. When not painting I am reading and writing about art, viewing art online, and working to promote my work. Of course, an important part of the practice is spending time looking.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

Bright Instant, collage painting, 24″ w x 30″ h, 2021

I’m primarily inspired by how perceptions of spatial dimension and flatness can simultaneously play in a dynamic way on a 2D painting surface. I experiment with form, line and color to create ambiguous space and movement across the canvas. Color is supreme for me as it creates space, light, and mood. My process involves a resistance to anything that seems rule-bound or pre-ordained. I start a painting with no preconceived idea and allow spontaneity and chance events to play out. Often areas of the painting will become too precious and I will need to obliterate those areas so something entirely new can happen. While I look to the painting itself to guide me, I also rely on my experience and skills to make choices in painting that will bring about the effect I want. I enjoy the physicality and materiality of painting, its rhythm and visible history. The layering of materials plays with the time element as it gives evidence of history, memory, and disappearance.

Underlying this process is my philosophy of life:

…that all is in continual flux …that much is uncertain and out of our control …that life energy ebbs and flows…that it seems like an infinite process, but all things must pass (as George Harrison put it)… and that human consciousness is capable of a profound, wordless understanding.

What prompts the beginning of a project? How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project? Do you work on more than one project at a time, and/or in a series?

I don’t pre-plan my artwork. Usually I have anywhere from 6 to 12 paintings going simultaneously. Often the idea for a series emerges from particular materials. For example, in 2019 I was inspired by seeing tulle fabric used in the art of Irfan Onermen. I started using tulle and natural fiber paper integrated with painting and drawing on canvas. That has resulted in an ongoing series of multi-media work. Another example: In 2017 and again in 2018 I attended the Buckley Vintage Engine show and took a lot of photos of the tractors with their beautiful designs and surface patina. This was the starting point for a series of assemblages I completed using the photos along with old crates, rusty tools and fixtures. It struck me how rural folk treasure and preserve the past by using these very old machines. Another example: In 2019 I was wondering how to use 10 empty 11” x 14” frames that I had and so I started a series of collages on paper in which the only material I used was collage scraps with no added drawing or painting. This year I decided to start a series of paintings where I only used oil paint and nothing else, returning to earlier roots. Often I have more than one series in process. I’m never short of ideas.

What’s your favorite tool?

Favorite tools.

I like to use a variety of tools to create marks, texture, and layered effects. One of my favorites is the brayer. I use it to roll over an area of paint to unify the field and create texture. I like this tool because it obscures any sense of the artist’s hand rendering with a brush and instead breaks free of that control and creates the unexpected. Whether it’s a brush, brayer, squeegee, palette knife, charcoal stick, or marker; I love to use my hands and tools to create work and get out of my head and into flow.

How do you come up with a title?

I free-associate titles in a process similar to painting. The title I choose gives a hint to the viewer but doesn’t spell out what it is. This is a kind of humor that is part of my work. Finding a title can be like a surrealist poem where an umbrella and a sewing machine are united on an ironing board in a strangely erotic way.

When did you commit to working with serious intent?

Bebop, oil, 38″ w x 38″ h, 2020

My growing up included a lot of exposure to art and art techniques. In high school my mom gifted me with a subscription to Art In America that I kept getting until her death in 1990.  I eagerly looked to each issue to find out what artists were doing. That’s when I decided I’d be a professional artist. I expected that if I pursued my art I’d be in Art In America someday. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, but after 50 years of making art I’ve found that my true commitment is to the painting itself and not to any external validation.

What role does social media play in your practice?

I have a feed on Instagram [1] I totally enjoy connecting with other artists all over the world. Some of the artists I follow and who follow me share like-minded approaches to art and support each other. I am at times influenced by what I see other artists doing. Especially when I see an artist whose work I really like and respect, painting in a brutish style. That bolsters me to keep doing the spontaneous, raw, sometimes edgy work that I do.

Besides Instagram, I post my work on my website and Singulart, an art sales platform. These regular postings online are an important bridge between my studio and the world.

What do you believe is the visual artist’s/creative practitioner’s role in the world?

I believe that as an artist my job includes doing whatever I can to facilitate my artwork being seen and experienced. This is a way I honor the autonomous life of the painting. Art is a gift that is meant to be received and that touches others. Art is an essential and primary means for mutual understanding, belonging, and commiseration.

As an abstract artist my work doesn’t tell a story or paint a picture about particular things or events in the world, yet universal experiences of living and being are expressed in a deep and wordless way. I believe in the collective unconscious and my art taps into that. I hope to generate curiosity, surprise, and befuddlement in ways that open a space for unknowing. As the painter Arshile Gorky put it: “It is better to be conscientiously troubled and perplexed by the vastness of the unknown, than content with the little that is known.”

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

Armature, collage painting, 36″ w x 36″ h, 2021

Living in Northern Michigan is a balm for my spirit. It is a natural environment that reminds me very much of my long ago childhood home in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Having moved to Lake Ann after 35 years in Chicago, I find a simpler, quieter life in which I can paint my heart out without a lot of distraction. In a way there’s a bit of dissonance between my style of art and the art that I see as popular in the region. I don’t paint recognizable images of the surrounding beauty and nature. My work is informed by the tension between order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, a moment’s serenity and millennia of change. This is going on any place one goes. Here in the countryside, woods, and lakes I am able to practice letting go of tasking, and move toward being present and accepting. Nature is both disinterested and cradling.

“An artwork must be fertile. It must give birth to a world. Whether you see in it flowers, people, or horses matters little as long as it reveals a world, something alive.” — Joan Miró

Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?

I knew a few practicing artists growing up. The artist who was the greatest influence on me growing up was my mom, Jane Thompson. She painted from her teen years until she died at age 67. She belonged to a local art guild and showed her work in community venues like the library or a cooperative gallery in town. One might say she was an “amateur” artist, but I prefer to call her an artist since that was her life-long passion and commitment. What I learned from her was to not be constrained by thinking that one isn’t good enough. My mom could spend an afternoon arranging her supplies and organizing the dabs of paint in a certain order on her palette. I discovered my impatience with perfectionism and that has been a drive for my practice.

Later in life I have gravitated to a couple of artists as influences: Arshile Gorky and Philip Guston. There are many artists I love, but these two stand out: Gorky for painting true to his memories and soul; Guston for his guts in abandoning a highly successful style to paint the raw truth of his daily experience.

What’s the role of exhibiting in your practice?

I always look forward to exhibiting my work. Last year I was one of three featured artists at the 2020 Oliver Art Center’s Abstract show. While the exhibit was preempted by the COVID shut down, it was great to see a large number (18) of my paintings hanging in one gallery space. It’s a lot of fun going to openings, which I hope will be returning soon. I enter many juried shows. Currently I’m proud to have a painting in “Women’s Works” at the Woodstock, Illinois Old Court House Art Center through June 2021.  It’s wonderful to be given an opportunity to have my work exhibited and to meet other artists and art lovers.

Do you have a day job?

I don’t have a day job other than art making, having retired from a 35 year career as an art therapist and psychotherapist in private practice. I have pretty much continually made art and exhibited it during my adult life and now can truly devote myself to it. I’ve taught some workshops in the area and enjoy teaching as a gentle guidance to others’ experimentation and art making.


Footnotes

1: Susan Thompson’s Instagram address is https://@susanthompsonartist.

 

 

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