Suki is an artist in every sense of the word who lives on a farm in the mountains of New England to take care of her aging mother. Every day she shares with readers her life and art adventures on her blog Paint, Poems and Ponderings. Today, she is going to be sharing with us her incredible story of creativity and life. You don’t want to miss this one. Prepare yourself a beverage of your choice and sit back for the story.
Suki, I know you have an MFA in Writing. Am I right to assume it is creative writing which interests you the most? Is your undergraduate degree also in writing or English?
Kim, I’m excited to be asked these questions and to articulate the answers. You are sweet to include me in your interviews. I love reading the ones you’ve done so far.
My undergraduate degree was in English. I focused on British literature. But I was active in the theater too and took lots of drama classes and religion classes as my minors. Ever since I learned the skill of handwriting, well printing first of course, I was writing stories and poems in little notebooks. Alongside that I drew pictures and painted. The reason, as an adult, that I studied writing rather than art was because I was married to a sculptor. We didn’t have much money. Any extra went into the steel he used for his art. A writer only needs a pencil and some paper. Cheap enough, I thought. I’ll write. But my dream was to attend Cranbrook Art Academy. Why I don’t know. Intuitive thing I guess. I liked the name. A coincidence: when my husband finished his MFA Degree in Sculpture he was invited to become another artist’s right hand man at Cranbrook. I was excited. Unfortunately he turned down this offer. So, I never made it to Cranbrook.
Oh what a story! You must have felt as though you were not supposed to be there at that point in your life. Wow! But I understand and honestly do believe doors do not close without reason. It is difficult when it happens, though.For a long while I found writing very stimulating. That’s all I wanted to do. I have reams of journals, letters, novels, short stories, and poems. But then, around when I turned 50, some shift occurred in my brain. I found the special concentration needed to write very difficult. I have returned to the visual arts and am trying to meet self-made challenges in that realm. It is very sad for me to “give up” writing, if that is what I have done. You never know for sure.
You are right, you never know and your education is never lost…it can never be taken from you no matter what you have studied. There are so many visual artists who are also writers and their education is either in one form or another…or neither. I think one of the greatest things about being a creative person is the ability to listen to what we need to be doing at particular times in our lives.
Will you give us a little background about yourself and speak about when you knew you wanted to be an artist and how you knew?
I grew up in Connecticut and even though we lived more or less in the same area for years, I went to a different school every year till high school-- districting changes. I was shy and quiet and it was hard to make friends. You know, I think I was born with some creative force in me, as I was always singing (even though I can’t sing on tune), dancing, writing and painting. It was my way of talking. I’m shy but I’m also a ham. Once I discovered the theater in college, which I totally loved, I thought I might go into acting. All these things played along together.
In high school I asked my parents to find me an artist I might apprentice to. I thought this was the best way to learn about art, hands on and my desire to learn an art form was strong. Of course, how could they fulfill that wish? They had a man from the Famous Artists School come and talk to me about doing their program. But it didn’t appeal to me so I didn’t do it. At the same time, in high school, I read about Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beat poets. I contemplated running off to New York City to find Ginsberg and be his secretary.
High school was incredibly boring and school interfered with my desire to plunge in to being a creative person. But underneath I was a coward. I finished high school, attended a conventional college and got a conventional degree. BA in hand, I then felt free to traipse off to San Francisco for the “Summer of Love” and to find Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. While there I set up an audition for the new San Francisco Repertory Theatre training program and then backed out of the audition. I spent a lot of time going to art museums and sketching in the city. I still have some of those newsprint sketches, now all torn and brown. I never connected with Ginsberg but I did hang out at City Lights Bookstore owned by Ferlinghetti. Another coincidence: years later I was active in a Tibetan meditation organization in which Ginsberg was also a member. The group was started by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who created the arts program at Naropa among other things. Ginsberg taught a few meditation/writing courses at a retreat center in Vermont. I took a number of courses there, but missed out on taking Ginsberg’s. So near and yet so far.
Oh Suki! What an amazing story! I have learned so many creative people are so much like you. The shyness, the boredom with traditional education, the willingness to taking off without direction to see where the universe would lead all sound so familiar! And you spent The Summer of Love in San Francisco! Girl, you have had some cool and powerful experiences.
Tell me about all the art you enjoy creating.
I enjoy many art forms. I love to paint in acrylics and oils. That’s how I started as a kid, with oils. About 5 years ago, I taught myself bookbinding by reading books about it. I can’t do anything fancy -- measuring and sewing are not my forte, but I have about 5 bindings I make fairly well. These are blank notebooks to sell and I’m always thrilled with the finished product even though they are agony for my type of personality to make. I also taught myself papermaking via reading books. I love, love, love papermaking. I spent a couple years trying all sorts of things, such as dying the paper with blueberries, making paper from hosta leaves (you cook the leaves, then pound them with a meat mallet, then disperse the pulp in water and go from there.) There are so many things you can do with paper. It’s fun and exciting. I have made blank greeting cards for years, almost all of them with the original materials on the card rather than getting them printed up. Although I did a few sets of that sort too which is not as exciting. Also, I make collages and recently began covering my collages with beeswax. I love the hot wax. It’s not encaustic though, as I use the wax as a glue. And I like to alter books, usually children’s board books.
This is very exciting work, Suki! I know the joy of learning to do things from reading books. It really frees you up to do it that way, I think. You can read about it and then decide for yourself if it is the way you wish to proceed.
The paper from the hosta leaves sounds fascinating. Do you have any examples we could see? I have never tried to make paper, but it always seems as though the incorporation of handmade paper in art adds a dimension that is very appealing.
You have a broad range of artistic interests. It is fun to watch your work on your blog. I love the explorations you share there. Would you also add photography to your list of visual art? I always think you find some very interesting shots and compose them so nicely.
Thanks Kim for your comments on my photos. I love to take them, especially now that I have a blog. I hadn’t thought to include that in my list of visual art forms. Maybe because they are so ephemeral, they disappear. I save them on a disk but I am not computer literate enough to know how to make them into hard copies. So they don’t seem to exist to me. I do hope to learn more about digital photography though, so thanks for the nudge in that direction. I know I’d like to get better at photographing my artworks. I find that difficult.
As for the hosta leaf paper, it’s all gone. I used it up fast, it was so great.
What is your favorite art form to create? Why do you think?
It’s hard to pick a favorite form. I go by what I feel like doing at the time. More in a flow rather than my logical brain defining the kind of artist I am and doing only that. For example, only doing oil paintings. In your interview with Babs - she said something similar. She doesn’t have a signature art form or style because she does what she wants to do. That’s me too. Currently though I am really liking using paint. There is a freedom to painting, although there also is to papermaking. For a few years I haven’t had a place to make paper. I think these two appeal so much because they are, for me, large movement activities. Rather than small movement like sewing and measuring. I need lots of space both around me and in the artwork, space to play and be whimsical.
I completely understand that need to move when you are working. I can see where painting and papermaking would be large movement activities.
What are your favorite art books…for all of your art forms?
Since all my books are in storage, and my mind doesn’t remember specifics, I looked some books up on the internet to remind me of the titles I own and love. In the area of painting, instruction how-to’s don’t usually speak to me, but I do love Colleen Browning’s book Working Out a Painting. For collage work I have been inspired by Collage for the Soul by Holly Harrison and Paula Brasdal. And Claudine Hellmuth’s two Collage Discovery Workshop books.
For bookbinding I love Cover to Cover by Shereen LaPlantz and Creating Handmade Books by Alisa Golden. I have other favorites but couldn’t find them on the net and can’t remember their titles. For papermaking Sophie Dawson’s The Art and Craft of Papermaking is good. Helen Hiebert’s Papermaking with Plants, Papermaking by David Watson, Papermaking and Bookbinding: Coastal Inspirations by Joanne B. Kaar, Papermaking for Basketry and Other Crafts by Lynn Stearns are other favorites. You learn different special techniques in each book. And most of the books have a “gallery” section displaying artworks by various artists. The Art of Papermaking by Bernard Toale is a “classic.” And there are many others. I’m a bookaholic when it comes to these sorts of books even though the basic papermaking process is repeated in each book. As I was scanning Amazon.com’s list I saw a new papermaking book by one of my favorite papermakers Elizabeth Cousins. Hmm, guess I need to put in an order.
Of course I also love to look at books of reproductions of artist’s work, read biographies about artists and read letters and autobiographies by artists. See the list of some of my favorite artists below and you will know some of the reproductions I look at. Also, this is a DVD, but it is excellent and inspiring. A TV series called “Art in the 21st Century” has been made into DVD’s. Various artists are shown at work in their studios. Both well known artists and quite young unknown artists in a wide variety of art forms. There are at least 3 seasons worth and well worth a look if you like DVD’s.
Suki, do you know how many people you have just sent to place book orders? Including yourself! I think all artists are huge book people. And why not? Julia Cameron says we like to read because we are visual people and can’t stop the image searches and pattern seeking (as in words). For every time I tried to work through The Artists Way I always stopped when it got to the week where you were not to read!
That’s interesting Kim. You know, when I had to move recently, 3 times in 3 years, I stopped being able to read due to some fragmented psychic state (not my eyes). What torture. I was never so happy as when I finally picked up a book again and read it to the end.
I know you are in a physical environment right now which is not as inspiring as you would like, would you say your art has changed since being there caring for your mother?
I have a psychological blockage to the space I use for a studio as it has everything I dislike: it is damp, even wet at times, there are only two tiny windows and I thrive on natural light both for my own spirit and to see by and the studio is cold when I crave warmth. I haven’t done as much work as I might have if my studio was inside the house. I like to putter with my work throughout the day and I don’t do that out in the studio I now have.
As far as the subject matter or art form itself, I don’t notice any change. Except that I am painting more landscapes. The land here is inspiring in the summer and fall although not in the winter when I feel as frozen and as paralyzed as the land looks I like heat. I’m not sure what the most inspiring environment might be. Maybe New Mexico or Arizona. Heat and sand.
The good news is that my studio IS there for me to use and in the warmer seasons I can open the doors to let the outside in. That’s a blessing. And also, my mom doesn’t have any intensive health care needs right now so I am free to work when I want to and have the energy.
So the greatest challenge is really the comfort level of the environment of your studio. Well, I do understand. We keep our house rather cool, so in the winter, I make sure all of the lights are on (incandescent full-spectrum lamps) which helps with a great deal of warmth and increases the light levels, too. It is a challenge, though, when you have to traipse through winter weather in New England to get to your space…not to mention the temperature changes for the materials you use. Oh, some good art is hanging out in the SW…I bet you would like it out there. It is beautiful and there isn’t a lot of humidity (appealing to me, anyway).
Well, I have been to Santa Fe twice and totally fell in love with it. Also Taos. I was in the area for over a month. Maybe some day.
It is lovely to have the freedom to work when you have the desire to do so...that is really very appealing for creativity.
What would you say is the greatest artistic risk you have ever taken?
As a ‘child of the 60’s” I embraced the Beat and Hippie theologies of making peace and living a sustainable lifestyle. I chose to make art and write and continued to make that choice through the years. Years when, I now think, I should have been making money for my old age. I never bought a house. So now, I am in great difficulties since I love to live alone and rents are ridiculous and ditto house prices. It’s a luxury to live one person in a house. I chose not to remarry after my first marriage ended thirty some odd years ago. Despite all the advances via the women’s movement, I think married women are often better off financially than single women. That’s a generality of course. So this is more a lifestyle risk I’m talking about. But one I made so I might have the freedom of time to pursue my creativity. Many years ago I read a book by Marsha Sinetar called Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. In the book she wrote about people who opted to live sustainable lives, working part time to support their desire for a contemplative life rather than a competitive life. This book greatly influenced me as I carved my life’s path. This was what I chose to do too. I love having large gaps of time with “nothing” to do. Time where I can just be, take in the world, let the thoughts flow. The risk is being poor in your old age, not having health insurance, not owning a home (for me at least) and being viewed as lazy or marginal. The risk is being on the edge all the time. However, I “forget” the edge when I’m painting or writing.
Yes, it is a risk, but what you have to ask yourself is if you are happy overall? We all take risks in our lives because that is what living is about and maybe it is how you respond to the result of your risk taking which makes the difference.
Do you think your writing influences or inspires your visual art or vice versa?
I’m not writing much now. A poem now and then and my blog. I find many similarities between writing and painting. The first draft of words, the first layer of paint, the working on the images, the revisions. Except painting is more quickly done and others are able to see the result at a glance whereas a novel takes a long time to write and the viewer/reader needs to sit down and spend time with the manuscript to get the complete image. I can’t see any way my writing influences my visual art, although people who have read my novel say they see the visual artist in me in the way I write.
So for you the influence is not there, but for those who experience your work the influence is there! How interesting…and exciting to know.
I see a lot of nature’s influences in your art, too, is that purposeful?
I am not sure how purposeful it is, but I guess I’ve always been drawn to using natural things in my collages, my greeting cards and my handmade paper items. For example using actual leaves in the collages, twigs, rocks, gemstones, feathers, seedpods and so forth. I have used seaweed, pine needles, moss, butterflies (old ones my mom had, I wouldn’t purposely buy butterflies or catch them), rose petals, really anything I come across that is interesting. People often send me things they collect for me to use which is so sweet. For years Mom collected leaves and pressed them in paper towels and saved them to give me when I came to visit. A few of my recent paintings have been landscapes but I have not done many in the past. I mostly like to paint the human form. I don’t think I’m very good at landscapes. When I stand in front of the vast complexity that is nature, I can’t miniaturize it. Which is what I think painting a landscape is in part.
Now I think it is fantastic your mother participated with you in your creative endeavors by saving the leaves for you and sharing the butterflies. And to collaborate that way with her and with others is something which spreads your work to touch others.
I can understand how miniaturizing the landscape is a challenge. I think one has to see that in a particular way or work from a photograph. If you have ever seen some of the places famous artists have painted, one is often amazed at the interpretation of the landscape…it is often different from the way the artist saw it!
Do you ever write about your visual art, other than on your blog?
I have never written about my visual art. Only the blog and right here answering these questions. Which I must say is fun and inspirational. I have surprised myself with all the things I’m dredging up from my memory.
You know, it is very interesting because everyone who has done one of these interviews has said the same thing about how much they enjoyed the questions and reflecting on their work. I am glad you have enjoyed this process…that is the point in doing these. When it isn’t fun, we shouldn’t do it. Well, I suppose we have to pay taxes (well…you know what I mean).
You have some books published, would you talk about those and the publishing process?
In 1978 two friends from college and I compiled six months worth of our letters to each other into a manuscript. Since college we had each married, each had one son and at the time were each going through a divorce. We discuss these things in our letters along with books we were reading, attempts to create careers and so forth. The letters were published by Avon Books. We used pseudonyms to protect the people we wrote about as our intent was not expose but sharing the tenor of our friendship. So I won’t reveal the title or my pseudonym here.
My second book was a novel published by Viking in 1990, called Catching the Light. After I completed my MFA in Writing, I worked at Elder Services and wrote the novel on the weekends. My friend, Susan Dodd, a writer I was in graduate school with, read the book and asked if she could send it to her editor at Viking. Well, yes. The editor loved it but felt it needed more work. Susan referred me then to her agent at ICM and the agent sold the novel to Viking before I had done the revisions. It was a miracle. I then had the money to leave Elder Services and complete the novel. The whole process was incredible. Well, for both books. The book of letters was accepted at the second publisher we sent it to. This was without an agent, over the transom. We got reviewed in The NY Times Book Review and an article was published in the New York Times about the way the book was accepted. My novel was accepted by the first editor who saw it. I was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review again for the novel. I’ve also been honored to have writing residencies twice at the Millay Colony for the Arts and at Dorland Arts Colony in California.
Wow Suki, this is amazing! To have your first book come out of a slush pile and to have your novel be picked up by the first publisher? And these are not shabby publishers, either. Well, there is nothing more to say other than, “AMAZING” ! Of course, I am off to find your novel, now! :)
What are your likes and dislikes in contemporary art?There is nothing I dislike in a broad sense. Occasionally there might be a particular artwork that I don’t understand and thus think I don’t like it. But generally I don’t make judgments or at least I hope I don’t. I love seeing what people come up with from their hands, heads and hearts. It is all wonderful, the spirit behind it, the desire to express something about life and experience, to communicate with others and to share
Beautifully said! Thank you!
What artists inspire you?
Many, many artists, maybe all artists, inspire me. It is an act of courage to create art and I find that courage inspiring. But more specifically: Gwen John (sister of Augustus John), Paula Modersohn-Becker (died young, painted wonderful portraits of pregnant women among others), Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard, Paul Klee, Matisse, Chagall have been favorites since I was in high school. Diebenkorn, Fairfield Porter, O’Keefe, Frieda Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Chuck Close, Frank Stella, Wolf Kahn, Kathe Kollwitz, Basquiat. Emily Carr. Dianne Arbus, Lotte Jacobi. Andrew Goldsworthy. I love the Fayoum Portraits, Persian Miniatures and the Outsider Artists. Just a start.
You just love and respect them all…how lovely!
What else would you like to share with us?I want to thank you Kim for your wonderful curiosity about art and artists. The way you draw us out and get us talking about art is incredible and generous. And thank you for your blog in which you share your art experiments and processes and ideas. Your blog posts are always thought provoking and inspirational. I have come to know many new artists through you. I’ve really enjoyed answering these questions and writing about my relationship to art. It was good to reflect on my past and it’s a gift to be able to share the answers with you and others. Namaste.
Suki, you are so sweet and write some words which bring tears to my eyes. The pleasure I find in writing my blog, meeting such incredible artist and doing these interviews is absolutely my pleasure. I honestly feel this is a wonderful, warm community.
You have taught me and all the readers here so much. It is a great honor to have you share so much of whom you are and your wonderful thoughts here. It is indeed a great honor.
Namaste, my friend!
note: I will return on Friday with a new post.