Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Artist on Artist Interview with Susan Stephenson.

The 'Artist on Artist' Interview Second Anniversary! 

Today is a very special day for a few reasons!

Firstly, today marks the Second Anniversary of the 'Artist on Artist' Interviews I conduct. 
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the 'AoA' interviews and their purpose; for the past two years, I've been hosting 6 artist interviews, every other month on my studio blog. I feature 3 female and 3 male artists, all of varying mediums, genres, styles, and subject matters. The premise to these interviews is to celebrate and promote artists, whose work I have deep admiration and respect for while giving them the opportunity to represent their spirit and work in a way they see suitable. 

Secondly, I am thrilled, excited, happy, and honoured, to be celebrating this special Anniversary with an artist whose work is stellar and always rises to the occasion, and who I had the pleasure of having as a teacher at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts; the one and only, Susan Stephenson! 

Susan Stephenson's work has long been a favourite of mine since my days at the Academy and her work continues to amaze me. Stephenson has an uncanny ability to take the ordinary and make it into something extraordinary! Her unique vision as an artist is unparalleled to any other artist, old or new. Stephenson's work explores strong compositions, rich and intense colours, and a distinctive painting style which makes her work pure eye-candy! Stephenson's work is supreme, and so is her character as a human being at the say least. 

And now without any further adieu here is Susan Stephenson's interview along with selected works ....


Artist on Artist Interview with Susan Stephenson

Susan Stephenson with her new work 'Endless Summer' during the
Faculty Exhibition Opening, Sept 12, 2014. at the 
Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.

Endless Summer. 36" x 48". Oil on Panel. © 2014.

*Endless Summer along with three other new works are currently on display at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, Old Lyme, CT; and will be on view in the Stillman Gallery until January 10, 2015.  

Polly - Hello Susan, and a big welcome to you on my studio blog, and may I say it is a pleasure to have you here! Would mind telling us where you’re from and where you live now?

Susan - Hi, Polly - it’s always a pleasure to see you and hear what you’re thinking about. Thanks for inviting me! I was born in Ruston, Louisiana, and I now live in Hopkinton, RI, and I share a studio in the Velvet Mill in Stonington, CT.

Late Summer Evening. 24" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2012.

Polly -  Please tell us about your earliest memories of when and how you discovered you were an artist? 

Susan - On some level - even as a tiny child - I always felt like an artist.  I could hold a pencil absurdly early and was constantly drawing with crayons or markers, as far back as I can remember.  My parents were wonderfully indulgent and gave me materials and encouraged me, even to the point of being slow to stop me when I began drawing all along one of our walls in the house where we lived when I was three.  I can remember seeing that pristine length of hallway (it was a ranch) and feeling like it was a gigantic piece of paper - heaven!  It was impossible to resist.  At the time, my mother didn’t want to squelch me, but my grandmother thought they were nuts not to stop me.  That tells you a lot about the sort of encouragement and experimentation I took for granted, growing up in my household.  Even as a four year-old, I was holding crazy sessions at the kitchen table, drawing portraits of my family members and being totally frustrated whenever they twitched. 

  I was also enchanted by color at an early age, and my parents thought they’d stumbled onto a perfect babysitting activity when I would spend hours painting at the kitchen table.  I would happily dribble pure paint, relishing the colors and abstract blobs.  Since I wasn’t yet capable of washing a single brush and reusing it, my mother had to get me a little brush for every pot of color.  And I couldn’t sit in a chair and see above the table, so I would have to crawl up and stay on my knees in the chair seat in order to see.  It was great, being the little artist in the family.

Farmerville Reflections. 12" x 24".  © 2010. 

Stop in New London. 12" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2007/14.

Polly - Could you tell us about your education and training?

Susan - My hometown is a university town, and I was always aware of local artists’ work. There were also books, galore, at my house - my parents collected them, and I had monographs of various artists at the ready. Yet I didn’t visit a museum and see a real Van Gogh or Cezanne until I was in college and took a bus trip to Dallas/Ft. Worth with my painting professor, Peter Jones. It was a revelation, seeing those paintings in real life, and it forever changed how I viewed painting. 

  I received my BFA from Louisiana Tech University, in my hometown. It had a strong Art and Architecture Department, and my father taught physics there for years; so when I decided to stay in Ruston and pursue my BFA at La Tech, it was an emotional as well as financial decision.  Some of the professors at Tech were phenomenal, and the one-on-one interaction was unbeatable. They expected students to emerge from the program with the ability to work representationally as well as non-objectively, and it was enormously helpful to my development. 

  Then I moved to Boston and became a graduate student at Boston University’s School of Visual Arts, receiving my MFA in 1992. It was a fantastic experience. At that time, John Moore was running the graduate program and it was life-changing to be able to work with him. It was also transformative to work alongside my friends - they will always feel like family members to me, no matter how long we go without catching up. Grad school was one of the best times of my life, and I would encourage anyone who is even halfway interested to go ahead and give it a try. 

Chartreuse. 24" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2008.  

Polly - What did you gain most having studied at BU and from there, how did you get yourself from where you are today? (Question presented by Sandi Gold)

Susan - One the most helpful things I gained at BU was the ability to discuss work and philosophies during seminars, where we all made presentations about a number of artists or ideas and then argued and defended our positions without committing murder - a miracle. I also developed a “thicker skin.” There I was, producing more work in less time than ever before, all while being critiqued from a variety of people on an ongoing basis. It was an exhausting process, both physically and mentally, but the experience really tempered me - invaluable. 

  After receiving my MFA, I returned to Louisiana for a couple of years and taught Design at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. In 1994, I returned to New England for a nine-month residency in New London with The Griffis Art Center. After that concluded, instead of returning to the South, I stayed in the area and found part-time work teaching at two places: at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI, I taught all levels of Drawing as a sabbatical replacement; and at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, CT, I taught a 2D Design course. The job at Lyme eventually became full-time, and in 2001, I became Lyme’s first Foundation Program Chair, a position I held for nine years. In 2011, I became the Chair of the Painting Department and continue to serve in that capacity today. Right now, I teach Drawing, Painting, and Design.

August Evening at Pearl.  12" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2010.

Yellowhouse. 12" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2011.

Polly - Please tell us about your influences and inspirations, and how does teaching influence your art?

Susan - I’m influenced by a number of artists from the past. Some of my favorite painters are Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn, but I also love Van Gogh, Vuillard, Bacon, Hokusai, Rembrandt, Brueghel, Uglow, Freud ... and countless others. There are plenty of living artists whose work I admire, too. Because of the curvilinear perspective I’ve been exploring in my work, Rackstraw Downes is especially interesting, and so is Antonio Lopez Garcia. I admire the fearlessness and sensuality of Anne Harris’s paintings, and I also admire Jenny Saville’s continuing impact - her recent drawings were fantastic. Kyle Staver’s paintings pull me in with their use of color as light while using mythology in such an interesting way, and they make me rethink everything. Former colleagues have had a deep influence on me over the years, and they continue to affect my work, today:  I admire David Dewey’s paintings for their use of color and absolute mastery of the medium of watercolor, not to mention how much I relish seeing how he sees the world; and the abstract strength of Steve Sheehan’s paintings always reminds me to pare things down more. 

  Teaching has influenced my art in unexpected ways. Being able to be granular in discussing painting and its peculiarities for so many years has allowed me to immerse myself in that world deeply than if I had been working at a different job.  But in all honestly, I must agree with what Ben Shahn said about teaching art, that an artist must stop thinking about what she may say in the classroom when she steps in front of her own work. Teaching is one thing, making art is another, and those lessons can get in the way of spontaneity and doom the painting. Sometimes, however, if I find my way through a particular problem, I remember my students and wish they could have seen and learned from it; but of course, that will never happen - I can’t really make artwork and teach at the same time. Demos are usually duds - their purpose is to be informative. 

  Ultimately, my teaching has influenced my art simply because it has allowed me to meet and work with so many terrific artists; I believe the connection with them is sustaining, possibly staving off the isolation so many artists can feel.

 Corner of Main and Commerce. 14" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2010.

On site for 'Corner of Main and Commerce'. 

Polly - Your work has a unique style; how would you describe your style, and how and when did you start painting with the exaggerated curvature/fish-eye lens perspective?, is there a specific goal you are attempting to achieve with your painting?

Susan - I don’t worry about style very much - like a personality, I feel that it will take care of itself. Instead, I seek visual relationships that please me, and this usually brings a level of consistency to the work. 

  My interest in curvilinear perspective is most likely a direct result of my having grown up in a homemade geodesic dome, and my attraction to circles and triangles appears in all sorts of ways. My very first experiment with the wraparound view happened in 1997 or ‘98 when I was on site in Westerly, painting along the Pawcatuck river and looking up at the buildings, above. The only panel I had on hand was not wide enough to incorporate the view I wanted, so I bent the world a bit in order to fit it into the rectangle. (That painting now belongs in the Pfizer corporate collection.) At around the same time at the Ocean House in Watch Hill, RI, I continued using curvilinear perspective in a painting that initially made me feel queasy but now feels quite tame.

Misquamicut Farm. 7 1/2"x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2010.

Polly - Tell us about your studio and your routine; where is your studio?, you keep a tidy or messy studio space?, how do you start a piece?, do you work from photos sometimes?, do you listen to music when you paint and if so what?, etc.

Susan - Oh, I am a very messy person - a total slob. My studio is always jumbled. I share it with another artist, Steve Sheehan, and I try to keep things neater out of consideration for him. It’s odd, but the only things I really keep in order are my tools - I cannot abide not knowing where my woodworking tools are, when I need them. So they’re usually in their particular spot. Everything else is all over the place. 

  While I do share that studio in the Velvet Mill, my REAL studio is the outdoors - wherever I happen to be on site. Most of my work is produced on location from direct observation, but I have worked from photographs a few times. I usually dislike the results, when I use photos, but I like to keep my options open. Recently, I did produce a larger painting in my studio, working from a smaller painting produced on location - it’s not a common process for me, but I enjoyed it. 

  The only time I listen to music while painting is when I work on something in the studio. On location, I want to keep my ears open to whatever is going on around me; blocking my hearing with earbuds would leave me vulnerable. Even though I paint in locations that are pretty safe, I try to remember to watch my back and never get so lost in a painting that I become a target. In fact, positioning myself in front of windows has been helpful, since I can see what’s going on behind me; the reflections in front are interesting, but the awareness of my environment is especially important. I most often work on birch panels that I’ve prepared with acrylic gesso. 

  When I begin a painting, I draw on the panel with paint and then try to develop everything as abstractly as possible.

Sunday at the Strand - Dixie Theater.  12" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2006.

Polly - As plein-air artist(s), we tend to get a lot of inquisitive people interrupting our work; what is your strategy in with inquisitive minds, and would you mind sharing with us a funny plein-air painting experience/story you have. 

Susan - I do find myself interrupted by onlookers when I'm working out in public - I think of it as a toll for the privilege of working outdoors. It's interesting, because some people walk up to me and simply breathe and I want to scream and run away; while others may walk up, take a look and even ask a question... and for some reason they don't bother me at all - it depends on the person. One thing I've noticed, though, is that obnoxious children usually come with obnoxious parents, and the reverse seems to be true. 

  When people are genuinely interested, I'm happy to talk briefly with them about the work, even if it takes me away from the moment. But in order to avoid casual interruptions, I've learned a few tactics that seem to work. 

  Most importantly, avoid touristy areas, if possible. When I first moved to RI and began painting on site at area beaches, I didn't know any better, and I tried to paint when the beaches were at their most crowded.  Nowadays, if I go to the beach to work, I'll usually get there at dawn and leave when the crowds thicken.  Besides, when people are on vacation, they may not realize you're there to work; they may be more inclined to linger without realizing how detrimental it is to your focus.  I try to keep to myself as much as I can without being downright rude, or else a nice brief conversation can turn into a whole string of interruptions, because people who are walking by will be more inclined to approach you after seeing you talking with others.  On the other hand, touristy areas are probably safer than some other places, and I act differently according to the location.  In a tourist-rich area, I'll keep my head down and avoid eye contact.  If I see someone approaching tentatively and I happen to look up and lock eyes with them, they seem to take it as an invitation and move right in.  If I avoid eye contact and still get the feeling that people are going to speak with me - and I'm in a precarious moment of the work -  I'll scowl at the painting.  Yes, I call it the George Costanza method, and it works!  When people think you're having a bad day, they'll leave you alone.  I've even grimaced and said "Aaaaagh" under my breath - works like a charm. 

  In contrast, if I'm working in a more urban environment, and I am not as certain of my surroundings, I make a point of making eye contact with passersby in order to make sure they know I'm aware of what's around me. People in cities usually don't stop and interrupt, anyway, since they're often on their way somewhere else. For the past ten years, I've been using a rolling cooler as an impromptu easel and carrying cart; in New London, a few people thought I was trying to sell drinks on the sidewalk, which I thought was odd.  I should've remembered that when I was painting in Westerly another time, and a guy walked up to me and asked, "You got any beer?"  I was totally confused.  Then I looked down at my paint-spattered cooler and realized that he had no idea what I was doing there.  You'd find paint and turpenoid in there, but no beer.

State and Union. 12" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2007.

Polly - Would you mind telling us about your palette - what kind you use and what colours/paints you use? Do use any mediums? What is your preferred surface to work on and why?

Susan - When I was in college, I loved working on canvas and couldn’t ever have imagined that nowadays I would prefer to work on birch panels, but it’s true. I love the smooth surface and the resistance - like painting on a wall, I guess. Occasionally, I’ll prepare panels with rabbitskin glue, but I’ll prime them most often with acrylic gesso. There’s a brand I’ve recently become excited about called Art Alternatives - it’s advertised as a “cheaper alternative,” but I found that it covers better and has a superior tooth. I love it. 

  My palette is simple - often it’s just cadmium red medium, cad yellow light, ultramarine blue, and white. But sometimes I add pthalo blue and maybe a purplish red, like magenta or quinacridone violet. There’s no single brand that I prefer, since I tend to go for a particular color that one brand makes while going for a different brand of another color. But if I had to be specific, I would say that Old Holland is always a great brand of oil paint, and so is Williamsburg. Recently, I’ve been trying out a few of the Michael Harding colors I bought from the Store at Lyme Academy College, and so far his paints have been fabulous. For cadmiums, however, I prefer - brace yourself - Utrecht brand cadmiums. The yellow is hotter than I find in other brands, and that’s what I like. For white, I prefer a mix of titanium and zinc. 

  The medium I like to use is a mixture of Stand Oil and solvent; the solvent I’ve been using lately is Gamsol, but I’ve enjoyed others, too. 

Hot Spot. 24" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2014.

Polly - I’m curious, do you have a favourite painting of yours and if so, why!?! 

Susan - I’m not sure how to answer that question. There are definite works that becomes milestones in my development, and they are all special to me. But there are also several paintings that I hang onto for more than their formal strength; they are beloved primarily because of what was going on in my life when I painted them, and they take me directly back to that time whenever I see them. I painted several in my hometown that included old buildings or bridges that have since been torn down, and I love those paintings for the memories they represent. Similarly, there are paintings I made at houses where I once lived, and some of them are bittersweet, reminding me of people no longer in my life. But I must stress that any of these works that I love for sentimental reasons are never sentimental-looking, and only paintings that please me for formal reasons ever get pondered; the bad ones go into a box. Or thrown out. 

  But honestly, I feel that I should answer with another artist’s words (I’ve forgotten who said it, though,) - my favorite painting is whatever painting I’m working on at the moment. I think that sums it up. 

Sail Loft Sparkling. 16" x 20". Oil on Panel. © 2004/05.

Polly - If you could try your hand at another medium or genre what would it be and why? 

Susan - Oh, I am excited by lots of different things, but I don’t indulge in them very often. Collage is continually interesting, and so is ink wash. But the only material that I find almost as sensually wonderful as oil paint is Char-kole brand compressed charcoal on good-quality white paper. Its inky blackness is almost as rich as pure color, and the sooty feel is very satisfying. For a person who gets such a kick out of color, I daydream an awful lot about inky black and white images. 

A sneak peek into Stephenson's Velvet Mill studio in Stonington, CT.

Polly - If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why? 

Susan - I think it would be Willem deKooning, before Alzheimer’s hit. -No, let’s change that answer - it would probably be Hokusai, if I could have a translator. He was a genius. 

Corner Coffee. 24" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2009.

Polly - Who has been the greatest support to you as an artist and how? 

Susan - That would have to be my parents. They recognized my abilities early and encouraged me to be as independent as possible, and they gave me abundant supplies. If I had to narrow it down more specifically, I would say that my mother has been the single most important supporter, and I will never be able to thank her enough. Having someone believe in you with that much fervor and consistency is an unimaginable gift. It gives me strength, to this day. 

High Above Hartford. 24" x 48". Oil on Panel. © 2007. 

Polly - What has been most challenging for you as an artist? 

Susan - I’m a quiet person. Most of my exhibition opportunities just fell into my lap, and I am frustrated with myself for not trying to show my work in larger venues. People might know who I am if they are familiar with Lyme, but hardly anyone else knows who I am or what my work looks like, and I have only myself to blame. I’d rather hide under the bed than march out there, but it’s part of the job. I have to get busy. 

Park. 11" x 42". Oil on Panel. © 2002.

Hope Valley. 12" x 48". Oil on Panel. © 2014. 

 *Hope Valley will be included in "Convergence," the first large-scale alumni exhibition of Boston University's School of Visual Arts, held in honor of the 60th anniversary of the College of Fine Arts. In Boston University's Gallery 808, the exhibition will run from October 24 - December 14, 2014.

Polly - If you were conducting this interview what one question would you ask yourself and what would the answer be?

Susan - I have no idea how to respond to this question. You’ve stumped me, Polly! On second thought, I might ask “How would you like your work to be considered?” 

My answer: I remember a friend once gave me one of the best compliments, ever, and I would love for others to eventually share her opinion. We had been talking about gender and how an artist’s gender can sometimes appear obvious in their work. She mentioned an artist whose works looks very feminine and another whose work is quite masculine, and I agreed. She then said that my work looked neither feminine or masculine, just strong. That was the ultimate compliment. 

Aphrodite and Corsair. 12" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2004.

Polly - I would agree to that! Tell us what words of wisdom would you offer to young artists? 

Susan - First, I would give them a copy of the transcript from Bob Kulicke’s Visiting Artist talk at Lyme, because he gave incredible advice. Then I would tell them to persevere, to rise above the distractions that are everywhere, today - only people who work incredibly hard get anywhere in this business. Additionally, I would tell everyone to be sure to apply to grants and residencies repeatedly. It’s advice I have to remind myself to take, but it’s true - rejection is terribly common, but you must reapply after being disappointed, year after year. Sometimes it takes ten or fifteen attempts to get an acceptance. Sometimes an acceptance never arrives, that’s true.. but the application process does get better with practice - don’t give up. 

Downtown Westerly. 24" x 24". Oil on Panel. © 2009. 

Polly - Thank you so much for your time Susan! And lastly, is there anything else you would like to share with us about you and or your art? 

Susan - Nothing I can think of… Thank you, Polly! 

Polly - Thank you so much Susan for taking the time to talk about your art and giving us a little more insight into your artistic life! I wish you the very best with your career!!


For more information about Susan Stephenson and her work, please visit her website and or facebook page ...

Facebook: Susan Stephenson

Stephenson's work is currently represented by the ... 

  • Cate Charles Gallery. Providence. RI.
*The Cate Charles Gallery will be hosting an exhibition of Stephenson's work scheduled for May 2015. So, be sure to mark your calendars and save the date!


Thank you all for viewing this month's Artist on Artist Interview with Susan Stephenson. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.

The next 'Artist on Artist' interview is December 2014 with Rex Stewart.