Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Artist Interview with Susan Shie, Part 2

Welcome to (the much belated!) Part 2 of my interview with quilt artist Susan Shie!  If you did not catch Part 1, go check it out, then come back here, see the rest of the questions she chose, and read all of her insightful answers! Plus, you get to see a quilt she created for the SAQA Benefit Auction this year, which is pretty thrilling.....

Coloring in the big piece is really relaxing.  I usually start with yellow and go to darker colors from there, since this paint is transparent, like watercolor.  I love how it looks at this stage, very fresh!

Do you have a specific idea of the story you'd like each piece to tell, or are you hoping viewers will have stories of their own ready to inhabit your work? 

I remember being upset at times, when a student somewhere would write a paper about one of my pieces and base their information just on what they saw, rather than what I’d written in my own statement about that piece.  I’ve learned to let people have their own stories of my work, even if their ideas of what I was after are all different than my original intent.  I know many people won’t even read one thing on my works, and that others’ interpretation of my symbols will be way off from my own.  I can’t waste my time expecting others to listen to what I say, and it’s a very creative process, when they take all the crazy disparate things I put together visually and make their own logic out of it. It’s all good! 
I’m staring at the painting, which has a lot of colors on it already and will tell me what it needs where now.
Do you have any concrete advice about how to do away with artist's block? 

Draw every day.  I invented a little process, in which you go into your studio and sit down and draw and write whatever comes into your head, for 10 minutes only, then you quit.  I do it with my students, and we use children’s markers, so they can relax and just play.  I call this Library Time, and no one talks while we work for the 10 minutes.  I find it makes me feel centered into myself really well, and it brings up lots of creative thoughts, though whatever pops into your head is what you just let come through. It’s a form of channeling your inner thoughts and creativity, and you become loosened up.  Works like a charm, and it’s free.  No big book to read on how to be more creative.  Just do it, any time you want to get unstuck.  Priming the pump! 
I usually write with my airpen and fabric paint as a first and last draft, like writing a letter.  But here I’m copying the full inaugural speech, and later I added the full inaugural poem, for “American Pie.”
Do you place a high value on the role of humor in fine art?  How do you attempt to incorporate humorous elements into your own work, and what would you say is your response when you get a laugh from a piece by another artist? 

I know people sometimes think my work is funny, but I prefer to push it to being edgy, not humorous.  I am a little fussy about that, and I don’t like it when people say my work is cartoonlike or whimsical.  But I know I have to own those terms, when people see them.  So I work to keep the effect I want in my drawing style, which is simplified, not realistic.  I think you can fall off the balance of edgy into the abyss of cute or funny really easily, and I don’t want to.  But then, that doesn’t sound like I’m just letting my creativity out, does it?  We can’t turn off all our thinking, but we can learn to open up and let things come out … even if I do care to make sure my images are not whimsical.

“American Pie: 6 of Potholders (coins) in the Kitchen Tarot,” full view, ©Susan Shie 2013.  Sewn painting on cloth. 60”h x 90”w.  Read the long artist’s statement and find many pix of this piece at

What do you believe about the role of originality in art? Do you think it is important to always be unique, or is it best to just make the work and not worry whether it will be similar to something that someone else may be doing? Have you ever felt that your work was not original enough, or conversely, that a desire for total originality was getting in the way of your work communicating effectively? 

I’m sure I’m obsessed with being original, but at least I can honestly say I don’t think about it consciously while I’m working, and maybe that’s true of my need to have my art look edgy and feisty instead of cute.  On a very deep level, I MUST have a look that’s mine.  Maybe this comes from art school, where students learn to never, ever copy each other’s ideas.  Or at least, that is my memory of it.  I know I don’t care that some of my students copy my style. That’s fine, because they paid me to teach them.  Some of them just enjoy working my way, but those who want to get known for their own look will have to push through all the stuff they learn in classes and come up with that look.
If someone saw my work and told me they thought it was someone else’s work, I’d be miserable and really have to rethink what I’m doing.  I want you to recognize my work among a bunch of artists’ work, every time, once you’ve seen my work.  Yeah, that’s ego for you!  But it is truly important to me and always has been.  I don’t need to brag about my art or anything like that.  I just want to know you know it’s mine. 
“American Pie: 6 of Potholders (coins) in the Kitchen Tarot,” detail, ©Susan Shie 2013.  Sewn painting on cloth. 60”h x 90”w.
 You made a conscious switch from doing very labor-intensive, physically complex quilt art to your current more streamlined airbrushed work that includes only a few carefully chosen embellishments.  Do you think the old way and the new way of working produce or come from two different states of mind? Do you ever miss the old method, and have you broken from your current method to make any new work in the old style? 

They are from the same state of mind, in terms of creative motivation, but along with the taming of the airpen for fabric paint and cloth and the numb fingertips from hand sewing, I also consciously realized I choose to be a painter much more than a quilter/sewer.  I only miss the old way of doing all that hand work when I’m riding a long time in a car or sitting still to watch late night tv sometimes, as I could be sewing.  Except it would wreck my hands, which I try hard to honor by not overdoing repeated motions.  I think the numbness is carpel tunnel syndrome. I would only do the old style again if someone paid me the big bucks to do it.  My hand stitched and beaded quilted paintings were $20/sq inch, and my machine quilted paintings are $4/sq inch.  I think the hand work is actually way more than five times the effort though.  I would have to really, really pace myself to do that again, but money talks!  I have a middle size piece frozen at half hand stitched, and I haven’t been able to stomach finishing it, from when I left it sit in 2006.  Instead I restarted a different, much larger piece of the same Kitchen Tarot piece, using my new methods, and finished it in two months.  I knew it would have taken a half year to finish the smaller version of “The Food Scales: Justice in the Kitchen Tarot.” 

“YaYas Lunch.” ©Susan Shie 2013.  Sketchbook drawing. Ink and colored pencil.  11”h x 17”w.

You use an incredible number of personal symbols in your work, and I am curious about how they have entered into your art over time.  Have you stuck with most of the same symbolic elements for a long time, or are different meaningful animals, people, objects and patterns continually coming into your head? Lastly, do you choose them consciously or do they just sort of start appearing and at some point you realize that a certain symbol has chosen you? 

They have just kept accumulating over time, and I think I figure them out, usually very playfully.  I think that having to pick a kitchen object to represent the traits of each Kitchen Tarot major arcana card really escalated that growth of symbolic vocabulary.  Maybe the trickiest one was figuring out that the pressure cooker could be the Tower card, as I had to think of something in the kitchen that had been dangerously ignored and eventually explodes, which is what the Tower card is about. 
“Home Blessing Song #1.” ©Susan Shie 2013. Sewn painting on cloth. 12”h x 12”w  made for the 2013 SAQA online auction.
Your studio is in Ohio, and as far as I can tell, you have a very un-New-York personality, but I definitely adore one of your pieces that I saw in "Masters: Art Quilts Vol. 1," "Tropical New York." I'm curious to hear your thoughts about New York, what it's like to create work inspired by this city, and urban themes in general.  

I lived in New York City for six months in 1988, on an artist residency with the Ohio Arts Council, and Tropical New York is about some adventures I had there, especially when Spring came to the city.  Jimmy brought our daughter Gretchen and two of her friends, all 17 years old, on their Spring Break, and they stayed in my Long Island City apartment, 3 blocks from my studio at PS #1.  Long Island City is on the east bank of the East River, right across from Midtown Manhattan, one subway stop away.
“The Big Dig.” ©Susan Shie 2013.  Painting on cloth.  Fabric paint, applied with brush and airpen.
18.5”h x 22.5”w.  This is a piece I made as a demo for several of my processes, in my Turtle Art Camp in March, 2013, right after clearing out the studio.
 I had a big studio in PS #1, when the studios were still in bad shape, but they were working on the building.  This was WAY before MOMA used PS #1 as its building, while the museum in Manhattan was being renovated.  It was the only time in my adult life that I lived alone, except for when I had my granny pad in Cleveland in 2004-06, to take care of Eva at my kids’ house during the week, while my daughter was at work.  The NYC period was full of exploring the city, making lots of my work, and interacting with artists from all over the world.  I could have stayed there, if I’d had 3 jobs to cover all the expenses that were paid for me during that amazing residency!! 
“Downtown Wooster Saturday Morning,” full view, ©Susan Shie 2013.  Painting on stretched canvas. Acrylic and ink. 18”h x 24”w.  Collection of Lisa Wagoner, Wooster, Ohio.
 I love that piece. It’s from a more reckless time in my work, when I was doing a LOT of painting with abandon on lots of crazy fabrics, and I was still using 3-D figures I sewed together, painted and stuffed and embroidered all over.  There are snakes to represent the subways, some of my first Buddha Girls, to represent the Voice Meditation class I took at PS #1 with the Dutch artist’s wife.  (There were something like 35 artists who had studios there, mostly from other countries, but there were 4 of us from US states.  Ohio had one of the best arts councils in the country then, and still does, but all of them have lost most of the funding they had back then.  They sent me to China for a month in 1990, too!)  
“Downtown Wooster Saturday Morning,” detail view, ©Susan Shie 2013.  Painting on stretched canvas. Acrylic and ink. 18”h x 24”w.  Collection of Lisa Wagoner, Wooster, Ohio.
Do you have any extremely talented artist friends whose work you'd like to plug here on the blog? They don't have to be fiber artists, just super cool folks who could use a little blog love.  

I love the work of Suzanne Fisher of Cincinnati, who’s a painter, mixed media artist, and mosaic muralist.  Her work is amazing.  She also had an artist residency at PS #1 in New York, the year before me, and we became good friends over it. To me her work is edgy and often about women, which is my own thing, too.  I have never collaborated with Suzanne, but would love to! 
This is a mosaic fountain by my friend and genius, mixed media artist Suzanne Fisher of Cincinnati.
I am an artist who "cannot draw," and I am interested in the ways that artists who want to make work which is representational but not strictly realistic can develop a visual vocabulary that does two things, both of which I think your work does very well.  The first is communicate clearly (i.e., figuring out how to draw hand gestures, faces and body interactions that viewers will be able to read easily even if they do not conform to the laws of reality). The second is visual appeal (i.e. why do I adore some artists who work in this style of not strict realism, like you, Lynda Barry and Pamela Allen but absolutely loathe other artists' work that can be said to follow the same conventions?). I would love to hear your thoughts about the importance of communication and visual appeal within the work that you do.

Thank you for your supportive words!  I believe that art is mainly an act of communication, and in my life, communication is what it’s all about!  I believe that all of us can draw just fine, but most of us dropped drawing at some point, so for those many people, their drawing skills NOW are probably worse than when they quit drawing, as a child.  Children are geniuses in many ways!  But they learn to fear being wrong, and they hate to be ridiculed.  They often shut down anything they don’t have to do, that might get them picked on. 

“Key West25 : 8 of Paring Knives (swords) in the Kitchen Tarot.”

I used to draw realistically a lot, but I also did a lot of photography, and finally I decided that my camera can do the realism, while I busy myself with making more intuitive art.  I love to draw, and I know that if I copy from a sketch I’ve made and love, it gets wrecked with stiffness. I still make life drawings, looking at things and drawing them realistically. That’s how you learn!  You need to just draw, to accept what comes out, in order for it to be alive.  It’s good to stand up to draw, to have some music on, to move with that music while you draw.  And especially it’s best to turn on the negative thinking.  It makes me happy to draw and paint and write and sew!  I think when we’re happy, our bodies and minds get a chance to do some healing and balancing.  So then: art is good for you!
“Turtle Moon Sign.” ©Susan Shie 2012.  Sewn painting on cloth.  22”h x 24”w.
As for getting the gestures right, it helps to draw from real life when you can.  You educate yourself when you really LOOK at what you’re drawing.  And practice makes perfect!  I have many, many years of art school behind me, and some of that stuff I recognized as balognie: the rules part.  But the golden part was making tons of drawings from life, developing the skill of being able to communicate what you see.  So then, like a jazz musician, you can scat when you draw.  You can syncopate the look, like how a jazz player stylizes the music, bending the music rules to their desires.  I think what you’re talking about responding to could be called syncopated drawing.  Or Jazzy Art, or Sassy Art!  Sassy is a nice word, and I’ve got a few little classes on my site I’m now offering with that word in their titles.  Sassy Drawing, Sassy Painting, Sassy Art Quilts, or something like that.  It’s making art with a real sense of freedom many people sadly don’t realize they would love feeling. 

©Susan Shie 2008. This is the largest painting I’ve ever made.  Hand colored house paint, brushed onto wooden garage door.  Approx 8’ x 16’, plus trimwork.  Finished about a week before the Presidential Election 2008.  Statement and large images at

A GIANT thank you to Susan Shie for infinite patience with the ridiculous delay in getting this interview published, it was an absolute pleasure to work with you, and to learn all about your artistic process and your life philosophy!