From the archives: My studio visit with visual artist Suzanne Hill
**This was originally posted in June, 2014. Suzanne mentions her big show "Only", which was later renamed "Singular" and is currently on display at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, NB until April 16th. A breathtaking show, not to be missed!**
When I arrived at Suzanne’s studio, it was like walking into a treasure trove of creativity. I went from a bare hallway to a bright open room full of artwork at various stages of completion. Every surface from walls to tables was covered with photos, sketches and large works in progress. The doodled shapes on pieces of sketchpad paper scattered on the desk were echoed in the large painted forms on the wall, shapes that moved and lived. I knew I was in the presence of a master.
This was the first time we’d met, and Suzanne was warm and welcoming. She asked me about CreatedHere and offered some advice and people with whom to connect. Talking with her was a treat, I could have stayed all day. She walked me through different things she was working on. Moving from project to project in all corners of the studio, I got a sample of the masterpieces they will become. I especially loved the large works depicting fluid human shapes in various moving poses, one of her signature styles.
“I deliberately make it a bit confusing, is that an arm or a knee? I want people to interact with it, to ask questions because then it’s alive.” Suzanne told me all about her big show called “Only”, to be unveiled in 2016. “This is my swan song”, she declared, before jumping into explaining all the facets of the show. She also talked about a series of illustrations for a book of poems, which she described with great relish as “my fun, my candy”. The project involves taking a poem and creating art inspired by that poem, which really does sound fun.
We talked about work, family and art, and the ever-elusive balance of the three. She and her husband have two daughters, who live away, and three grandchildren. “Only three”, she said, in a tone that implied she would have enjoyed dozens. Her family and her work as an art teacher have each had their important place, but art is clearly her vocation and has been a constant companion throughout her life. The animated way she talked about her art was contagious and inspiring. She made me want to go home and make stuff. In reading Suzanne’s long list of involvement and accomplishments over the years, it is clear that not only is she a formidable creative force with many shows and awards under her belt, she has also brought that strength to her community by serving on multiple boards and juries. She even co-founded the New Brunswick Visual Arts Education Association! Suzanne is a joy to meet, as an artist and as a person.
How long have you been making art?
A long time. Forever! I did my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Mount Allison, but before that I always made art as a kid. Now, about two years after I graduated I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy making a living with my art, so I took teaching and taught art for 33 years, but throughout that time I still worked on my art. I have been retired for 15 years and have been working as an artist full-time since then. I have been immensely lucky because I’ve never really had to do “production” work to support myself, like landscapes and portraits for example, unless I wanted to. I’ve always been able to do as I pleased because I had a job to pay the bills. Even now, I have a pension, my husband has a pension, so I can do whatever I want!
What inspires you — are there some things you are reading, listening to or looking at to energize your work?
Mostly, I find that there are two kinds of things that I work with. I tend to think about the venue for a show, if there is to be one, and explore a theme or idea I’ve been considering that suits the space. These fragments of ideas come from all kinds of places - sometimes my own life or the events affecting the lives of others…. or finding a particular image fascinating- labyrinths, palmistry hands, weirs, scarecrows, to mention a few. And then the research and reading into what these symbolize, how they have developed, their history and meaning in a social context. That sounds a bit precious, but once you start finding things out it is really interesting, and opens up all kinds of possibilities for going in different directions.
You talked about needing to know the "why" behind your work. Can you tell me more about why that is important and how it works for you?
In our conversation, I mentioned that when I was working on my BFA, the course focussed on the “how” of art - the techniques, design and composition of a piece of work. After a hiatus of perhaps ten years after graduation, I began to work seriously again. It was then that I realized that the “whys” - the ideas behind the images - the reasons for making an installation or a series of explorations were becoming very important to me - taking precedence over the “how”. I realized that for me the idea determined the technique or the process for expressing it. The “why” has become the stimulus for most of my work in the past 20 years. It was fortunate that so much of my degree emphasized techniques and materials - for the most part I am comfortable with a variety of (traditional) media and can adapt my work to suit whatever a theme or idea demands.
Which mediums do you work with?
This variety includes assorted drawing tools - conte, charcoal, graphite, coloured pencil, eraser,dry brush, and so on. I use primarily acrylic media - mediums of all sorts - modelling paste, gels, matte and gloss mediums, of course paint. I have an affinity for collage, or assembling items, often transferred images, onto paper or canvas, in addition to layering fabric.
Can you tell me about any current projects you are working on?
Right now, I am working on 2, possibly 3 general ideas. There are often times when one project seems stalled, or it’s just not going anywhere. So I move to something less stressful and work on that for a while. I have a drawing project ongoing tentatively titled “incomplete disguise” which I attack sporadically. More active is my personal “big show” only , which will consist of five installations connected by large figure collages. I have completed one of these, decisions. Ten canvases in pairs with an (I hope) pertinent phrase affixed to a series of floating acrylic layers. Four more to go - right now I am looking at 36 small canvases to explore the idea of personal rituals/routines. Those things “only” an individual does repetitively. The other thing I am doing is a series of small illustrations for a book of poems based on a somewhat obscure volume found in Havana in 2003. El Gran Zoo, by Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen. Monty Reid, who has been working with this off and on since then, says: “The original is short, funny and sarcastic. Its vocabulary is straightforward and its rhythms clear, virtues that complement my limited Spanish. I was also interested because it was, sort of, about animals … I have returned to it repeatedly, tweaking it, doctoring it, manipulating it, and once inadvertently feeding it to the squirrels. It is of course not a translation in any serious sense of the work. At best, it’s a derivation, perhaps an homage, My misreadings of Guillen are sometimes accidental and sometime deliberate …” The 6”x6” compiled/collaged illustrations provide an excellent contrast to the bigger (in all ways) work of my only project.
How do you see yourself navigating the art world?
I guess I have been fairly lucky in negotiating my way through the art biz. When I was starting out there were far fewer players, and much less bureaucracy to wade through. It was a simpler time, I suppose. And now I am of an age when what is important to me is to go to the studio and do my work. I realize the time that has to be spent networking and writing grant applications and figuring out how to exist pulls so many of the younger or mid career artists away from their work. Again, my life was about teaching art, raising a family, and yes, doing my art. Luckily, I found and was content with, the balance.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
WHEN IN DOUBT, SIMPLIFY (from Alex Colville, my faculty advisor back in the day)