Susan's "subject matter, context and medium...present a coherent artistic vision"
John Torreano, Clinical Professor of Studio Art, NYU

"Great stuff. Love your work."
Seymour Chwast

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Thursday, April 29, 2010


First I was into existentialism; then transcendental meditation; then zen. Now I'm into bistros.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Body and Soul

I recently painted my best friend, Kenneth Feldman, who I call Feldy. At the first session: I sit him down in a possible pose, studying intently every feature of his face, body and posture. I take into account all of this physiognomy and store the information in my brain. But now I must mix it with the intangible "patina" of Feldy, such as his personality, wit, intelligence, background–indeed, his soul. If a painter attempts to portray a person by considering only the body without taking into account the soul, she is no different than a house painter.

While we are deciding on the right pose, Feldy mugs. He pulls his lapel, which sports a boutonniere, up to his nose and smells the flower. I love this pose and and tell him that this is the way I want to paint him. Curiously, Feldy says "Please don't paint me that way. I'll look too fey." I am not sure what he means, but choose another pose. Even though he is a delightfully lighthearted and amusing model , I choose to show his more serious side.

In my mind I have blended his "patina" with his physiognomy, so I feel I am ready to block in the paint on my canvas. This involves exploring the shapes of his face and body and constructing them with paint, running my brushes up, around and over the various facial forms to "flesh out" the paint rough. I round out the cheekbones and forehead, I build up the volume for his nose and lips, and I darken around his eye sockets so they will appear sunken–on a lower plane than the rest of his face.

I continue the block-out of all of Feldy - his neck, shoulders, torso, pelvis, legs, right down to his feet. All these anatomical parts are merely shapes. But through my exploration and manipulation of them I know that I will reveal Feldy's soul. His essence, not just his form, will be reflected in his portrait.

Feldy patiently subjects his body and being to my artist's gaze. The work on the paint rough progresses smoothly and quickly. For me, the purpose of a rough is simply to get the paint onto the canvas. At this point I do not concern myself with any likeness these embryonic paint splashes might have to my model. However, in this instance I am struck by the remarkable resemblance between the painting and Feldy.

After that first day, I could not work on the painting for ten months. Sadly, almost immediately after, Feldy was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. I did try to help his body though, trying to restore or at least maintain what was left of his health, by escorting him to and from doctors, keeping him company while he was being treated, transporting him to and visiting with him in hospitals, bringing him meals, newspapers and clothing.

On one occasion, I even bathed him when a nurse was not available. I was struck by the similarity between running a warm washcloth over his physical face and running a brush over his painted face. Toward the end, Feldy had to be moved to a hospice. While he was there, I realized that I had been so concerned with his body that I had forgotten the importance of his soul. Sadly, I then had to watch his soul drain out of his body bit by bit until it was gone.

A rabbi told me that I shouldn't feel so sad about death. It is not the end. Our bodies are just temporary homes for our souls. Therefore, we should view our bodies as just short-term rentals. He assured me that the spirit of Feldy lived on.

Soon after the funeral I got back to finishing the painting. Although I usually use multiple layers of paint when finishing a painting, Feldy's required very little finish because the rough was so "right." While working on it, I remembered that Feldy didn't want me to use the pose with him smelling his boutonniere because it made him look too "fey." I finally looked the word up in a dictionary and learned that the first definition given is: "chiefly Scottish: fated to die, doomed; marked by a foreboding of death or calamity."

Still, the spirit of Feldy lives on.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Laughing Lacunae

Some years ago, I briefly worked as the personal assistant to Dr. Nabil Elaraby, the Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations. I was quite surprised that I got hired for the position because at the time I had no office skills and didn't even know how to use a computer. My most recent experience had been as a graduate student in art at NYU.

During my interview, I cagily explained to the Egyptian Mission's Minister Plenipotentiary (all the time wondering to myself "What on earth is a Minister Plenipotentiary"?) that I wasn't familiar with the Mission's computer system. Actually, I wasn't familiar with any computer system. Madame Minister Plenipotentiary replied that this would not be a problem because the Ambassador had many administrative assistants to do that sort of work. She added that he also had six secretaries. She further explained that the Ambassador wanted to seem forward-thinking and that he thought having an American, English-speaking personal assistant would help him in that endeavor.

The Minister Plenipotentiary told me that my principal duties would be to maintain the Ambassador's social calendar and field phone calls (which was fun because I got to talk with politicos and dictators such as Madeleine Albright, Hosni Mubarak and Joseph Wilson. I once suggested to Egyptian President Mubarak that he speak more slowly on the phone because I was American and couldn't grasp what he was saying at such a fast clip. He replied in heavily accented English,"You're American? Noooooo kidding." It was thrilling for me to have the President of Egypt speak American slang to me. It made me feel that we were on intimate terms.

The Ambassador was fond of saying that I filled various lacunae in the Mission. Perhaps the two lacunae I filled best were as mollifier and editor. On occasions when protesting groups showed up at the Mission demanding to see Ambassador Elaraby, the Ambassador would calmly stroll into my office, lean in and sweetly say, "Would you mind going down there and talking to them. I'm kinda busy right now." Like throwing a lamb to the lions, I thought. At first I was scared, but I soon discovered it was a brilliant strategy. When the angry demonstrators saw me instead of the Ambassador, it totally disarmed them. They had no beef with a mild-mannered, American girl with no political agenda. They thanked me and handed me a petition to deliver to the Ambassador. I guess that made me a force for world peace.

The ambassador frequently asked me to edit his Egyptian secretaries' correspondence, since English was their second language. The secretaries wrote many letters and generally delivered them personally. They were all extremely tall and powerful-looking men. I would go so far as to say intimidating. They always dressed in dark blue or black suits with long black topcoats and never smiled. When the Ambassador ventured out from the Mission, they formed a human barricade around him. Because I didn't want them to look like thugs when delivering their correspondence, I usually changed phrases like "Hand over the money" to "Kindly make arrangements to deliver the appropriate funds."

One day the Ambassador asked that I take a stack of letters to the fax room and have them sent to the Heads of State of all the members of the Organization of African Unity. The Ambassador was running for an office in that international group and was requesting their support. The fax room had five older Egyptian gentlemen in it, all of whom were sitting on a sofa chatting, drinking black coffee and smoking. I gave the letters to one of them and explained that it was a priority. Shortly after, I returned to my office to find that the letters had been returned to me with a note reading "Too busy. Fax you." (signed) Mr. Faisal." I returned to the fax room with the letters and saw the same group lounging on the sofa, still chatting, drinking coffee and smoking. I told them that I could see very well that they were not particularly busy. Snickering, one of them told me they were too busy indeed–too busy to work for a girl. The others all laughed, which I took to mean they concurred.

On a prior occasion, Abdelrazik, the office manager, had told me that in Egypt toilet paper was paid for by the user, so I would have to start paying for mine. Otherwise he would stop supplying it to my bathroom. I drew the line at paying for toilet paper, but knew that this new incident necessitated my doing the faxing myself. I am not a work snob and I am generally quite willing do anything to get a job done. However, I had never faxed before and was quite sure I wasn't going to get any tips from the professional faxers lounging around. On the other hand, I thought it was pretty simple: insert document, dial phone number, press start button.

Shortly after, I started getting phone queries from various African nations asking why the Egyptian Ambassador had sent them blank pieces of paper. I guess I didn't know which side was up. I pictured all the blank pieces of paper laughing at me---so many laughing lacunae--a veritable pad of paper mockers--as they exited fax machines all over Africa. First, I cried. Then I cried for my boyfriend. He can do anything, even fax. Why do you think I married him? He said it was difficult to explain how to fax over the phone but he had a plan. I was to smuggle the letters out of the Mission by hiding them beneath my trenchcoat. To do this, I had to pass by armed security guards at the door and the New York City police officers who were stationed at a security kiosk right across the street with a file folder full of letters secreted on my person.

As planned, my boyfriend met me on the corner. Just 50 feet away from the police and guards, I surreptitiously "handed over" the papers to him. My hero took them to his office, faxed them, and then returned to the Mission, meeting me outside in the rain to return the papers to me, whereupon I smuggled them back into the Mission. To complicate matters, during this transaction, the Ambassador, en route to the UN, walked out of the Mission flanked and followed by his tall, darkly-clad, non-smiling secretaries. "Who are those guys?" asked my boyfriend. I informed him, "the Ambassador's secretaries." To which my boyfriend, handing over the letters from under his coat, replied, "They're not secretaries, they're packing heat!" Somehow, I managed to smuggle the letters back into the mission without being apprehended.

A few months later, Abdelrazik came to my office and said, "OK, you can go home now." I said, "Why, is it an Egyptian holiday?" He said, "No. Ambassador very fond of you, but he go back to Egypt. You go home now and don't come back." So I did–and I didn't.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


************The Flying Wallendas relaxing at home!************

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Phantom Income .... or?

When I was working as an illustrator, one of my positions was as staff illustrator for the weekly newsletter of a major international law firm. At the same time, I was also working on a freelance basis as an illustrator for the New York Law Journal, a daily newspaper. Between the two jobs, I had to produce a minimum of four legal-themed drawings every week. Sometimes I did not receive an assignment until the day before the drawing was due. This necessitated many all–nighters to produce them. Generally, they were not easy concepts to draw either. (How I envied those other artists who got to illustrate puppies, flowers, or sailboats.)

One assignment was to illustrate a story on "phantom income." As in many other instances, I didn't even know what phantom income was. So I had to figure out what the term meant before I could even start drawing. After some research, I found out it is taxable income which does not generate cash flow. Even with my minimal grasp of finance I knew that this was always bad, never good. "Great," I thought,"How am I supposed to show that?" I decided to play off the phantom part of it. At the time Phantom of the Opera was having its moment. That Phantom was a familiar image, recognizable to all. So I appropriated that image for my phantom. To develop this pastiche, I added numbers to the face for the income aspects; a dollar sign became his bowtie. I added sharp discernible teeth between the eight and the one on the creepy side of his face to make him even more bad looking. Then I finished it with a couple more dollar signs in his hair.

I dunno....numbers on his face....frightening teeth....I'm beginning to get a little nervous. Does that remind me of someone else? Maybe I was not drawing on Phantom of the Opera after all. There is a one, a two and a three right there on his face. Uh oh ... I think I resurrected 1-2-3 Man through his offspring–Son of 1-2-3 Man!

I am going to add a pipe and a hat right now and find out for sure.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Today's painting, Cowboy, is student work. I did it as an undergraduate in one of my many illustration classes with Jack Potter. He was my mentor and I credit him for any ability I have today as an artist. Mr. Potter was a successful illustrator, especially in the fashion world. However, he gave that up to become a teacher at SVA because he didn't like what was then happening in the field of illustration.

He yelled at me endlessly in class. Once I left my sweater in class and Mr. Potter asked his teaching assistant whose sweater it was. The TA didn't know my name, so he replied, "The girl you always yell at." When Mr. Potter heard that, he knew he had gone too far. The next time he saw me he apologized and explained that he always yelled at the "good" students. He said I in particular frustrated him because I was almost "there" but just short of it.

Back to Cowboy. In Mr. Potter's classes we were only allowed to draw models from real life, not photographs (as was being done at that time and was the reason why Mr. Potter started teaching in the first place). He always created elaborate setups with at least one live model. In this instance, it was the cowboy sitting in a chair, legs stretched out, hands in his lap. That's where this image came from. After making several life drawings from the model in class, we had a week to paint an illustration. At that point we were allowed to draw from photographs to flesh out our concepts and fill the background.

I designed the attacking Indian for the wallpaper and repeated it. That's from my imagination. Capriciously, I decided to have one of the Indians break loose from the wallpaper and cut a slice off the cowboy's back. That's what they used to do, isn't it? So that action is influenced by the movies. With all those Indians armed with hatchets chasing around, the wallpaper has begun to peel. The cupboard is from my photography clip file, but looks suspiciously like one we had at my family's lake house. I like birds, so that's why one flew in. I lost a loved one to cigarettes, thus the cigarettes.

I thought initially that the firing revolver suspended in midair represented the death that smoking causes. Then I thought for formal reasons, the composition simply needed that particular shade of blue in that spot. But it's actually neither. While writing yesterday's post about 1-2-3 Man, I concomitantly jogged loose another chilling bit of family history. I had read the incident in a saved newspaper article I had come upon as a young girl and the image it conjured up had been imprisoned in my mind ever since. I unwittingly exiled it into this painting. Only just now, while viewing Cowboy, did I realize the true meaning of the suspended revolver.

Apparently, a great uncle of mine had been seriously depressed. One day he called his best friend and said, "I need your help. Come over right away. Hurry. I'll leave the door unlocked for you. Don't knock, just come in." Unbeknownst to his friend, my great uncle had rigged his revolver up to the front door in such a way that it would fire when the door was opened. He then sat in front of the door and waited for his friend to "help" him. His friend opened the front door and--


Monday, April 19, 2010

1-2-3 Man

I’ve never really liked mathematics, but I find those quantifying little symbols–numbers–of which mathematics is comprised graphically interesting and elegant. I therefore incorporate them into my drawings from time to time.

Easy as 1-2-3, my grandfather, Poppa, showed me how to draw a man using the numbers 1, 2 and 3. To do this, I had to draw the number 1 for the forehead; then I attached to its base directly beneath it 2. The interior curve of the 2 made a nice eye socket and the downward slope and pointy part of the 2 became the nose. I attached a 3 to the end of the 2, which represented the upper and lower lips and the philtrum. He didn't have much of a chin (well maybe a little receding one) because I then joined the 3 and the 1 with a half-circle from the bottom of the 3 back up to the top of the 1. We called him 1-2-3 Man. We loved him and Poppa and I happily drew 1-2-3 Man repeatedly.

After a while, Poppa told me that we needed to put a hat on 1-2-3 Man in case he wanted to go out. Then he said we should put a pipe in his mouth because he liked to smoke. After that he had us drawing sharp little triangles for teeth along the bottom curve of the 3–his mouth. This made 1-2-3 Man take a graphic turn for the worse. He now looked vicious with his 3, I mean mouth, wide open, revealing all those jagged, sharp teeth! Sorry, I cannot post the drawing of 1-2-3 Man with teeth to show how grotesque he became. I wouldn't do that to you. It is too frightening and the blog police would probably shut me down, citing abuse. But you can see from the original hatless drawing with the pipe that he was not too bad looking before the addition of the sharply drawn implants.

Many years later, after Poppa passed away, I was told that when he was a child, his father told his wife and children that he was going “downstreet" for some tobacco. He put a hat on his head and his pipe in his mouth and left his home, wife and three small children forever. He was never again seen or heard from.

After hearing that charming little bit of family history, I wondered, was 1-2-3 Man whom I had been drawing all that time, actually Poppa's deserting father?

**Coming soon (probably Wednesday)–Son of 1-2-3 Man! Even scarier than the original!!**

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


"This bill!" Do you take American Distress?"

Friday, April 9, 2010


"Psssssst! Wanna buy a refrigerator"?!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dancing with the Devil

Painting a picture scares the devil out of me. I would rather dance with the devil. I never do any studies for my paintings. I am not Rembrandt. With the vaguest of notions in my head, I will start painting on canvas and then see where it takes itself. I refer to my seminal notion in the beginning of the work, but after that I am led by my brush and guided only by the shapes, textures and colors it produces. Writing this blog is even scarier because I feel that I ought to be more precise with words than with paint. You can't really read something that is abstract. This might be why a picture is worth a thousand words. One of the reasons a picture tends to beat out words is because of the variety of ways that artists can push and pull and interpret and reinterpret the various media used in painting. Because of the more limiting definitions of words, the same is not true with writing.

The Flexibility of Colors: The color red, for example, is the color of the devil and so we can use red to mean "evil" in our drawings and paintings. However, red is also the color of an apple–and what could be more wholesome and innocent than an apple? And so we can also use red to mean "good" in our paintings.

The Rigidity of Words: " Red," the word, means "any of a number of similar colors evoked by light consisting predominantly of the longest wavelengths discernible by the human eye." There is not that much that you can do with red when you think of it that way. If you write the word "red" it means only red, unless preceded by a modifying adjective.

"Devil" can mean pretty much only the devil, unless used in the context of deviled eggs. And even then it suggests a pulverizing beating one might get from the devil. The word "devil" can only be bad. It cannot be good and bad. When we hear the word "apple", we pretty much conjure up that delicious rosy, edible sphere with a stem and two green leaves on top– unless we are thinking of the apple of one's eye, or a man's adam's apple. Even then, the first usage indicates favorite and wholesome - "good" and the second a sphere - "good" also. Both phrases still suggest the basic characteristics of the word "apple." I cannot think of a way to use the word that connotes evil, unless perhaps in the context of the apple that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden–and even that apple probably tasted good. I guess an apple was "bad" for Snow White, but even then it had to be preceded by the word "poison." The word "apple" couldn't do it alone. It has its limits.

To support my claim that the painter's medium is superior to the writer's, consider the words of Roger Angell, the noted essayist and New Yorker editor: "Fiction is special, of course, for its text must retain the whorls and brush-splashes of the author: the touch of the artist." Ironically, on the same page, he recalls an editing session he had with a fledgling writer. He chides the neophyte "And then here's your "dirgelike darkness," right in the middle of your wonderful scene. Can darkness have a sound?" he asks the young writer. I believe it can and should, especially in the context of Angell's use of the phrase "whorls and brush-splashes" in his own writing.

One of my professors, Stuart Leeds, a New Yorker artist, always told us that only one of his students used black and white as if it were color. To me, that means that colors can not only represent multiple meanings, but can represent other colors as well. How versatile is that? I've tried to demonstrate this in my drawing of a red ..... er ..... ahem ..... uh....... black and white...... devil above.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Placebook 1.0

Are you tired of being able to see your friends only virtually on Facebook? Then the new app. Placebook 1.0 is for you. Only Placebook can transport you actually, that's right, a-c-t-u-a-l-l-y, from place to place wherever and whenever you want to go. Just enter your friend's address, press the "Go" button, and you will be gently sucked in, swept away and instantaneously ejected from your friend's computer. You will be there visiting with your friend - a- c -t- u -a l- l - y - not merely virtually as that dinosaur Facebook does it. Imagine how surprised your friends will be to see you in the flesh. Be among the first to install the release version of Placebook.

Are you worried that if you install Placebook, your many hundreds of friends will be popping in on you at all hours of the day and night? Don't be concerned. Placebook 2.0, currently in development, will include an optional feature–Macebook. Just one squirt and they're gone!

Placebook and Macebook are registered trademarks of Depingo Ergo Sum. You can only get them here. No guarantees. None at all. But they are reasonably priced.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Age-0ld philosophical question:
"If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does the tree make a sound?"

My answer is "No." Without an ear-bearing person present, there would be no sound - only the vibrations that might create a sound.

Same question updated for the digital age: If a tree (one that I had drawn for University of Connecticut School of Agriculture's recruiting brochure) and I were toasting you on this blog, but you never visited, so that the three of us–artist, image and viewer– could bond over a drink during our philosophical chat, would the tree fall down? Would it make a sound when it fell down?

And now that we're really thinking deep thoughts, what would happen to me after my hysterical crying jag (brought about by a distressing lack of blog visitors) let up? By the way, would my crying make a sound? Would I fall down?

Answer: The tree and I would both fall down because we would be intoxicated after your no-show caused us to drink a whole bottle of wine by ourselves. It would be your loss because you wouldn't have gotten to share a delicious glass of chilled-to-perfection Sauvignon Blanc with us. And this sound would haunt you for the rest of your natural life: