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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Monday, May 2, 2016

An Artist Thing


An Artist's Thing, pen and ink on paper, digital color























YOU MIGHT NOT THINK SO, but painting is a lot like cleaning. In painting you start with a surface (the canvas), apply media to it, swirl it around a bit, and then polish it with glazes. By doing this, you are changing and improving the surface of the canvas. After you complete your work, there is an image on it. It is now pleasing to look at. In cleaning, you also start with surfaces–say a window. You squirt some Windex on it, swirl it around, and polish with a dry cloth. You have altered its surface so that it has a high sheen and you can see your reflection in it –that's an image.

All my life I have been going for the image. I am told that when I was a toddler, I would have a fit if I got even one nano-sized spot of chocolate ice cream on my dress. I would scream and beat my little fists on the floor until my mother changed my dress. She apparently didn't understand why a little girl would care so much about a slightly soiled dress. She did not yet know that I would be an artist. Artists go for the image.

Detail of Susan the Immaculate, pen, ink on paper, digital color

A few years later, Mrs. Gordon, our housekeeper would yell at my brother and sister because their rooms were habitually littered with empty soda bottles, half-eaten tuna sandwiches, dirty underwear and the odoriferous remnants of chemistry experiments gone bad. (They did not grow up to be artists.) She would tell them, "Look at Susie's room. Everything is so neat and clean in there. All I have to do in there is pull up the bed covers." You can imagine how this endeared me to my siblings. But that really was all Mrs. Gordon had to do. My room was the precursor to my canvas.

As a teenager, I took so many baths (I am now down to a maximum of two a day) that my father began calling me "Susan the Immaculate"–and we weren't even Catholic. I was just going for the freshly-scrubbed image. My parents still didn't know that I would become an artist and neither did I. I just thought that I would be really clean.

Perhaps I went too far when I was straightening up the upstairs bedrooms in my parents' house. My father once had one of his surgeon buddies sleep over at the house. They both left their false teeth on their respective bedside tables. I didn't like the way that looked so I put their dentures in the bathroom cabinet. It was pretty funny the next morning seeing two world famous surgeons searching around, grumbling "Where'd we put our teeth!" (Actually, it sounded like "derew ew tup ruo hteet!")

When I got my first apartment, my friends knew that they were not permitted to leave their hand bags on the floor. I explained to them that it was tantamount to taking a handful of red paint and hurling it at one of my paintings. Neither the handbag nor the paint belonged. They were not part of the composition. If the handbags were pretty enough, my guests could put them on the hall table.  But if left on the floor or ugly, their handbags would be whisked away, or "hidden" as my husband now calls this behavior, not to be seen again until their departure. My smarter friends always chose a apretty bag when coming to visit and asked, "Is this pretty enough for the table?"

 Susan the Immaculate, pen, ink on paper, digital color

In graduate school at NYU, although I had a near-perfect GPA, not one professor ever commented favorably on my paintings. Professor Humphreys said "Wow!" once, but that's because it was a nude (who looked remarkably like me) with butterflies coming out of her stomach. However, at the beginning of every studio painting class, when my fellow students were running out to buy a canvas, or were out of cerulean blue, or in the most egregious cases forgot that it was a studio day altogether and did not bring their brushes and paints, I was always highly complimented. Numerous professors asked their classes "Why can't you be more organized. Look at Ms. McLaughlin. She has her paints all mixed because she keeps them all in air-tight jars so they don't dry out, her canvas is already sized and primed, she's researched her subject and she is blocking in her paint rough already. And you are first going out to the art supply store?" I know this sounds more like kindergarten than grad school, but it really happened. One of my fellow students, with paint dripping all over her, once announced that she had tried and failed to imagine me with even one spot of paint on myself. A practicing psychiatrist who for some reason was auditing one of my studio classes declared me "pathologically neat."

One day shortly after I graduated, I was surprised by none other than the head of NYU's painting program himself. He came upon me as I was exiting my personal studio at the school. After not making a single comment about my work the entire year, he said to me, "There are some mighty exciting paintings in that studio of yours." Before I could even thank him, he followed with, "Would you mind getting them out of there along with your easel and paints. I've got two students coming in tomorrow from Japan and I need the studio for them." He didn't really like my paintings, he didn't even like my organizational skills, he just liked my leaving!

To this day I cannot start painting until everything in my studio is clean, shiny and perfectly arranged. I would be more concerned about what might appear to be the manifestations of obsessive–compulsion disorder, had I not read a biography of Willem de Kooning. Luckily, I had learned that every Saturday morning, the great artist would strip the wood floors in his studio, and clean and polish them himself. He thought it very important that his floors shine. Before he could start reflecting on his canvas, he wanted to see his reflection in his floors.

It must be an artist thing.

8 comments:

  1. There is an old saying - Cleanliness is next to painterly-ness; or is it Godliness; No, I'm sure it is
    painterly-ness!

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  2. Another immaculately conceived essay.

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  3. Now I know how the seeds of your creation blossomed into a great, no perfect artist. You had to have been baptized in water with Tide!

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  4. Going from Windex to spotty dresses to half eaten tuna sandwiches to false teeth to ugly hand bags; it is wonder you made yourself anything, BUT you DID! An Immaculately Perfect Artist!

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  5. Just read your post. As usual, like your paintings, the imagery is stunning! You have endeared yourself to me even more!

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  6. Your writing is as charming as you and your paintings. I started painting on my parents ' living room wall at 3. If you were my sister, i would have buried you in the backyard. wink emoticon wonderful piece. You make me want to write again.

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  7. oure amazing. God bless your talent what a blessing HAPPY. MOTHERS. DAY

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  8. You are amazing. Gb your talent. What a blessing HAPPY. MOTHERS. DAY

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