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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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Body and Soul

Full House, acrylic on linen, 40 x 30 inches
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.

His 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.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Anti-Bridezilla

The Anti-Bridezilla, acrylic on linen, 36 x 36 inches
MY COUNTLESS PEN AND INK children have one flesh and blood sister–Nicole. She respects her brothers and sisters, finds them pleasant enough as siblings go, but nevertheless is rather standoffish and aloof. She would never think of reading about them, let alone telephoning them. You can't get around it, there is always rivalry among siblings. Because I frequently post about my pen and ink children, I had better write about the flesh and blood one as well.

Coli is a beautiful, smart, accomplished and successful young lady. She has always been industrious and enthusiastic about everything with one exception -- her own wedding plans.

After she became engaged, I could see that she was disinclined to do anything about actually planning a wedding. She was not looking into a reception hall, invitations, a photographer, a band, flowers, food--none of that. (In her defense, she was living in Chicago but wanted to get married in New York.) Seeing no alternative, her father and I took it upon ourselves to get her started. He looked at photographers' portfolios, I visited potential venues and together we started prowling around at night listening to bands. When we showed her the work of photographers we liked or brochures from reception halls that we thought perfect, or sent her CD's featuring fabulous bands, she would say, "Sure, they look OK, why don't you just go ahead and pick one of them."

I figured that with this casual attitude, she had probably not given any thought to a wedding dress. But I was wrong. She told me that she was definitely not going to wear one of those veil "thingees" on her head. Also, she would get a bridal gown, but she was planning on wearing boots with it. Upon hearing this, and worried about a potential fashion disaster, I made appointments for her at three bridal boutiques in Chicago and flew there to "advise" her (really to make sure she kept the appointments). At boutique number one, Nicole thought the first dress she tried on was fine and said that was the dress for her. I explained that it was unusual for a bride to buy the first wedding dress she saw–and besides we had two more boutiques to go to before she made any decisions. After reluctantly trying on a few more dresses, Coli told me she still wanted to buy the first one. She said, "Let's cancel the other appointments and go to lunch." Coli is a very persuasive person. Just say, "yes" to her, and nobody gets hurt. So we went to lunch.

While we were eating, I asked her what she thought about our exciting dress–buying experience. She replied, "The saleswoman could have had more teeth." At that point, I knew I was dealing with the anti-bridezilla. When we shopped for attendant's dresses, I found that Coli had chosen all anti-bridesmaidzillas as well. They had agreed among themselves to wear black dresses, but when we got to the boutique, they were shown petal pink dresses first. They thought the dresses were beautiful and selected them instantly, without looking at any others. As for the flowergirlzilla's dress? We bought that there as well. Guess how long that took and how many dresses we looked at–30 seconds and one! Then we went to lunch.

For the wedding and reception, her father and I selected the Snuff Mill at the Bronx Botanical Garden. We went there many times to fine-tune all the ceremonial, food, music and floral arrangements. Once, when Nicole was in town, she actually came along with us. The manager declared her the most relaxed bride he had encountered in his 30-year career. At one point while we were discussing the menu, he asked Nicole for her input. Yawning, she said it didn't really matter to her–anything would be fine. The manager had to ask her if he was boring her. "No," she replied. "I'm just tired."

My husband told Nicole and her fiance they should select a song that was meaningful to them for their first dance as Dr. and Mrs. Brandell. After some weeks passed, he said that if they didn't make a selection soon, he would pick one for them. They never got around to it, so my husband chose their wedding song for them. The experience was unforgettable and their song, as meaningfully picked out by my husband, was indeed Unforgettable.

For their first dance as a married couple, Nicole and Brian came onto the dance floor and started dancing in a graceful and dignified manner to "their" song, as my husband proudly told everyone that he had picked it. But then just a few bars into the song, something strange happened. Jayon, the lead singer, yelled, "Cut!" and the music stopped. The singer said "You know what? Brian and Nicole just do not look like an Unforgettable type of couple to me." And then the band started playing That's What I Like About You by the Romantics. Nicole and Brian, neither of whom was really a dancer, started to perform an ambitious, perfectly-choreographed, raucously funky dance. They had been secretly in touch with the band to arrange it and had a co-worker of Nicole's who had been a professional dancer work out the choreography in order to be able to do their Dancing with the Stars-quality routine. They and the band had conspired to keep it a secret from my husband, the grand inquisitor.

Other than showing up, the big dance fake-out was Nicole's sole contribution to the wedding. And it wasa great one. Everyone thought it was hysterical. It totally set the tone for the rest of the evening. Everyone, regardless of age or infirmity, was on the dance floor all evening, gyrating to a band that was in a delightfully deep funk groove. No tummlers needed that night.

About a week before the wedding, Nicole rang me up and said that she had just tried on her wedding dress for the first time. She said she looked OK in it but thought no one would even know that she was the bride because she wouldn't be wearing a veil. Upon hearing that, I sprang into action. I immediately went to Suzanne on Madison Avenue and had a veil designed and made up virtually overnight so that people would know that Coli was the bride. I did not concern myself in the least with such petty details as the exhorbatnt cost of the rush order because–

I am Bridezilla!

Saturday, January 16, 2016


Inside My Mind,  gouache on paper, 8 x 10"

Contents of my Mind Arranged,  gouache on paper , 8 x 10 "

JUST CALL ME KALEIDOMIND. I have chosen this name for myself because of my creative process, which is analogous to that of a kaleidoscope.

You've probably never looked inside a person's head unless you are a neurosurgeon or maybe a radiologist. But in this post you will be able to see inside one for the first time–my kaleidomind. When you view the top image  you are seeing a painting of the inside of my brain. All of the images, colors and starry shapes I have stuffed and sucked into it, store there, and carry around with me constantly are on display. They are not heavy, they're my images.

Notice you don't see any words in there. That's because I am an artist; I breathe, eat, sleep, walk and think images. I don't need words. I don't even assign names or meanings to my collected images. They are just shapes, colors and textures to me, with no more significance than anything else that comprises my palette. These images shift around in my mind, for years sometimes, depending on when I first acquired them. As they assume this or that juxtaposition, I imagine they are rehearsing for their debut in a painting. For the moment, though, they are merely biding their time in my mind–waiting until I let them out.

Although these nameless objets d'art residing in my head are highly conducive to painting, they wreak havoc with my civilian life. The unnamed objects are not so good for conversational purposes. I have on more occasions than I would like to recall had to use one of the few words that I can consistently remember–"thingee." I use it in much the same way as a universal solvent is used. I am reduced to describing anything and everything with my universal solvent. I will mention this "thingee" or that "thingee" when I am talking about an object which I could draw accurately and precisely in a heartbeat but the name of which I cannot recall for all the paint brushes in China. Strangers I regale with such fascinating repartee sometimes take my friends aside and ask in hushed tones if I am the village idiot. "No," my friends will reply, "she's the village artist." It's worth the humiliation, though, not to have words and meanings get in the way of my production of art.

In the second painting on you are viewing the very same contents of my mind that you have already seen in the first painting, only after said contents have been filtered through my creative process and disgorged onto a canvas. If you examine the two closely, you will see that the individual images are the same except for placement and size. Well, maybe they are slightly distorted. It's more crowded than a New York City rush hour subway in there and just as bumpy. You will also see that my visual language is not at all exotic. It is comprised of everyday objects, including lobsters, women, umbrellas, bottles, bikinis– words to you, but "thingees" to me.

I was born painting and since then I have created paintings in the same way. After capturing and storing numerous images in my mind, I use my mindoscope (located next to the medulla oblongata) to rotate and record, shuffle and re-record them many times over to create my work. Although I have repeated some of the same images throughout my painting life, they are never combined in exactly the same way, just as a kaleidoscope's pattern, even though using the same pieces of colored glass, is never repeated.

My kaleidomind differs from a kaleidoscope in one important way. The kaleidoscope's content of shards of glass is fixed, while my kaleidomind's shards of images are constantly increasing in number as I add new ones every day. (I have to paint; otherwise my overcrowded mind would explode!) It is virtually impossible for either me or my precursor, the kaleidoscope, to form the same pattern or composition twice, even were we to attempt to do so. And why would we want to? There is so much new ground–background and foreground–we have to cover. Through this process, images of ordinary, everyday objects (or bits of colored glass in the kaleidoscope) end up confronting each other in unexpected, sometimes jarring and always extraordinary juxtaposition.

At this very writing, there are two extremely pushy shapes bouncing around inside my cranium and giving me a headache. Ouch! That hurts! They are trying to split my head open and escape. One of the shapes thinks that it is a bird and is trying to peck its way out. The other believes itself to be a bottle, or perhaps, in its more Freudian analysis, a womb, leading it to so believe that it has an inherent right to be born. Excuse me momentarily while I disabuse those "thingees" of their escapist notions–the one in which they think they can exit my mind prematurely and the other in which they assume that they are something other than shapes. Until I am ready to crank up my kaleidomind and shake, rattle, and roll that "bird" and "bottle/womb" out of their compartment in my mindoscope, that is exactly where they'll stay. While they remain captive, I, a seasoned artist, will explain to them that they must stay put until they have acquired depth and perfection. Then and only then can they emerge as part of my personal vision, set free and spilled out onto a canvas as part of an enriched, painterly whole.

That "thingee" depicted in the second painting--the girl? She matured, developing a lovely patina, until it was her time to become part of the painting. She could just as well have been a spider on its web. (I especially like webs because what looks more like a kaleidoscopic image than the beautiful refracted shapes and lines of a spider's web?) The girl simply did her time in my mind and then suddenly emerged from an abyss in my memory. Then I twirled her around in my mindoscope until she landed in her place on my canvas. She fell into place without any psychological hoopla. After all, she's just a shape.

Fittingly, the analogy I draw between my creative process and a kaleidoscope is itself based on one of my earliest visual memories: looking at the living room of my childhood home through the multi-faceted cut-glass, decorative sphere atop the "thingee" (which I only much later learned was called a newel post). This vision, one of the most splendid refractions I have ever seen, was perhaps first in my visual vocabulary. I will carry it with me always, use it in my art, and pass it on to my viewers–whose visages I will simultaneously be storing in my kaleidomind.

And so it goes, on and on, around and around, back and forth, up and down, and finally . . .out!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Out of Thin Air

Out of Thin Air, mixed media, 24 x 36 inches xxxxxxxxxx

2016 seems like it came out of thin air and, coincidentally, so does my first painting of the new year and first exhibition at The Guild 5 Forty five in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl., both named, Out of Thin Air.
Of course, the new years don’t really come out of thin air; they come out of the passage of time. But these mysterious things called my paintings, where do they come from? Out of thin air?  It seems like they do, because first there is nothing and then something starts to appear. My paintings come from the strata of my mind where I have stored all the images that I have encountered in life. These images are then transferred from mind to hand, erupting onto a canvas with the help of pigments, liquids, brushes, fingers and an occasional tantrum.
Not only did my new painting arise out of thin air, but within the painting itself a bear has appeared in the clouds out of thin air. I’ll bet all of you have seen things in clouds that resonate with you. The particular thin-air moment captured in this painting–the boy viewing the bear in the sky–is poignant and to me marks his transition from boyhood  to manhood.
I personally can remember my transition into the adult world.  It occurred when I didn’t play with my beloved, favorite doll, Lucy, any more. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, but because I was embarrassed to do so at my advanced age of 12.  I even asked my father to bring Lucy up to our summer house when he came for the weekend. Though conflicted, I was sort of happy when he forgot.  Similarly, the boy playing “Indians” with his teddy bear is now at the point in his life where he will soon have to leave his faithful and comforting teddy bear behind and face all the real life “bears” that adult life has to offer.
Fortunately, my model and favorite 12-year-old will have this painting as an aid to remember this exact moment in his life, along with other fragments from his surroundings. Maybe some day he’ll be able to utilize them in a painting or in some other creative way of his own.
And so the years, and life and painting, go round-and-round and up-and-down and finally emerge as paintings from out of thin air.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Accidental Art

Printer ink, and water on paper
Printer ink and water on paper
Printer ink and water on paper

 I LOVE ALL ART––high art, low art, and even accidental art such as my car's GPS screen when I'm driving along hill, dale and curvy river; decaying, termite-ridden wood; rust (my favorite); a NYC manhole cover of a certain vintage, a splattered spill of tomato soup; or shadows cast through a wrought iron railing.

While studying such accidental art as an undergraduate at Parsons, much to the dismay of passersby, I used to photograph the contents of garbage cans (giving the Ashcan School a whole new meaning). Mercifully, I obtained artistic results with no rearranging at all. Upon viewing my "ashcan art," Professor Kiokawa used to ask in sheer and utter bewilderment, "Ms. McLaughlin, your concept is garbage?" "No," I would reply, "My concept is accidental art." This brings me to the point of my query today: Can a Poland Spring water bottle make art?

Last night I was looking at some inkjet prints of my photographic images in bed before falling asleep. (I know ... exciting life, right?) When I finished with them, I placed them in a stack on my bedside table. Then I had a sip of water from my ubiquitous pacifier, a Poland Spring water bottle. Sans coaster and so as not to leave a ring on the marble-topped table, I placed the bottle on top of the stack of prints.

Overnight, while I was merely dreaming of art, that plastic bottle sweated out six colorful, well-composed abstract "works on paper." Its medium was condensation mixed with printer ink. I think the art it produced is exciting–for a neophyte bottle. The condensation bled out through the entire stack and left its artistic mark on the back of every one of the prints. It also improved the image of the top print, rendering it more dynamic.

The point, of course, is that art is all around us. Some of it needs to have the content/meaning removed, but much of the most excruciatingly exquisite art, such as rust or fungi, is naturally-occurring and untouched by human hands.

Because of the watery mishap with my computer prints, I no longer think of my pacifier as a mere water bottle. It is now my protege. So in answer to today's query: Yes, my protege, a Poland Spring water bottle can make art. See for yourself.

Come to think of it, an etched ring on marble might not have looked so bad either–kind of hard to hang, though.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Winged Hunters

Cormorant, Colored pencil and watercolor on paper xxxxxxx

Crow, colored pencils and watercolor on paper

Egret, colored pencils and watercolor on paper xxxx

 Some birds are classified as vultures;
Reliquiae enhances their culture.
Others dive in search of fish.
I too eat sushi--it's delish.

Though I fret, egret,
when you fly through the sky
with your prey, which will die,
I'll not have an impassioned snit.
At least you're dainty about it.

While the cormorant picks his bone,
I've certainly got my own
to pick---with his wings,
the silly inefficient things.
With wings, he swims and soars quite high
When wet, he holds them out to dry
And, yet, it's odd; you might ask, why?
Water-laden, he cannot fly.

Stealthily, the graceful heron fishes off my dock
Long pointed beak pinning bass to rock
A toss of his head sends his catch up high
but before you know it ... down the gullet!
Then off he flies to hunt for pullet.

But so do you and I.