We kick off 2014 with an interview with Geelong based artist Susan Sutton on the eve of her 14th (!) solo exhibition, ‘Otway collection’, to be held at Qdos Arts in Lorne this month. It opens next Sunday 12 January at 2pm. No stranger to disciplined hard work, Susan has produced an impressive 34 figurative paintings for this exhibition, all of which have been inspired by the Otway region, “from the wide open coastal stretches to the dense canopied bush”.
Organic forms and landscapes are the subjects of some of the paintings while others reveal Susan’s ongoing interest in people interacting with their environment. Her signature paintings depict crowds at the beach or individuals captured in candid moments. Using a harmonious palette of colour and a senstive understanding of light, Susan imbues her paintings with atmosphere to evoke the ambience of a particular place or situation.
Read on to find out more about Susan’s artistic processes and special thanks to Susan for taking the time to answer these questions.
What are the main artistic preoccupations that you are exploring?
I have been exploring in particular the bush images of the Otways. Through my colours and brush techniques I have been endeavouring to capture the atmosphere and details specific to the region. I have been working to interpret Australian bush representations in my own personal style. Coastal subjects are often identified with my hand and although I have included many in this show, this time I have been preoccupied with many different images.
How would you describe your work and what do you hope the viewer gets from it?
I describe my work as atmospheric and representational. I need to understand my subjects rather than purely paint the ‘surface’ of things and I will often research before commencing work. Once I have the grounding of understanding I can move into the light, colour and atmosphere which are important to my style. Through incorporating these ingredients I hope the viewer experiences some sense of actually being there.
Who or what provides inspiration for your work? How has this shaped the work in this exhibition?
Inspiration for my work always comes from within. I get ideas often when I am least expecting them. I could be dreaming, reading, travelling, or talking with friends. An idea will form and I will develop it in my studio. This current exhibition has been largely shaped by time spent camping deep in the Otways. These inspired experiences contrasted significantly to what I already knew about the coast.
Throughout your career, what is the main medium you work in and what do you like about it?
I have come to use oils almost exclusively because of the workable nature of the medium and the lustrous colours. I originally started painting with watercolour and still like to employ similar techniques from time to time when using oils.
What sort of research and or reference materials do you use for your work? Can you tell us about a typical day in the studio?
My usual manner of working, after an idea comes, is to research the subject through visiting and experiencing. Photographs and sketches become records for details when I return to work in the studio. I paint as much as possible, usually 5 or 6 days a week. A usual day will have me in the studio from late morning through until the natural light fails. Of course this means longer working days Spring through to Autumn. After a major solo showing I need to have a month or so off before resuming new work.
Which is more important – aesthetics or conceptualism in art?
There is no doubt for me aesthetics and conceptualism work together. I rarely think of them apart. The best works of art combine the two – in my mind neither is more important than the other.
Susan Sutton, Winter surfing Cathedral Rock, Lorne, oil on linen, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Can you tell us about any challenges in your art practice?
The main challenges I experience are dealing with expectations. Each successful exhibition means the next one needs to be ‘better’ and in some ways ‘different’ from the last. I am continually trying to develop new subjects, formats and approaches. A problem for me, as for many artists, is to break away from previously successful subjects which have become identifiable with one’s repertoire of work.
Have you ever made an artistic pilgrimage? If so, where did you go and why?
When I started to paint seriously I travelled in Europe. I visited many major galleries and was both inspired, uplifted and ‘drowned’ by the overwhelming abundance of remarkable masterpieces and variety of styles.
If there was one piece of artwork you could have in your collection, what would it be and why?
There are many many art works I would love to own, however I have never forgotten Vermeer’s The love letter. I saw the original in Amsterdam and was transfixed. Perfection is the purest, simplest word… the painting satisfies me in every aspect of composition, tone, colour and sheer beauty. It is a small painting and I could live with it forever.
How long have you been painting and has there been a highlight in your art career?
I have been working seriously for about 15 years and during that time I created the space to establish painting as a full-time occupation. There have been a great number of ‘highlights’ amongst the many exhibitions, numerous acquisitions and exciting commissions. Possibly the greatest highlight as I became established was the acceptance of my work.
Have you always been an artist? Or what did you do before becoming an artist?
I taught art at Geelong High School for four years before retiring to have a family. For decades following this I was also involved in art/craft retailing in Geelong and Lorne. In some ways I have always been connected to the world of art.
Did you ever pursue a formal art education?
Yes, I spent four years at art schools while training to be an art teacher: one year in the art department at the Gordon Institute in Geelong and then three years at the RMIT art school. I enjoyed all the classical art subjects. These gave me a solid base of knowledge and understanding which never left me and enabled me to progress into being an artist later in life. Working solo in recent years has consolidated my knowledge and enabled me to develop my own personal style.
Check out Susan’s website www.susansutton.com.au for more information.