While her father was busy shaping his young daughter into a pinball wizard, Bonnie Sucec’s mother encouraged her to paint pictures on the walls of their Midvale home. And later, at Jordan High, revered Utah abstract painter Don Olsen would fuel her passion for art.
This doesn’t in any way explain Sucec’s current work, but may give some insight into the mind from which the vibrant, readily recognizable paintings of queer creatures in dreamy, improbable landscapes and startling, sometimes Munchian, hooded figures arises.
The work is figural, but nonrepresentational – even the artist doesn’t know what is going onto the paper until it appears, sometimes evolving for a month or more — and though I like to tell myself little stories about what I see in her paintings, Sucec would prefer I didn’t: “It wasn’t intended to be a specific story. You don’t want to try to figure it out.”
One prominent admirer was the late U.S. Poet Laureate and then-University of Utah Professor Mark Strand, who called up Sucec and asked her to collaborate on an art book of his poetry to be illustrated by her paintings, for which he gave her co-authorship. A Poet’s Alphabet of Influences, published in 1993 by Red Butte Press, is long out of print: if you can find a copy the going price is at least $2,000.
Sucec offers directions to her home in the 9th and 9th area, saying it can be distinguished by its “pinkish” color. I might as well have looked for the “Save Bears Ears” sign prominently displayed in her yard – the only yard sign visible on the street. When I last talked to Sucec, about her show at the then-Salt Lake Art Center (now UMOCA) in 2007, and another with her then-student Josanne Glass at Studio Nine, she was painting at the Guthrie. She was there for 25 years, moving from space to space as a “choicer” studio became available. At that time, she was protesting the Iraq war — imagery evident in her artwork — as she had protested the Persian Gulf War. “I can’t do that anymore,” she says. “I’m in a different place. I just can’t go back there.” Given their strong, flamboyant sense of color, Sucec’s paintings can sometimes come across as “pretty,” even “fun” pictures — but often have a serious message.
Her welcoming bungalow is filled with art, literature (baskets in her studio behind the house hold mysteries-on-tape, for painting – “If I reach a point where I have to think, I punch it off,” says Sucec), and a wealth of brightly colored objets – including numerous Milagros, or charms referencing the Virgin Mary in one of her many appellations (here, as Our Lady of Miracles), and yet the rooms feel surprisingly uncluttered and spacious. Behind the front door hangs a skillfully crafted baked-dough piece (a medium for which Sucec was known back in the day, says Bonnie Phillips, whose gallery represents the artist) of her son, stretched out on the back of an elegantly striped tiger, a dough guinea pig on his tummy. (Gregor is now 50 years old, his pet guinea pig no longer with us.) The majority of these joyful items, right down to the floral oilcloth on the kitchen table, came from Mexico, where Sucec’s parents had a home for 37 years and where she frequently visited.
It is at this table that we sit down to talk, after Sucec grinds coffee beans, brews and pours two fragrant cups. We first mourn the loss of art critic Ehren Clark, who had reviewed Sucec’s work for this publication. Then, as women of an age tend to do (having vowed never to do so), we discuss our various ailments, until realizing it’s all small stuff after Ehren.
Sucec points out the curtains – she not only made them, she had the fabric stamped with her own design.
The artist relates that her father owned Amusement Sales, a company that had pinball machines, slot machines and jukeboxes in bars and restaurants all over the Midvale, Sandy, Herriman and Jordan area. “I had a nickelodeon, and gambling machines. We had a shop full of stuff, purple teddy bears for prizes on punchboards and stuff like that. It was fun,” Sucec recalls. “I still have some 45’s. I had a jukebox in the basement and would have my girlfriends over and we’d do the Twist.”
She painted everything: walls, furniture. “That was the thing I was best at in school. I decorated for the dances, made the announcements . . .” And then there was high school and Don Olsen. Paint came in cans then. And his students painted on old doors. And Sucec learned that maybe you could be an artist and have a studio that was once a greenhouse behind your home, like Olsen did.
Possibilities opened up for her. “We just painted everything. It was abstract expressionism and it was just great.” Olsen had been a violinist with the Utah Symphony and would compare abstract art to music, “the complexity of different sounds without images, the light notes with dark notes, putting them together like paintings. It’s where they’re placed, you know: The dark and the light. And the shapes. Whew! I was sunk,” says Sucec.
She went to BYU for two years and ended up on social probation for being at a party where she doesn’t think she had a beer but was certainly dancing to Chuck Berry and wearing a T-shirt and short skirt when it was “stormed.” Her work in a pretty important art show was taken down (social probation) and Sucec headed to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
That’s where she met artist, arts activist and teacher David Sucec, who was at San Francisco State. He got his master’s and a job offer at Purdue; they got married, had a baby in Haight Ashbury, “where everyone was smoking dope on the streets and it was a time of being alive and so we went to Purdue with a little baby in a cardboard box.”
He went on to teach at the University of Minnesota, Western Illinois, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and Bonnie took classes wherever they were. They returned to Utah after 15 years away.
Bonnie and David Sucec broke up after several years living in a house on the Avenues; in 1984 Bonnie got her MFA at the U., where she was teaching assistant for Tony Smith and Doug Snow and Sam Wilson was an important adviser.
She eventually married Glenn Herrick, then a professor of genetics at the U. Medical School, “a whole different slice of life,” she says. They were together for 15 years and remain good friends, although he now resides in Italy. Herrick offered stability and time to paint, plus the travel his position required.
Well-known as a teacher of art to abled and disabled individuals, Sucec chooses to have only one private student now, a physician whom she has taught for years. And although she is in numerous private and public collections, her show at Phillips last year was a rare opportunity to see a lot of Sucecs hanging at once. But I am about to get lucky.
We walk through her charming garden back to the studio, a former woodworking shop, a cool, spacious place with tables all around the walls – one holds art from South America and baskets of books on tape, one a flat file, one is covered with stacks of Styrofoam plates, each holding a pile of oil pastels, apparently sorted partly by hue, largely by size: nubs to full sticks. “Oil pastel is a drawing medium but I treat it like paint, kind of. It’s like lipstick. I use my finger and just spread it out.” She used to favor gouache, but those days are long gone, it seems.
Pinned to the easel is a stunning piece of multi-paned windows at night all in red: “I got a new red and I just loved it. That’s how it started, honestly.” She does a lot of scraping, revealing the color beneath, yellows and pinks. “I started with the image of the windows first and then built upon it. I like not to get in a rut, to start differently every time.” When she’s done, there are large birds scraped into the surface resting on tiny feet, the windows have been scraped to a bronze finish, ethereal things emerge as you look.
Other new work emerges from atop the flat file and gets pinned up in turn. All of it stellar stuff. A very few have titles. One, of black figures racing down a wind-swept path is called “Whistleblowers.” This artist still hasn’t lost the politics.
Sucec is a little touchy when asked if her imagist work might be termed magical primitivism. “I am a formally trained artist,” she replies somewhat archly, but immediately adds with a smile, “I do know what you mean.” If you’ve read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then you know, too.
Bonnie Sucec’s work can be seen at Phillips Gallery’s annual Summer Group Show, July 21 – September 9.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.