Exhibition Spotlight: Midvale
The Places She'll Go
Sue Martin finishes school and looks to the future
Midvale artist Sue Martin has been busy.|1| This past month one of her watercolors won an award at the Utah Watercolor Society's annual juried members show;|2| another piece was accepted into the University of Utah's select juried exhibit at Williams Fine Art;|3| and for the recent Salt Lake Gallery Stroll she mounted an exhibit of recent works at Art at the Main. She’s accomplished all this while finishing up a BFA degree at the University of Utah, thirty years after finishing her master’s in theatre arts.
Martin was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in the South. She attended Tulane University and American University, where she pursued her interest in the theatre, graduating with an MFA. New York was the next logical step, but Martin had student loans to pay off, and she says part of her was burned out with the theatre lifestyle. "All I wanted was a nine-to-five job and a boyfriend," she says, adding with a laugh, "A straight boyfriend." Her father, uncle, and grandfather all worked for the railroads, so she joined them and moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the public relations department of Amtrak. She interacted frequently with the public, was on television for train derailments, and directed staff during special events. “It wasn’t that much different from putting on a play,” she says. Amtrak provided her with an alluring corporate ladder, and Martin stayed for 23 years, the last nine as the public relations department head.
In D.C. she also found a boyfriend, who became a husband, and they added children to the mix. When Martin left Amtrak, her husband, an industrial designer who worked as a private consultant, looked for a permanent position with benefits, and found one in Utah. Once settled in Salt Lake, Martin started her own business working as a consultant, doing PR, corporate training, and business writing.
Her artistic desires also resurfaced. "Being married, having kids, working for Amtrak all worked much better than being in the theatre would have," she says of her career choice. "But there was always something, a little bit, missing."
When her kids entered high school Martin began taking art classes: non-degree basic drawing classes, lifelong learning classes, and workshops with the Utah Watercolor Society. For ten years her skills progressed in this way, while she began to understand the types of things that attracted her as an artist. “I gravitate first of all to things that involve memory, secondly things that involve family; you know they tell writers to write what they know best and I guess that applies to painters too."
In 2007, while spending months caring for her ailing parents she created a series of paintings |4| and maintained a blog about the experience (see our article here). The period with her parents reminded her that life is short, and she decided it was time to stop postponing her artistic ambitions. She joined Art at the Main, a co-op gallery located in the atrium of Salt Lake's Main Library, as a way to show and sell her work. And she began considering going back to school.
“I had taken some great classes and great workshops, but as a non-degree student you don’t have access to some of the real foundation classes, and the classes some of the majors take," she says of her decision to go back to school after three decades. “If I was going to do this I wanted to dive deep, rather than being just a Sunday painter," she says. Getting the credentials of a degree would also help with one of her toughest critics, she jokes: her husband, who went to art school, was always "something of an art snob," Martin says. "In fact, for years I couldn’t show him anything I did because he was so honest and candid with me that it hurt my feelings."
In 2009 Martin enrolled at the University of Utah, not without some trepidation. The transcripts for her original degree meant she wouldn't have to complete general education courses, but the B.F.A. still required non-studio courses. She worried about all the stuff she would have to remember from lectures and later regurgitate. Also, being a "non-traditional student" she worried about how the younger students would treat her -- "would they look at me like their mother or grandmother?" -- but she says her fellow students have been great and she's made a lot of friends.
The professors have also been important for Martin's development, especially those like John Erickson and John O'Connell who have an affinity for her approach. "I tend to want to paint less realistically, so professors I’ve had who are themselves not highly realistic painters tend to give me better feedback. They tend to understand my impulses better. At least that’s my perception.”
Her years at the U have enhanced both how she makes art and why. “[Going back to school] forced me to think conceptually. To think about things in series, rather than thinking about haphazard pretty pictures." In a University class, she says, “you almost always end up talking about philosophy as much as about the mechanics of doing it. So it becomes a way of thinking, and a way of seeing, and a way of putting a lot of things in perspective.”
Looking back on the past four years, Martin says her work has definitely changed, sometimes with each new semester. But she's able to recognize her core interests: the figure and the landscape. "I like the challenge of figuring out how to abstract figurative work and landscape work," she says. For her exhibit this month at Art at the Main, Martin has included two types of works: landscapes inspired by travel photographs but also incorporating symbolic elements, like stamps in a passport; and "dreamscapes," mostly abstract explorations of color, patterns and line, "layered in the kind of overlapping, surreal way that dreams unfold."
The human figure, and the stories it can tell, is another dominant interest -- the gesture, posture and movement more important than the anatomical details of the figure. "I like to sketch people in airports," she says. "The way they're sitting, leaning, holding their newspaper or looking at the lady who just walked in -- there’s a story behind it all. I don’t know their story but I can make one up."
In her newest body of work -- some of the paintings are finished and spread throughout her home,|6| others are still being completed in her studio |7| -- Martin has been painting flowers. The current series came about because it was winter and dreary, and as a reaction she decided to paint flowers. "But I didn't want to be just a flower painter,” she says. “So I decided to pick flowers that had some significant memory trigger for me." For instance, her mother always loved gardenias, and in her last years in a nursing home she would ask Martin to take her over to the home's gardenias, where she would snip a few to take back to her room. This inspired Martin to create "Curly's Gardenia's," where a figure of her mother as a young woman blends with the flowers and a garden scene.|8| In another work, Martin has created a Japanese beetle stamp and used it as a wallpaper for her painting of a vase full of roses, an allusion to the days when she would help tend her grandmother's roses, sometimes having to pluck off Japanese beetles.|9| And in "Flower Child," Martin has woven a portrait of herself into a composition featuring her personal favorite, irises.|10| All the works are characterized by a push-pull dynamic between the sometimes-transparent layers of interlaced portraits and flowers.
Martin recognizes that these paintings are imbued with personal narratives, but she also hopes that they are open enough for others to create their own narrative, the way she does when watching people in airports. She also recognizes that these new pieces -- larger, more complicated, and more expensive -- won't work at Art at the Main, so as soon as school is done in December she'll have to consider new exhibition options. "I like working big," she says of the new work. "And I want to continue challenging myself to be continually mindful of process and open to going in different directions."
Hints 'n' Tips: Plein Air Painting
Chaos and Control
Painting with the Art Spirit
The more I paint the more I enjoy the very nature of the experience. Someone once told me painting doesn’t get easier, but the results get more rewarding. It’s true and I guess the reason is that to be painting from the heart and soul an artist has to be giving it his or her all… treading new ground as they go.
The new ground is where it gets tricky in the sense that you are flying solo without a parachute at times. You have gotten to a point that you are no longer hampered by the ins and outs of how to paint, so the challenge before you lies mostly in aesthetic selection and how far to take a painting into the realm of the unknown. It’s freedom and it’s fear at the same time; freedom to create and freedom to fail, two sides of the same coin. How far do you go? How fast do you fly? are some of the internal feelings that creep in. Couple that with the inevitable existential murmurings about collector and critic responses. Eventually you come to the point of decision and make the leap, its exhilaration and self absorbed euphoria all at once. You hit the runway and fly.
The scene looms before you; today your canvas of choice is larger than the typical outdoor study. 20” x 24” or 24” x 30” gives you the freedom to work from the shoulder and respond to visual stimuli from an emotional level. A few quick lines to place the main forms and you are off. Forget the so called rules, forget the tried and true methods that have always worked in the past; this is pure adrenalin and mineral spirits running through your artistic veins today! You lay out large piles of paint of a buttery consistency and begin to slash away at the canvas. There is no time to analyze, just respond; even mixing color on your palette takes a back seat to the need to lay paint on the canvas rapidly. Color mixtures will happen, but today they are way more expressive, happening before your eyes almost magically as if by will alone. Put a value here another there, you begin to weave color shapes into adjacent ones not worrying what they are supposed to represent, but trusting in their ability to become “the thing” through their correct relationships alone. An hour goes by, two, two and a half and you begin to realize that you are painting better today than ever before. You are literally laying your soul out on the canvas for the world to see. Painting days like this are dreamlike, they don’t happen all the time, but when they do you know you have connected with the world, become one with nature and one with art at the same time. You finally realize the “Art Spirit” (Robert Henri) is alive and well and it is alive in you this day!
What more can I say, I live for fleeting moments like these. I recently had the experience of doing a landscape demonstration for the Midway Art Association at their yearly fall retreat. After the demo I was invited to stay and paint with the group, but decided to walk around and observe what some of the other artists were doing in hopes of getting some fresh ideas. This is an impressive group of artists with a lot of really talented people in attendance. As I went around I was particularly impressed with Susette Gertsch, who was painting a couple of young dancers who were posing for the group that day. As Susette painted she literally danced around her large canvas, seeming to subconsciously mimic the movements of what her models represented. I have to say it did my heart good to see an artist so alive in what she was painting. Anyone who has not attended one of these fall art retreats should look into it -- great models and stillife setups placed throughout the large town hall with lots of inspiring artists to paint with make a great combination.
As I contemplate working in this manner I see a combination of control and a certain amount of chaos that is the perfect catalyst for artistic growth. Artists, like many others, have to push the envelope from time to time in order to make the leaps necessary to move onto the next level. I sometimes call this mode my “wild child approach” or the “rock and roll method.” It’s a place I visit from time to time because of the emotional release it affords and my belief that many of the most important artistic leaps only take place on the edge of a cliff and next to the jaws of disaster.
Artists of Utah News
Passing the Torch
Simon Blundell takes over as Image Editor
As we announced earlier this month in a Daily Bytes blog post, Shalee Cooper has stepped down as the 15 Bytes Image Editor; and now we are pleased to announce that Simon Blundell has agreed to continue building on her strong work.
But for a six-month sabbatical in 2010, Shalee had been our Image Editor since September 2009, helping to transform the magazine into a visual powerhouse by collaborating with our fine group of talented volunteer photographers. Since February of 2010, Simon has been one of those photographers, and he joins our editorial team having already done his fair share to imprint our publication on the retinas of our readers (most recently with the J. Kirk Richards article in the October 2012 edition, and the Jane's Home article on page 5 of this edition).
Blundell is a Salt Lake native and has studied art, communication, journalism, design, and advertising. These filtered through the lens of photography, earned him a communication degree in photographic communication. After working with advertising and editorial clients, he returned to school where he earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Simon continues to explore photography and art in all its aspects. He has taught photography both at Utah Valley University and the University of Utah, and is excited to work with our group of photographers to expand their skills and continue putting the "art" into Utah's Art Magazine.
If you are a photographer interested in working with our magazine, you can contact Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can view his artwork at simonfoto.com.
While Shalee is too busy pursuing other professional possibilities to continue as our Image Editor, you'll still find her work in our pages (including this edition -- see page 2). And you can stop in and say hello to her at Alpine Art in Salt Lake, where she is the gallery director.