Whenever I think of Suzanne Simpson, I think of sunshine. And on learning of her passing from breast cancer on Nov. 3, I find that I still do.
We first met more than 20 years ago, when I was working at the photo mecca of Borge Andersen & Associates. She was one of the first artists in this area to work digitally – and made remarkable work that was like nothing people had ever seen. She was something of a perfectionist (a good thing in an artist); she always had a vision of exactly what she wanted. And while this could make challenges for us to produce it, she always brought such energy with her that I would look forward to having her in the lab. She made you want to be around her.
Suzanne’s work at that time (the mid-90s) could have such a darkness and intensity that it was hard to believe that it came from such a bright person. But that makes sense, because Suzanne was indeed a complex person. She knew that there could be magic in that darkness, especially for artists; and that light was the partner to darkness and gave it meaning. This may help explain why she always cared so much about people around her: she knew that life could be messy and that we all need a little support at times.
Suzanne grew up in Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture and urban design — influences that would become apparent in her later work — from the University of Michigan. She came to Utah in 1989, working first as part of the Kids Against Violence Program, then with artist Rebecca Campbell, and the Utah Artist-in-Residence program; but she will be remembered by most as an untiring teacher at Weber State University and Westminster College.
She had a big heart. When you would cross paths with her at a gallery opening, she would give you the kind of hug that showed she meant it. And then she would usually laugh with delight and let you know you mattered. Having a big heart does come with its challenges. She taught an exhausting number of classes at Weber State and Westminster. Her classes wouldn’t end until each of her students had been helped and encouraged. This would often make her run late on her own deadlines and, especially, on sleep. But she seemed unable to do otherwise – she truly cared deeply about each of her students.
She was adept at engaging students of any age. In addition to her college students, Suzanne worked with elementary-school children, engaging them in projects that took them out of the ordinary. For one, she created an installation that covered the walls and ceilings of an elementary school, “serving as giant spirits extolling the virtues of womanhood and manhood,” as she described it. Another included the excavation of the school grounds, to lay pavers for a life-size checkers/chess board. Students created life-size papier-mache pieces for the games.
Surrounded, with Jim Frazer, Finch Lane Gallery, 2001
Suzanne passionately loved nature and went on excursions in all seasons. It was with a mingling of utter delight and reverence that she responded to the mountains, and it seemed it was the sunshine that most recharged her spirits. It is no wonder, then, that the environment was an early and enduring theme in her works. When her digital collage of a nymph unzipping the skies in search of clean air first appeared on the cover of Catalyst Magazine in 2000, it served as a prescient warning sign. It remained equally poignant, if not more so, when it again graced the cover last year. Suzanne knew there is something in the land that sustains us, and that we must protect it.
Her interest in the environment became more intense over the years, expanding into new mediums including performance and installation. For a number of years, she collaborated with Jim Frazer and most of these works dealt directly with environmental issues. Their 2011 Finch Lane installation, Surrounded, was both beautiful and foreboding, mapping out the toxic threats spread across our unique, local environment. And unravel, REVEALED, created in collaboration with Corinne Cappelletti as part of Brolly Arts Water Week in 2009, involved a number of her students from Westminster College and took over that campus for a 24-hour durational performance that was both expansive and immersive, full of stunning visuals and engaging movement.
Suzanne loved all of the arts, including music and dance; performances would sink deep into her soul and leave her spellbound. It seemed that all of her friends were artists and she wanted to share them (and their accomplishments) with everyone she knew. Watching her talking to people at events, you might notice she stood with the poise of a dancer: every part of her was expressive, as if she couldn’t contain it. She will be greatly missed: her hugs, her laughter, the glow of her care and the insight of her art. But when we are outdoors, in the mountains, feeling the warmth of the sun, we can be reminded of her own warmth and the things she cared about.
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Edward Bateman is an assistant professor at the University of Utah and teaches art in the Photography/Digital Imaging program.