Susan Carr creates playful and bold paintings, sculptures, and everything in between – all characterized by her thick, chunky, and layered painting application. Carr’s work comes from a deep and highly intuitive place, always guided by her vibrant curiosity. The artist shares with Art Spiel what brought her to art, some of her thought process, and exploratory approach to material and form.
AS: Tell me a bit about yourself – How did you get to art?
Susan Carr: As far back as I have memory I have always created “things”. I drew quite a bit as a child, preferring my quiet room and a Leonardo Da Vinci book of paintings to outside games. I thought as a young girl I would be an illustrator as I read quite a bit and enjoyed illustrated books. My mother enrolled me in the local artist guild of our town in Falmouth Mass and I was part of a group show with other children at five. My drawing “Girl watching ants” won a prize and I was elated .I knew then, at five I wanted to be an artist.
I subsequently went to The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston/Tufts as an undergrad did Fifth year (and was one of the winners of that award in 1995) as well as did my masters, plus a semester at Radcliffe. It was for the best that I stayed at the Museum School, as I was commuting from Falmouth because of my home and children. I finished my masters in photography and video and I am really glad I did it – I stretched myself and learned things I didn’t think I could do, which gave me courage to work harder and believe in myself.
Now I work in clay and would like to learn how to throw clay on a wheel. I think alternative skills only sweeten and invigorate your personal practice.
AS: In an interview for Painters’ Table in 2011 you told Valerie Brennan that your work always “begins with one mark and the piece is built up from there.” You have to get out of the way. Can you elaborate on your work process?
Susan Carr: I work on several things at one time because I have so much I am thinking about. What is consistent is my sculpture lately, which I like to call deconstructed painting. They are on the smaller to medium side, but I hope I bring to them a sense of time and history- as I build up the paint layering colors. I use the very same painterly sensibilities I would bring to a two- dimensional piece.
And I am working on 2D paintings as well, dream paintings that make sense to me. When my son passed, the eye motif became very important and has been dominant in my work. It is a way to communicate my feelings, a way to talk. So this motif comes from the deepest recess of me. It is personal but I hope universal as well.
I am also working on self-portraits. I had an idea one day to start painting my self-portrait, although my figure painting days were way behind me. What’s a better time to start? I am up for the challenge. Sometimes if we just follow our gut, good things can be found.
Some might say I have a lot going on, that I should get a brand. But if you look at my brushwork and my color, you can always see me. It always starts with one mark. I still also draw all the time. Consistency in my work is very important to me and I can be a perfectionist.
AS: You work in two and three dimensional forms. I have a twofold question: how has each of these forms evolved and what is the relationship between them?
Susan Carr: The relationship between the painting and the sculpture is that in sculpture the painting is cut up in various forms and then put back together. I like how independent my sculptures are. They seem freer in expressing color, form, and line than my paintings. My paintings are contemporary but shyer – not as patterned, much more emotional. In my paintings I am striving to tell a story to connect to emotion.
In my sculpture I am dancing along, having fun. I think what ties them together is my mark making and my thick paint. The paintings I am doing now will serve to catapult me to my next phase, incorporating what I am learning from my sculptures into hopefully larger 2D paintings. But I can’t wave a magic wand and see what kind of painting I will certainly be doing because I really never thought I would be a sculptor. I knew I loved Arp and several years ago I went to buy a bandsaw to realize what I was seeing in my head. I went with a jigsaw as I didn’t have the room for a bandsaw in my studio.
I use the jigsaw to cut out shapes of large pieces of wood that will ultimately be painted for sculpture and my husband helps me fashion the pieces together with nuts and bolts. I hardly ever buy wood, I find it either thrown away, or on the beach, or it is given to me, or I take things apart that I buy at yard sales (if the item is good usable wood). So, in my studio I have quite a bit of wood in different sizes and widths, pieces of glass, fabric, old brushes- “things” that will someday find a place in my work.
The truth is my sculptures evolved organically by having odd pieces of cut wood in my studio, painting them, then stacking, and suddenly having that “ah ha” moment of – sculpture is something I want to do, it makes me happy, I must follow where this is leading, and then slowly the work emerged.
Woodworking also seemed at the time so distant, like a foreign language, but now I understand it and can use it.
My next hurdle is to learn how to carve wood because I have always wanted to. I love Marisol’s work. At Yale art gallery there is a cabinet of her beautifully painted carved cut heads, and each face has a different enigmatic expression. The faces remind me a bit of Ensor, another love of mine.
AS: Can you elaborate a bit more on the relationship between your paintings and sculptures?
Susan Carr: I wanted the sculpture to mirror some of my paintings. Again, my painting style is thick, chunky and layered and I wanted to superimpose that style on some of my sculpture, so I employ quite a bit of paint on pieces and the hardware is never seen. Other pieces that are more lightly painted, seemed to me to be more naive, a bit more like drawings in space.
So I have several different types of sculptures I do. When I started, I was totally innocent to what I was doing, and I made the rules up as I went. Now my sculpture work has become a bit more sophisticated, but I have to hold onto the innocence of my first pieces and let go of what I think a piece of sculpture should look like.
In time I would like to make my 3D pieces into 2D paintings – experimentation is very important to me so it will happen.
AS: What is your typical studio schedule like?
Susan Carr: I go down into my studio in the morning and hopefully spend a whole day three or four days a week. I like to stay on a schedule as it helps me to stay focused even if I am puttering around, playing with wood, or cleaning. Being in the studio helps ideas to coalesce and is the impetus for trying new things.
AS: You mention reading and painting as poetry. Does literature have special importance in relation to your work? If so, can you tell me more about it?
Susan Carr: Writing is very important to me and I see my painting now as a form of memoir. I have written quite a few pieces on painting. When I was a kid I was deep into books and then comic books. I wish I had more time to read now, but I paint.
AS: You said that art and science are the same journey seen from two different perspectives. Can you talk more about that notion and how it relates to your work?
Susan Carr: Art and science are two sides of the same coin – both require curiosity, the need to discover, and to find out the “why’s” of things. When I walk into my studio I might as well be walking into my lab as I am creating and constructing new ways of seeing things, new objects for discussion.
Artists analyze, research, and hypothesize art that makes overt or covert statements – whether political or imaginary. We classify art into types, use different methods in our making, and often have several studies going on at once, as I do in my self-portrait series and sculpture. I believe art and science are two sides of the same coin, both practices look at things rigorously but differently and apply a contrasting approach.
When I was very little I lived in North Carolina and there was a swamp out of the backdoor of my house. I loved frogs and the frog life cycle (I was in the swamp a lot). When I moved to Falmouth on Cape Cod, I missed the swamp and all the life there. I tried to “make” a swamp in a bucket and was very disappointed when it never materialized. I did a lot of “making” such as forts and rock sculpture on the beach when I was a kid.
AS: It seems to me that gesture, the presence of the hand is key in your work – a channel to reach “something more,” as you expressed in one of your artist’s statements. What’s your take on that?
Susan Carr: The presence of the human hand is very important to me. I like gesture in painting. It is like [I’ll say it again] – dancing. Gesture says humanity was here. I love cave paintings, although, I have never seen them in real life. The art and the idea of the cave paintings excite me and seem to whisper in my ear.
AS: Both your paintings and your assemblages create playful and raw energy, almost a child-like curiosity. Do you have that in mind?
Susan Carr: Picasso said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I am always trying to get back to “Girl watching Ants,” the piece I did at five. Purity. Children are pure and they don’t worry what their art looks like. I am trying to get to that sweet spot – it will take a lifetime, I am far from it. As an artist that has been through school there is a bit of baggage to get rid of. I think we must take the initial idea of “good” art and turn it inside out bounce it around a bit to see what that might look like. This is my way of recovering my own innocence and curiosity about a piece.
AS: What can you tell me about your impasto technique?
Susan Carr: My impasto technique is a building up of paint layer after layer over time (patience!). I like the idea of history in a piece, that the piece was worked on, that it has a life. My impasto technique is a nod to that idea. If the piece took me awhile, struggled with me – then it feels more alive, breathing. Not every piece of mine is like this but most are. I like to use different brush sizes – for sure that one thing is super important to me. I like to crumble, to keep the paint alive and in color- whether I be smooshing it, smoothing it out, or adding lines.
I love color, and I am working on color pieces thickly painted.
AS: What is happening in your studio these days?
Susan Carr: I feel as if I am almost procrastinating these days but must remind myself that good work needs a gestation period to come about to be born and it is summer after all. I am creating bigger sculpture, self-portraits, dream paintings, and drawings. I am doing some drawings in oil pastel and crayon that seem so elusive, the chase is on. I actually made a painting of one of these new drawings and it is an exciting new turn for me.I have so many ideas for painting now.
I love working outside of my comfort zone it helps to stay fresh and I have a dozen small things going on like handmade books and tiny shadow boxes. And then there is ceramics, which I must get back to. When I think about all the miscellaneous and varied art projects I am in the middle of and worry that I might have spread myself too thin, I am reminded of Louise Bourgeois. She had a penchant for doing many kinds of art. Louise to me is the ultimate artist-such a genius, so brave and strong. I think of her often. She comes with me into the studio along with Guston, Kirchner, Paula Modersohn Becker, and so many others.