In Conversation with Susan Hoffman Fishman
In July of 2021, artist Susan Hoffman Fishman began talking with Canadian photographer, Joan Sullivan about the eerie similarity between future apocalyptic flood predictions and the ancient story of Noah and the world’s first apocalyptic flood. The two artists have known each other through writing, both serving as core writers for the international blog, Artists and Climate Change. Both artists have been working on issues relating to water and the climate crisis and are equally interested in mythical stories related to water that resonate in contemporary culture. That led them to weekly conversations throughout 2021 when they decided to collaborate on a multi-media installation project, which they eventually called Flood 2.0.
How did the group /collective evolve from there and how did you end up as the first participants in this residency?
At the same time this was happening, I was also serving as a consultant to Judy McElhone, the founder and director of the two-year-old Five Points Arts Center (Torrington, CT), on establishing the Center’s first artist residency. When Judy decided that they would sponsor four artists for a one-week trial period in June of 2022 and invited me to attend as one of the artists, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to develop components of our flood narrative project. Given leeway to select the artists that I felt would be compatible and lead to a successful experience for the Center, I immediately contacted Joan who was eager to attend the residency and work on our project. I also suggested increasing our twosome by adding two additional established artists working with water and climate change as the primary focus of their practices. That way, instead of two artists working collaboratively and two doing individual work, all four artists would be working together.
For the collective’s third member, I thought of Michigan-based, multi-media artist, Leslie Sobel. I’ve been collaborating with Leslie for the past three years on a traveling exhibition called Climate Conversations: All We Can Save as well as an upcoming exhibition called In the End a Devastating Beauty, consisting of work we produced during a joint three-month artist residency at Planet Labs, a global satellite imaging company in San Francisco.
For the fourth member of our team, I selected Maine-based, multi-disciplinary artist, Krisanne Baker, whose work I admire and whom I had interviewed for an article in my monthly column, “Imagining Water,” for Artists and Climate Change. Without hesitation, Leslie and Krisanne agreed to participate in the project and in the residency. We ultimately named ourselves the Water Women.
Tell me a bit more about the residency and what was your premise?
Prior to the residency, we determined as a group what we wanted to accomplish over the course of the week. We ambitiously planned to create the major components of our multi-media installation – a dilapidated, abandoned boat to be constructed out of a wooden frame and papier mache exterior, painted red; two sails using old paint-spattered, canvas drop cloths; a mast from an old porch column; and multiple scrolls to be painted and dyed to resemble an underwater environment.
We also hoped to experiment with projections of a video that Krisanne had already developed for the project, images of previous floods in Torrington from the archives of the Torrington Historical Society and images of our own artwork, all to create an immersive experience of catastrophic floodwaters. The projections from multiple projectors would be cast onto the walls, floor and installation components in the gallery space and be accompanied by a sound track.
Since we had an ambitious agenda for a one-week period of time, we knew we had to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Joan Sullivan was exposed to COVID and unable to attend. Krisanne, Leslie and I worked non-stop for seven days and accomplished almost all of our goals. We had full access to the amazing labs in the newly-created Arts Center, including the Print Lab, the Alternative Processing Photo Lab and the Digital Lab.
Judy McElhone and her staff could not have been more welcoming and accommodating to our needs, which included assistance from the facilities manager who solved a technical problem related to the construction of the boat, our request for a dedicated room to create a prototype installation and a space to store the boat until our spring, 2023 installation at the Five Points Gallery. At the end of the week, the Center hosted an open studio for community members who were able to see our progress, ask questions and provide useful feedback.
What has been your experience working together?
As I had hoped, the four of us have formed a very cohesive and compatible unit. Although we live in different states and countries (Maine, Connecticut, Michigan and Quebec, Canada), we were able to meet regularly before the residency and continue to meet regularly since the residency through the miracle of Zoom. However, the residency afforded three of us the opportunity to work together in the same place for the first time. There, we fell into a natural daily rhythm and marveled at how problem solving was relatively easy since, among the three of us, we were skilled and experienced in so many artistic disciplines – painting, photography, cyanotype, encaustic, printmaking, mixed-media, video, public art, sculpture, woodworking and writing. We worked seamlessly and didn’t waste any time with drama or histrionics.
We also had fun. Besides our experimentation with new materials during the day, we spent our evenings around a fire pit at the local B & B, a former cow farm overlooking gorgeous mountains and meadows, where we got into the habit of nightly competitions to see who could take the most beautiful sunset photograph.
We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve as the first artists for the Five Points Arts Center’s inaugural artist residency, which allowed us to solidify the design for our first iteration of Flood 2.0, a multi-media installation whose goal is to use art, flood mythologies and history to inspire community dialogue on local water issues.
We are especially pleased that we could see how our concept of creating an environment of catastrophic flooding in which viewers experience being submerged in flood waters, could be successfully achieved with our multiple video and still projections and multiple scrolls. We also have a clear idea of what we need to accomplish over the next seven months – making a sound track for the installation; finalizing the script for the production of a Greek chorus that will be performed during opening night; completing the scrolls; and planning a Torrington community conversation on flood remediation and preparedness in a town that has experienced 300 years of catastrophic flooding.
Our long-term plans include the development of installations in two additional inland, flood-prone cities that, like Torrington, Connecticut, have an enduring relationship with a river or other body of water; significant history of flooding; strong support of the arts; and relative lack of media attention as a city at risk for major flooding.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a Connecticut-based multi-disciplinary artist and arts writer. Her mixed-media paintings have addressed water issues in the context of climate change, including sea level rise, rampikes and the comparison of ancient myths related to water with current environmental conditions. Her most recent work highlights the proliferation of sinkholes around the world caused by the climate crisis. She is particularly interested in the contrast between the horrifying destruction resulting from these sink holes and the magnificent beauty of that destruction.