Interview with Susan Jane Walp by Larry Groff
for JSS in Civita 2013
Susan Jane Walp graciously agreed to an interview with me that was conducted through an exchange of emails. I would like to thank her again for her involvement and also with her generosity with providing higher resolution images as well as samples of her earlier work. Susan Jane Walp lives and paints in rural Vermont. Ms. Walp is represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in NYC, where a show of her work is planned this fall.
In a recent conversation with the painter Stuart Shils, I mentioned my plans for this interview with Susan Walp and that I was troubled by the fact I’d never had the opportunity to see her work in person, only through reproduction. Stuart, who has stood in front of her paintings at great length over the years, said that he’d love to write a short introduction:
“The beauty of Susan’s paint narrative is really not visible via internet reproduction or even in well printed catalogs, because her moves don’t translate into reproduction, except vaguely. The slow, hypnotic seduction of her work is rooted within the wide range of ways that her brushes, knives, pencils, touch the canvas and how they all sit together to express a quality of observation characterized by passion and restraint. The immense sensuous appeal of Susan’s work is not about it’s subject matter, but instead with how and to what degree she has acted inventively, controlling and organizing painted space and the ways that our eyes move within it, using paint as a carefully shaped language with full bodied but delicate syntax.” …
“Among many people who care deeply about painting, Susan’s canvases are among the most respected, appreciated and coveted. A feast for the senses, there is an ironic and fascinating relationship between their size and the degree to which they hold our eyes. Although, “hold our eyes” is really an understatement. You cannot get your eyes out of one of these paintings and the deeper you enter, the more you realize what there is to see. At first glance these paintings reveal a humility and modest confidence, and when you begin to look closely, they really take your eyes with the compelling grip of a long dream.”
– Stuart Shils, 4/29/2012
In a 2007 Tibor de Nagy Gallery catalogue Stephan Westfall said:
“To look at her work is to have a conversation about the full history of painting up through the perceptual innovations of Modernism, and to find illumination in the realization that all the theory or historical imperative at one’s command still needs to be animated, or “charmed,” by sensibility. As a material awareness this is an intimate experience, one naturally suited to the physical scale of Walp’s painting, where we are invited to come close.”
Larry Groff: What are some of your most important influences or events that lead you to become a still life painter?
Susan Jane Walp: Probably the most important event was meeting up with Lennart Anderson in 1968 at a summer painting program run by Boston University’s School of Fine Arts in Lenox, MA. I was a student at Mount Holyoke College at the time and had enrolled in the B.U. program to make up classes that I had dropped due to an illness. There were too many students in the beginning section so a few of us had the good luck of being moved into the advanced class, taught by Lennart. I remember being so impressed by the seriousness and talent and training of the B.U. students…during the breaks they were reading Nietzsche and Camus…this was an entirely new world for me. It was a figure class and Lennart painted along with us. I recall he felt a bit guilty about this!—accepting a salary for a summer of painting. But nothing could have been more worthwhile for a young student of painting than to be painting by his side. By the end of the summer I had been transformed from an inward, ill, somewhat depressed and confused young woman into someone who had a purpose in life and an eagerness and confidence to move on and open more doors. At the end of the summer, Lennart recommended the New York Studio School, still in its infancy, as a next step for me. I did eventually go there, where I studied drawing with the other person who became an important lifelong teacher for me, Nicholas Carone. The Studio School was a wonderful experience, especially for drawing. I loved it there, I felt so at home, not only at the school itself, but also in the tenement neighborhood in the East Village where I lived.
How I arrived at still life is a more complicated affair. My first body of work following my school years was a series of narrative, largely autobiographical figure compositions. I worked on those for a number of years and they became increasingly, overwhelmingly, embarrassingly influenced by Balthus. It’s difficult to fully express the hopelessness I came to feel during this time. Balthus was everything—everywhere I looked I imagined a Balthus painting, every tree in the park was a Balthus tree, every grouping of people a Balthus street scene. I had been working on my own for more than ten years and was facing the possibility that I would never have an idea of my own and instead was destined to a lifetime of making third-rate imitations of the painter I most admired. These paintings were more or less completely invented. I had pretty much stopped working from observation and so there was also a feeling of coming up against the limits of my own imagination. I am remembering something Cezanne supposedly said—”I hate the imagination”—I don’t remember where I read this. Sometimes I wonder if I have made it up for my own convenience! Such a radical thing to say and something I so understand as a limitation of my own temperament. In any case, in my despair, I turned to still life as a way to feel the ground under my feet. I had turned to still life and also the landscape and an occasional figure study before—during times of feeling confused. Once again I thought it only would be something temporary. And now, almost thirty years later, I still can catch myself thinking I am only in a temporary phase before I return again to the human figure.
LG: What you said brings to mind a great quote from Corot: “… Be firm, be meek, but follow your own convictions. It is better to be nothing than an echo of other painters. The wise man has said: When one follows another, one is always behind.”
SJW: That’s a wonderful quote. And yet it also can be a fine thing to be guided by a teacher, at least this has been the case for me—but yes, I think it’s important to not just be a follower but to question and to know one’s own mind during the process.
- Heart of Winter Blood Orange 2010, oil on linen, 7 7/8 x 8″
LG: When you spoke of turning to still life to “feel the ground under my feet”, are you talking about the intense concentration found in observation based painting which can induce a meditative state of mind or “being in the moment”?
SJW: Yes, I think you are so right—that the concentration of working from observation can be similar to a meditation practice. And perhaps with still life even more so than working from the figure or landscape, because the distractions are reduced to a minimum, the objects are still, can’t engage you in conversation, don’t need to take breaks, aren’t subject to changing weather.
LG: This level of concentration can temporarily quiet the chatter from other artists’ voices and allows for your authentic voice to be heard. I love your statement that is quoted in the Maureen Mullarkey essay, “Still life asks for a kind of humility and I like that about it—working from a place where the usual demands of the ego are not so helpful and can be temporarily ignored.”
LG: I’m curious about your mentioning your early figurative paintings, wonder if you could speculate about how painting the figure might differ from your still lifes? Do you think painting the figure would require a radical change in your approach?
SJW: Over the years I’ve worked on a handful of figure compositions from my imagination, but they just have been too difficult, with not enough enjoyment and too much confusion over where they were going. I love some of Uglow’s figure paintings from life, especially the later ones with the limited palettes and checkerboard floors. Beautifully observed…very powerful images that are so full of feeling and so unique. For awhile I thought working from observation was the answer—I often have worked with students from the model and have enjoyed that. During my Guggenheim year I used some of the money to hire a model—a wonderful model—but it didn’t end up working in the way I had hoped. My studio was too small to get the distance I seemed to need. And I found I really didn’t like having someone in the studio and missed my solitude. There is something about still life that just continues to work for me. There are ups and downs to be sure, but also some underlying faith that everything I may want to explore is right there in my own backyard. But I’m not ruling anything out. There are some painters who make me feel the figure would be within my reach again: Albert York, early Sienese paintings and some predella paintings from Piero della Francesca’s altarpieces. But then there’s Watteau and Velasquez, two painters I’ve been looking at and drawing from in recent years, who make me feel quite content to remain a viewer.
LG: I read that you started to study Indian drumming several years ago and you talked about how improvisation within a rigid structure gave you a “parallel discipline” and how you loved the energy that being a beginner brought to the studio. What is the beginner’s energy you refer to here? Can you speak more about how working within a rigid structure can allow you greater freedom?
SJW: I think when you are a beginner everything is still possible, nothing is solidified into habit, and progress is very tangible and gratifying. When you’ve stayed with a particular discipline for so many years, as I have done with painting, there are many plateaus, many swamps and bogs, and a parallel discipline where one can engage that beginner’s energy again can be very helpful—at least this has been the case for me. There have been a number of them for me—with my first husband I was a serious student of “Go”, a three-thousand year-old Chinese board game, now played mostly in Japan. We learned from these ancient Japanese men in Denver and later went to Japan where we played in the commercial Go parlors in Tokyo every day for nearly three months. Here in Vermont I first rode horses and then was a student of Aikido for several years and then found my way to Indian drumming. It proved too demanding! I never become particularly proficient in any of these. I was serious and worked at them and could take things to a certain point and that was it. Sometimes it feels as if I am married to painting—it is basically a good marriage and these other activities are like temporary “affairs” that eventually bring me back to my main love.
It is true that I am attracted temperamentally to things that require a kind of discipline and have built-in limitations. I think this is because basically I am a somewhat lazy person who is easily distracted and also overly impressionable. I loved living in the city—but once I was out of school and working in my own studio, I would walk out the door in the morning and be pulled here and there, fascinated by so many things and so many different kinds of art and with less and less sense of my own direction as a painter. In that sense, Vermont and the relative solitude of my life here has been a godsend.
LG: I understand you live in what used to be an old sawmill. Did you fix it up yourself? If you live in an old sawmill it must be on a river? Did you have any problems from Hurricane Irene last year?
SJW: The sawmill is not so interesting as you may be imagining. The original part of our house was formerly a very small storage barn for a small sawmill that was part of the original farm. It was converted into a living space of sorts (electricity and running water, plus outhouse) by some city transplants in the 70’s. We eventually added on to the original structure. It’s a very rural environment. Dirt roads, five miles to the nearest village, thirty minutes to the closest shopping town. No river, but a beautiful stream just across the road. We hear it for much of the year and my daily walk follows it, so I’ve gotten to know it quite well. It’s one of my favorite things about living where we do. We live high above the stream and were not affected by the flooding, but we do have friends who live in nearby communities that were devastated.
Photo: Glenn Suokko
LG: Can you tell us something about what your studio is like?
SJW: My studio moved from an outbuilding to inside the house when we built the addition—that was about twenty years ago. It is a small space on the second floor—the north facing windows look out onto a small orchard and a hillside pasture usually occupied by our neighbor’s draft horses. The light is beautiful and plentiful. In the winter months even more so, as the light is not only reflecting off the sky but also off the big expanse of snow, which usually is with us from November through mid-April.
LG: What is your daily painting routine? I understand that often much time is needed before you’ll consider a painting finished. However, your paintings never seem overworked. Can you tell us something about your painting process, especially with how you keep the painting fresh over time?
SJW: I work in the mornings and often through the middle of the afternoon, if I don’t have other commitments. I try not to make other plans or appointments for the morning hours. Generally, I take off on the weekends to take care of household things and to work in the vegetable garden in the summer.
I usually begin a painting with the new moon and pretty much focus on it for a week or two. I’ll bring it to a certain state within several weeks and then it goes on the wall and I’ll work on it more as it calls to me. This can go on for months or, on rare occasions, for more than a year. So at any given time there are multiple paintings on the wall in various stages of resolution. Over the years I’ve developed by necessity a number of different ways (experimenting with different grounds and different ways of applying the paint, also scraping and sanding) of keeping the surface alive and receptive to more layers of paint for the duration of this long and slow process. I should add that technique for me is something that must follow and serve and be responsive to the seeing, so ideally it’s not something that is static or that can be pinned down. If something is not going well in the studio, in a specific painting or just in general, it can be very useful to try to understand what the obstacle is, to put it into words and really contemplate the situation. And very often I find that the solution is technical. Somehow the technique has not kept pace with the seeing, and some change or shift—usually subtle, but occasionally enormous—is required. There is a quote from Ezra Pound that has stayed with me for many years—”Technique is the test of sincerity.”
LG: I’ve read that you often make working drawings for your paintings. How do these drawings inform your painting? Are compositional decisions made more with your drawing or more in the setting up the still life itself? What are your first considerations when starting a painting?
SJW: I do several different kinds of drawings, but I think you are referring to the gridded pencil drawings on toned paper, which I seem to be doing fewer of in recent years. Mostly I have done them to have a record of something in the set-up that will rot or deteriorate before I will be able to resolve the painting. I don’t ever do them first thing—it’s most often a few days into the painting. The grid is often used as a means of transferring the drawing. But I’ve also used the grid to orient myself to the vertical and horizontal. I don’t know exactly why I prefer to draw on sheets of paper that are much larger than my paintings—in painting I seem to need the confinement, in the drawings I prefer a more limitless space, but I often can feel too lost within it. It’s like the edges are too far away to comprehend—and then the grid can supply some stability.
The compositions arise out of setting up the still life. The process is entirely improvisational—probably the most free part of the process of making a painting for me. I try to do set-ups on the morning of the new moon. I may come to it with some idea as a starting point—some new object I’ve found, perhaps a particular combination of colors that I’ve seen on a walk, or an idea from someone else’s painting—it could be anything. But it almost always quickly moves into unfamiliar territory. It’s very visual—I really do try to let go of any ideas or preconceptions—I am waiting for something to surprise and delight me. It’s a pretty clear moment when it all comes together. Sometimes it can happen in minutes, sometimes it takes days.
LG: For many years your paintings have several recurring themes, characters, and structures. For instance, you often have a central round shape layered on rectangular shapes inside a squarish canvas. Your hair ties, blueberries, pointy fork, bricks, and grapefruit often return for repeat performances. What interests you the most with your variations on a theme over such a long time?
SJW: What interests me most?……Hmmmm….I really do try to be very open to new possibilities in terms of the compositions and there have been many longings and experiments to break free from set patterns, but it is true that so far I do keep returning to that central object, often circular, in the center—a kind of hierarchy with lesser objects radiating outward from the center. I don’t know…there is something so satisfying about that form occupying the central position. I think it does break with the “rules” of western composition. I’ve thought of some connection to the mandalas of eastern art, though they were never any sort of conscious influence. Also Japanese ensos. Mostly I try to not “think” about this—but to just allow my heart to lead my eye. And I don’t think this is something set in stone in my work. The compositions always seem to be shifting a bit off center and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday they spiral off into some completely new configuration. Perhaps I’m not being entirely honest with myself here—I would like to think I am completely open to what I am seeing and to something fresh emerging that could go beyond my habitual patterns, but of course there is lots of resistance there too. I am thinking of something that Lennart said to me many years ago that I keep forgetting and remembering—the importance of the painter being completely receptive to what he or she is seeing in the motif. I see this as a letting go of a kind of willfulness that can block a more pure kind of perception. One certainly sees this receptivity in Lennart’s work. Also in the work of Rackstraw Downes, a contemporary landscape painter whose work I greatly admire. Also in so many of Morandi’s paintings. It is a truly touching quality in a painting. And in fact, I think “touch” has something to do with it.
As far as the objects themselves, you are right that they are like actors in a repertory theater company. My friend the painter Ruth Miller and I have joked about auditioning fruit and vegetables in the grocery store, going through a bin of apples, setting each one apart, stepping back, evaluating, looking for the right shape, the right personality. I do have a weakness for cut open fruit—the surprise of the patterns one finds, the geometries. Blueberries are wonderful because each one has its own personality and yet the color is consistent and holds the mass together as a big dark shape. They are also surprisingly slow to rot and hold their color even when shriveled. There can be a tendency in still life for the mood to become too…benign…and then the knives and forks can be a counteracting force. I am always looking for new objects— some that I am very fond of have been sitting in my closet for years because I haven’t yet found the right role for them. Maybe this is too obvious to say; for me its always about shape and color and relationship. I don’t choose an object, at least not consciously, for any symbolic or narrative meaning.
LG: I love your statement about Lennart Anderson when he talks about the need to be completely receptive to what is seen in the motif. Clearly you took his words to heart. The objects in your still lifes are magnificently seen and painted. I know you must spend a great deal of time placing these objects to create a pictorial structure that will inspire you to have this “complete reception of seeing”. Your still life arrangements never seem theatrical or posed. I know you delight in carefully arranging your still lifes, but I’m curious if the idea of the “found” still life has ever interested you? By this I mean where you don’t arrange and instead frame and select the composition from a random grouping, to give you another built-in limitation to work against.
SJW: I’ve admired this quality in the work of Lois Dodd, where it’s not just confined to still life. Throughout her paintings there is the feeling that she is so attuned to everyday experiences, very open and alive to whatever she sees in her environment. Her paintings are a record of that level of attention. This is very appealing to me—the life and the work becoming one thing. It’s an idea that occurs to me from time to time, finding the motif in the midst of one’s life, but for me it remains one of those paths not taken.
LG: I wasn’t familiar with Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) until I read that she was a still life painter who holds an importance to you. Still life has sometimes been considered a more female oriented genre and needless to say both women and still life have been given short shrift in art history. Do you think postmodernism art institutions still evoke a hierarchy of painting genres where modern equivalents to history painting gets the most attention? How can the art world pay so much attention to Damien Hirst and so little to painters like Lennart Anderson?
SJW: I first discovered Garzoni’s work in an Italian cookbook in the gift shop of the Frick. There were no monographs on her work at the time, a few have come out since but they are difficult to find and very expensive. She comes out of the botanical illustration tradition but carried it much farther. She was very successful and highly regarded during her lifetime. I don’t quite understand my fascination with her work…it’s not for any sort political reason, like discovering an unacknowledged woman artist from the past kind of thing…I just happen to love looking at her work. Mostly this has been in reproduction, though I did see a couple of pieces in a show at the Morgan a few years back.
As far as the larger art world is concerned, it comes as no surprise really that fewer and fewer artists are claiming a bigger and bigger piece of the pie—this seems like a perfect reflection of our society at large. Painting is certainly something marginalized in our contemporary world—but for some of us perhaps there is an attraction to living on the margins and some advantage to being a relative nobody. I sometimes like to think of myself and my community of brother/sister painters as being like the nuns and monks of the Medieval period in Europe, keeping a tradition alive during a kind of dark age.
I travel to New York several times a year and I confess to a kind of fascination with making the gallery rounds in Chelsea. It depends on my mood—I can be quite disapproving of much of the work being paid attention to by the biggest galleries, especially if I am in the company of painter friends. If I am by myself then I find it easier to suspend judgement and to just observe how I am experiencing things…what things I’m drawn to. Sometimes I will only seek out painting, but other times I am curious to look at everything. Perhaps because I live in Vermont and spend so little time in the city, I am not so jaded and can really enjoy myself. I am trying to think of an example…a few months ago I saw an exhibit of the work of the Iranian-born artist, Shirin Neshat. It was the video installation that really drew me in—there was no apparent connection to my own work and yet the images, the mood, the light, the sound, the relationship of the detail to the whole were all so very compelling—I can’t tell you what it was. I sat through it several times. I just knew there was something there for me, something I would take home to my own studio. I think she is primarily viewed as a political artist—the content revealed itself slowly but it wasn’t what initially drew me in or even what most interested me in the work. It’s not about do I think is this work good or bad or great—it’s more about being attentive to what wakes one up to a deeper experience of the world and what could serve the unfolding of one’s own work and vision, and this I find doesn’t always come from the expected places. I remember Lennart talking about his early days in New York—living and working among the abstract expressionists on 10th Street, remaining completely committed to his work as a realist painter, but recognizing a vitality in this work that was so new for that time and wanting to bring something of its energy to his own paintings. So maybe it’s something like that for me.
LG: More than other still life painters, I sense a deep affinity between your paintings and modern poetry. Your paintings and prints have illustrated several poetry publications and your website has just two links, one to your gallery and the other to Chester Creek Press, a fine press poetry publisher. I’m hoping you might reveal more about your relationship to poetry. Do you have a favorite poem that relates to painting and still lifes?
SJW: My husband was just saying the other day that among our close circle of friends there are probably as many poets and writers as there are painters and sculptors. I’ve done woodcuts for a couple of collaborative limited edition book projects with two Vermont-based poets (The Ink Dark Moon with Jody Gladding and Drink a Cup of Loneliness with David Budbill) and my brother Bob Walp of Chester Creek Press, who designed the books, printed the woodblocks, printed the text from hand set type, made the covers, and sewed the bindings by hand.
So I do have a connection to contemporary poetry, though I wouldn’t say by any means that I am widely read. Adam Zagajewski is a Polish poet I’ve been reading recently. There’s something about the language…the reserve and understatement…that I find very appealing. When the insights come, you believe them.
Jane Hirshfield also comes to mind. She is a contemporary poet whose work has meant a great deal to me. She wrote a remarkable book, Seven Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, which I’ve read three times during the past several years. It’s a collection of essays about reading and writing poetry, but for me it has as much to do with looking at and making paintings. Again, this is along the lines of the parallel discipline idea—how sometimes it’s more useful, more illuminating, to consider things through the lens of another discipline. The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of her translations of the love poems of two Japanese women poets who were courtesans in the royal court back in the 9th and 10th centuries, also made a deep impression on me. Their names are Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu and are considered to be among the greatest of Japanese poets. The poems are erotic, spiritual, heartbreaking, full of the deepest feeling. Their beauty carries with it the sadness of the impermanence of things—the Japanese word for this is aware—and it’s something I also feel is the territory of still life. What greatly interests me here also is the form—the poems are very short and follow a strict pattern of 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7)—again for me an example of great freedom and originality found within quite strict limitations.
Emily Dickinson is the poet who has meant the most to me. I have had her collected poems in the studio for years. There is something about the way she can travel from some small concrete observation to the infinity of the universe within the confines of one short poem. This sense of scale she is so attuned to—from microcosm to macrocosm—has been a great inspiration, something I aspire to in my paintings.
The Outer — from the Inner
by Emily Dickinson
Derives its Magnitude —
‘Tis Duke, or Dwarf, according
The fine — unvarying Axis
That regulates the Wheel —
Though Spokes — spin — more conspicuous
And fling a dust — the while.
The Inner — paints the Outer —
The Brush without the Hand —
Its Picture publishes — precise —
As is the inner Brand —
On fine — Arterial Canvas —
A Cheek — perchance a Brow —
The Star’s whole Secret — in the Lake —
Eyes were not meant to know.
Susan Jane Walp is represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, NY and has also had solo shows at the Hackett Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA and the Fischbach Gallery, New York, NY as well as several other venues.
She has received numerous awards which include: the 2009 Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Academician Membership from the National Academy Museum, a 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship in Painting and a 1977 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
Susan Jane Walp studied painting at Mount Holyoke College, Boston University School of Fine Arts at Tanglewood, New York Studio School, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and Brooklyn College during the 1970’s. She has been a Visiting Assistant Professor and Lecturer at Dartmouth College and a visiting artist at the Vermont Studio Center, as well as a guest critic and speaker at Haverford College and Swarthmore College and at the MFA programs of Western Connecticut State University, Brooklyn College, and the University of New Hampshire.
catalogues available on Susan Jane Walp’s website)