Artist Q & A / by Pam Sutherland

I was approached by former student, Alexa Evans, as part of her Art Seminar at James Madison University. The assignment was to interview an artist who has impacted her artistic journey.

Would you share with me what were some of your initial experiences with art?

 I always liked to draw, particularly the Peanuts comic strip. I copied Snoopy and Woodstock endlessly as a child. I took art throughout my high school years, and again copying was key—but this time realistic portraits from photographs. Several of my peers could also do this well, but I was always digging deeper emotionally with my work, wanting to tell a story of meaning and not just rely on technical acumen. This attitude definitely informs my work now as well as the lens through which I teach.

When did you decide to be an artist, and how did you know?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, or rather that creativity would determine my career path, but I was not sure exactly what that meant in terms of a tangible job. That I earn my primary living as an art teacher is a good fit for me, as I am content to balance the inwardness/selfishness of art-making with the nurturing required of the best teachers. I realize now how this is not necessarily true of all artists. To say I decided to be an artist feels sort of false though. It was a natural evolution. I would not say the label“artist” felt genuine until about ten years ago, although the seeds of such an identity have always been a part of me.

 Where did you grow up?

I was born in Richmond, but raised from 5th grade on in Charlottesville with a brief interlude in 4th Grade in            Pennsylvania.

What was your family unit? Did you have brothers or sisters?

I have a sister three years younger. My parents were married 15 years and divorced when I was 13. Both of my parents married new partners when I was 15 (literally within one week of each other.) This resulted in a stepsister the same age as my natural sister. My mother was a depressive alcoholic throughout my childhood and the isolation and shame I felt because of that made art a natural outlet for me.

Were there teachers that influenced you? How so?

My high school art teacher, Waldo Johnson, was a very sweet, elderly African–American man who totally supported my art interest and talent. I do not remember anything he taught me beyond calligraphy, but he nominated me for the first Summer Governor’s School for the Arts, which was a real turning point for me. I quickly realized I was different from my peers in being able to spend many, many more hours drawing than any of them; hence my decision to major in art in college. I adored my ceramics professor from William & Mary, Marlene Jack, and I have inadvertently modeled my approach to teaching and students after her without even realizing it. My teachers in graduate school (Washington University in St. Louis) were disappointing within my discipline of painting, but I found many other teachers—those in printmaking and English—inspiring. Overall, though, life is the best teacher, and teachers that speak to those universal, human truths (alongside those of their specific discipline) are always the most memorable ones.

What was the most important thing you learned in school?

Ideally, that subjects that interest you are interdependent in terms of how you garner inspiration and content for your art. For me this has always manifested in a collaboration between art and English, image and text, drawing and writing.

Do you have mentors or other working artists who influence you today?

I gather with a few other women artists once a month to have critiques of our work and to discuss ideas relevant to the art world today. Most of my closest women friends who have stood the test of time, are artists themselves or creative in some way, and so we are often sounding boards for each other’s practices and/or frustrations with the elusive art “market.” While I try to remain abreast of contemporary art I think at this point I am at least a decade behind in terms of who is current or cutting edge. I think I choose a certain level of ignorance as many of the trends at the moment are less tied to formalism/modernism/transcendence, things I am motivated by creatively, and more so by political issues of the moment such as sustainability, globalization, climate change, etc. It is not that I am not concerned about such things in my own life, but more that art for me is geared towards issues that transcend those particulars—what it is to be human, beauty, poetics, mortality, etc. Artists I admire include Doris Salcedo, Louise Bourguois, Francesco Clemente, Kiki Smith, Janine Antoni, Felix Gonzales Torres, Jim Hodges, Wolfgang Laib, Anselm Kiefer, Thomas Nozkowski, Cy Twombly, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Motherwell, Milton Avery and for me, the beginning of it all, Edward Hopper-for his love of value and his open-ended, emotionally charged narratives of isolation and loneliness. Theresa Pollak, a renowned and beloved Richmond artist and teacher, for whom part of the VCU art school is named, was someone I helped right out of college when she was in her mid 90s. It’s ironic and special to me how much my own art path parallels her own—something I could never have anticipated when we spent time together.

Would you say your occupation is the same as your career?

Yes, because my occupation as high school art teacher is inextricably linked to my mindset as an artist. I teach what I know, what I love, and what I do every day. I am grateful to get paid to affect young people with the things I believe in, and to parlay a fairly isolated avocation (art-making) into a more nurturing and collaborative vocation. To have to put into words and action on a daily basis the things I believe through the projects I create or through the evaluation process of critiques, has helped me understand and clarify my intentions creatively. I am a better artist as a result. And a better teacher for tangibly and transparently practicing the things I teach.

 Did you have any benchmarks in your career? By the time I’m X, I’ll have done Y?

 Never. I do not look at life that way, for better or for worse. I have always led my life trying to be mindful of the moment, giving the best I can in that moment in the most honest way possible, and trusting that the universe will deliver in the way it needs to bring out the best in me. I have a comfortable relationship with suffering and disappointment, believing deeply that such conflict is where true growth happens. I    would never want to rush such a process. I also think such an attitude runs counter to the ultimate point of art—that its power rests in the journey and not the outcome. Frankly, this benchmark attitude is what most worries me about young people today, the expectation of greatness/acquisitions/granite counter tops(!) before you even know who you really are/what it means/what its for. This “like” culture is dangerous, and enables an identity to form shallowly, without the true grit and struggle that imbues one with a unique and authentic sense of self. Artists, young artists, especially, need to be aware of this.

Were there any gatekeepers in the art world for you, people who either let you in or barred the way as you were coming through?

Yes. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Kathryn Markel, a gallery owner in NYC, who represented me for seven years. While I have shown locally since leaving grad school, I was never formally represented by a single gallery in Richmond, and have often struggled to receive adequate press within my own community. For whatever reason, this has always been easier to attain elsewhere, often in much larger markets, from DC to New York. Within my art education, I was struck by how professors could be immensely generous, sharing their knowledge, wisdom and professional connections, or by contrast, competitive, passive aggressively denying you access to a larger audience. When I was young, I tended to think this was reflective of some deficit within me, but I know now, that as in any field, there are secure and insecure people. I prefer to work with people as generous and secure as myself. Sadly, and especially within the gallery structure, they are hard to find.

Are there any professional organization that you joined that you found particularly helpful to your career?

Becoming an artist board member of 1708 Gallery in my late twenties, upon leaving graduate school, was instrumental in connecting me to my immediate art community. It afforded me many opportunities to not only exhibit my work, but create programs like “Wearable Art” or curate exhibitions that broadened my definition of what it meant to be a working artist.

What do you think are the major turning points in your career?

By far the most instrumental turning point in my life was being hired at Collegiate in 1998. Everything truly good in my life has stemmed from that opportunity. Kathryn Markel Gallery was a result of teaching a student who was her niece, and having that student ask me daily whether or not I had contacted her yet. One day I did, and the rest is history. I won a VMFA Professional Fellowship in 2004 after 15 years of applying for it, and that was huge in recalibrating my sense of worth and confidence as an artist. In fact, I’d say after earning that award was the first time I felt genuinely connected to calling myself an “artist.” I traveled to the VCCA for a residency in 2006 and adored that experience. Showing in NYC twice was a tremendous privilege and joy, and unexpectedly getting the Pollak Prize in 2009 from Richmond Magazine, very shortly after the death of my beloved father, was bittersweet but profound. To have come full circle from working with Theresa Pollak at 23 and at 39 receiving an award in her name was surreal, and yet very appropriate after all I had been through personally and professionally to get there. Accolades aside, the most profound turning point in my actual art practice was (re)discovering collage—something I had always used in making simple cards for loved ones---and incorporating it into my studio routine. It changed everything. For the first time, the work I made felt like mine.

What’s been your interaction with or relation to the public over the years?

Confusing. Especially now. When you earn these aforementioned accolades you get sort of pigeonholed artistically. The public wants you to keep making what you make because collectors/the market place/galleries deems that work valuable/salable. When you feel the need to change even in a small visual way, the public can be slow to catch on or reward you. I also have always had trouble determining how much people are responding to the actual work I make versus my role as a teacher, nurturing, for example a collector’s children in my classroom (i.e. they buy my work because their kid likes/liked me, having no real affection for the work itself). When I was younger I wondered if what I looked like or what I wore was being rewarded. This is much less an issue now at almost 50, although sometimes I wish it still was: it has never been easier for women artists in particular to milk that lens with culture’s emphasis on marketability through social media. In general, if you let the public determine your worth as an artist you are doomed. Art, at its core, asks that you be fully self-possessed; steered by your own intuition and values, often at the expense of what is popular or rewarded by the majority. True artists of all disciplines divorce themselves from the ego and celebrity that can so often these days come from “success.” Sort of like the gallery owners, these artists are hard to find. Steve Martin is a good example of an artist who has pursued many different kinds of creative expression throughout his career (curator, collector, writer, actor, musician) art being central to his being, regardless of what the market wanted him to be (i.e. a comedian).

What kind of control do you think you exert over your own destiny as an artist?

In so much as you retain your integrity and treat people fairly and with respect and kindness, I think you can assume you are doing the best you can. Good things come to those who wait---and to those people that are doing it because they need to, not for what it can get them. Idealistic? Maybe. But this is how I choose to live my life.

What are you own criteria for success as an artist?

You can probably fill in the blank by now. Fame in any context has never interested me. And so, my life as it exists now, is pretty ideal. I am able to make my work, not struggle financially, and have the freedom to make changes visually/conceptually if I want to as I am not beholden to a marketplace.  All I would add to the equation would be to develop a new relationship with a gallerist who I genuinely respected and trusted, whose space was a compatible venue for my work, and with whom I could show my work every few years. Losing the NY gallery in the last five years has been my largest obstacle: figuring out how to market my work in its absence and secure a meaningful audience for what is “new” work for me. But just looking at the world through an artistic lens is such a gift; it is the thing, as a teacher, I most hope to give students even if they never set foot in another art classroom.

Has money or critical success influenced your artistic decision making?

Never. I have always made my work for me first. If the marketplace catches on that is the icing on the cake. But again, I am fortunate to make my living through teaching, thus affording me the ability to snub such considerations.

Are you satisfied with your career as an artist?

Yes. Mostly. If I could solve the gallery issue (and I trust I will, just not right away) it would be ideal.

What do you think is your greatest disappointment in your professional career? What has been you greatest success?

I have to preface these answers by saying I have been enormously fortunate in my art life. Things in this arena have generally landed in my lap (especially when things in the personal arena were challenging). And so it is ironic, that just when I finally got married a 45 was precisely when I lost the KM Gallery. My work necessarily changed with this marked alteration to my life structure, and Kathryn did not respond to the work as much. With so much personal upheaval at the time, I did not initially notice this loss, but I have since regretted it, mostly because I genuinely liked and respected her and trusted her relationship to my work. It has been very difficult so far to find someone of equal intelligence and professionalism locally to take on my work. My greatest success? Just continuing to make art when it would be easy and expedient not to.

 What advice would you give someone who wanted to be an artist today, as opposed to when you started?

 Where do I begin? I’m not sure I would want to be a young person now, navigating a life as an artist. That is not to say there are not ten times as many opportunities open creatively to young people today as art is conflated with so many practices now. But that is the danger. Can anyone be a photographer now because of Instagram.? Are you an interior designer because you have a Pintrest page loaded with wallpaper swatches of your favorite bucket chairs? Does having an Etsy shop stocked with homemade feather earrings make you a jewelry designer? Yes and no. As far as design goes, I think it is anyone’s oyster. And social media and the internet have made marketing one’s identity as such so much easier, but also significantly more competitive. Increasingly, though, design and art are considered one and the same and they are not. This is something I try very hard to make the distinction between with my students: the difference between, art, craft and design. Most critically, I would ask every “creative”/”maker” (the big words floating around now that I would argue have little to do with the original meaning of artist)  to ask themselves why are you doing this? Making a living from something implies certain boundaries. So does seeking fame. Making a living as a portrait painter who relies on regular commissions and has a formulaic, craft-driven approach to art-making is a very different kind of artist than someone who follows the interior threads of their emotions and life experiences as they sway and shift in order to more fully know themselves as human beings, all the while never knowing (but not necessarily caring or needing) the public to acknowledge that search. Which are you? What are you? Who are you? This is something one needs to ascertain to fully reach his/her potential in any creative field.