Susan Lenz

The "Strata Series" was inspired by the cross-sectional profiles of the earth. The resulting series was worked on water-soluble fabric in free motion machine embroidery. The series was SHORT LIVED. Thus, this blog is a place to BURY blog the cross-sectional profiles. It functions as a support area for my "main" blog which is Art in Stitches by Susan Lenz.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Artist Profile in Dale Rollerson's IN FUSION e-magazine

(Above:  The first page of my artist profile in the March 2014 issue of In Fusion, an e-magazine published by Dale and Ian Rollerson of The Thread Studio in Perth, Australia.)

Recently I was honored to write both a feature article, called Hot and Hair-Brained, for Dale and Ian Rollerson's In Fusion e-magazine as well as this artist profile called Never Enough ... Art and Hours.  This Internet publication is loaded with interesting techniques, supplies, ideas, and insider information into the lives and thoughts of many of today's contemporary stitchers.  At first I was a bit stumped when asked to write a profile.  It is harder than one might think to write about oneself.  What "part" of me would be best?  I wondered what to share ... my melting pieces, my art grave rubbing art quilts, my 3D assemblages that include fiber and stitch?  All of my work?  I worried that I'd come off as schizophrenic.  I go in so many different directions that it might seem unrelated (though for me my work is completely interconnected! LOL!)  I talked by my husband Steve about it.  He asked me, "What would you like to say to Dale's readers? Isn't it more important to "say something" than to "show something"?"  This got me thinking that many people don't really care what it is that another artist makes, but they really do care about the journey that artist took and how it might impact their life and art.  So, I wrote a profile that is meant to communicate the uphill battle of becoming "full time" ... the humble and silly thoughts of a once "wannabe" artist figuring out how to work seriously and with commitment.  The article is shown with loads of images of my work ... from every series ... and hopefully comes off in a "sane" manner.  To read the article with the accompanying images, get a subscription HERE.  Below, however, is the text.  Enjoy!  I sure enjoyed writing it.  (I also have another article in this issue.  It is on my melting techniques and called Hot and Hair-Brained.  It can be read HERE.)

by Susan Lenz

Being a full-time, professional studio artist is a complex, lofty goal.  It’s been my dream since I embarked on this creative fiber adventure just over a decade ago.  At that time, I thought to myself, “Susan, if you could simply create a body of work … say eighteen related pieces … you could call yourself an artist.”  Well, I made those eighteen pieces.  I asked a local coffee shop to display my work.  They agreed.  Then it dawned on me that I had all my work there.  I had nothing in my little rented studio to show for myself.  My next thought, “Susan, perhaps a body of work should number thirty-six pieces”. 

I made the new work in time to accept the coffee shop’s offer to hang pieces in their second location.  Believe it or not, they had a third shop too!  By the time I’d made enough work for all these locations, I’d learned that the number of pieces isn’t important.  I would NEVER have enough new work.  There will ALWAYS be a need for “more”.

Hanging artwork in an alternative location was wonderful.  I got plenty of feedback from the community and some pieces even sold.  This gave me validation and enough guts to start entering juried exhibitions.  Since I don’t come from a traditional background of sewing, quilting, or any sort of needlework, I looked to the fine art world for opportunities.  I asked other artists about shows they entered.  I used google to locate regional, national and even international calls-for-entry.  What did I find? Too many possibilities!  I came to realize that I’d have to pick and chose because I still didn’t have enough new work. 

Likely my ignorance helped.  I had no problem entering shows despite the fact that many exhibition prospectuses didn’t specifically call for “fibers”.  My work was 2D … just like a painting or pastel or photograph.  If a show had a quality juror; was in a respectable, insured venue; promised new exposure; offered a prize fund; and looked to be a “good fit” for my work, I entered.

At first, entering shows felt like going to the post office and pouring cash into the mail slot.  Rejection hurt but there were always other shows waiting for my application.  There were some early acceptances too.  Moments of pure joy were generally followed by hours of panic until I figured out how to ship my work and include a pre-paid, return-mailing label.  Like anything else, there is a learning curve.

As soon as a piece of artwork was accepted, it became “unavailable” for other opportunities.  Sometimes this “unavailable period” lasts for as long as two years.  Sometimes it is “forever” if the piece sells while away.  What did I learn from this?  I needed more work, of course!

I also learned that keeping good records of absolutely every little detail is really, really important.  Over the years I’ve had respectable institutions forget to mail checks for sold artwork, forget to return artwork, and forget to send a monetary prize.  Without a three-ring binder holding all the paperwork (including correspondence, tracking numbers, contracts, image lists, etc.), I couldn’t manage the life of a full-time, professional studio artist … and I wasn’t even one yet!

A couple years into making work and learning these early lessons, I was also feeling rather small and puny, unsuccessful, and under appreciated… and also very “middle aged” in a world of bright, academically educated, young artists.  Sure, I was working hard but I wasn’t “full time”.  My initial dream seemed very far away.  Then a miracle happened!  I had an epiphany!

It happened during a contemporary installation art event in a small town near my home in Columbia, South Carolina.  The local organization brought in internationally renowned artists with Central and South American roots to make site-specific works of art.  The climax on opening night was a giant bonfire.  Sure, it was conceptually more involved than just lighting a match to a bunch of twigs, but I didn’t want to see it that way.  I was too jealous of the status, the accolades, and the entire public perception of “big name” artists who enjoyed “full-time” studio careers.  (Picture me “green” with envy and not appreciating the work appropriately!)

The bonfire was meant as a symbolic gesture, a chance for people to offer up their prayers and multi-cultural believes in the many creative forces beyond a single evening.  In a self-pitying way, I said to myself even more than I said to God, “Susan, you could build a stupid bonfire.  You were a Girl Scout after all.  The most important difference between you and this artist is “full time” status.  So … okay, God, here’s my prayer … I WANT TO BE A FULL-TIME ARTIST”.

Before the thought completely formed in my pea-brain, a truth was made obvious as if by divine intervention.  (Please imagine a lightening bolt obliterating my “green-with-envy” attitude!)  Full-time has absolutely nothing to do with academic standing, age, gender, financial status, a lengthy CV, loads of juried shows, sales of work, or anything other than TIME.  “Full-time” in any other profession means putting in the hours … generally forty a week (or 37.5 by US government standards).  Being a full-time professional studio artist doesn’t mean making a living.  It means making art … forty hours of art per week.

This might seem obvious but it really isn’t.  Too many artists equate “full time” with financial rewards.  Too many people think “professional” means “earning income”.  They think that the money ought to be at least a “living wage”.  This just isn’t the case.

I talked about my epiphany with my husband Steve.  He agreed to help me rearrange my days so that I could spend forty hours making art.  He took over all cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, yard work, and any other domestic task in our lives.  From that moment on, I became a full-time studio artist. 

It was harder than I thought.  First, one must fill those hours actually making art … loads and loads of art.  Ideas that had kept me up at night seemed to evaporate from memory during the day.  My four studio walls seemed to encroach upon my creative energy.  There was only one solution.  I got a time card and simply worked.  It didn’t matter if that work was “good” or “bad” or anything else.  I just worked … putting in forty hours a week in addition to my job as a custom picture framer.  In the process, I was also working through several mental blocks.  I had to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head that insisted this path was impossible.  Instead, I had to act on hair-brained ideas that popped into my imagination.  I also learned that daily writing is a very helpful way to tap into my natural talents and make sense out of the visual stimulation of day-to-day life.  I write almost every morning now, stream-of-consciousness journal entries.  This practice helps me while I’m in the studio.  It fuels my concepts and defines workable plans for artistic execution.  It is how inspiration becomes art.  Eventually, working forty hours a week becomes a habit.  The time cards aren’t needed.  They are replaced by routine.

Every month the transition from “part-time” to “full-time” got easier.  In addition to embroidery, I started making 3D found art assemblages, art quilts, artist and altered books, collages, and fiber vessels.  The more time I spent making art, the better the art became.  This was a funny realization!  I could almost hear my mother’s voice saying, “Susan, practice makes perfect”.  Even if “perfect” never happens, “better” almost always does. 

Yet, the funniest thing about becoming a full-time studio artist is the fact that I still need MORE art.  There’s never enough of it!  There never will be.   


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