In The Artist’s Studio
A conversation with Sue Zoon
When did you first start creating art?
I did my first mural when I was three or four on my parents’ dining room wall.
Did you go to art school?
Very briefly -- at the Mexico Institute of Allende in San Miguel, Mexico. My grandparents had seen the Institute during their travels. At the Institute the professors are all artists. I went to visit and ended up staying for a couple of semesters. The professors at the Institute told me I should just go paint. I then came back to the states and went to work at an opera company creating costumes and set designs.
Who or what has inspired you?
My family didn’t want me to paint. They wanted me to teach. So my inspirations came outside my family. A woman named Carolyn Marks, a feminist and political activist, really inspired me to accept my own challenge to make art outside the box. She made me feel courageous as I watched her manage with cancer and die very young.
What medium do you usually work in?
I work in acrylic on canvas. Recently, I started adding embellishments with crystals and gems on top of the acrylic. I like the facility of acrylic since my paintings are many layers.
What is your creation process like?
My first step is to draw a highly detailed version in pencil. I then photograph the drawing in black and white and project the photo onto the canvas. I then paint the canvas following the projected image. I work in layers, under-painting in general colors and then adding detailed layers – maybe 40 layers – with a layer of glaze between each to give it a depth of field that becomes almost three-dimensional. I spent 20 years as an art restorer of pottery and porcelain. I have used those techniques in my painting through experimentation.
How do you describe your style?
A mix of cubism and surrealism but softer and more feminine than traditional cubism. My life’s mission is to make modern art more accessible. I want my pieces to tell a story and be easily understandable.
I started playing with cubism in the 80s. I then started taking the clothes and skin off the bones and manipulated the form to paint skeletons. This stems from my Mexico experience. In Mexico, they celebrate “day of the dead” like Halloween here in the States. It goes back to the time of the Aztecs. Families come together to celebrate the dead and picnic on the graves of their ancestors. People parade through the streets dressed as skeletons. I recently did a show with a Day of the Dead theme. When I started adding embellishment to give my paintings another dimension I started with the Mexican work because they love “bling.” The embellishment is a very risky direction for me since it can be considered “campy” or “crafty” and therefore not true to a fine art creation.
How long is your painting process?
Not months – maybe three weeks. I will get semi-obsessive and paint until I am done. I can also work on several paintings at one time.
How do you decide on the size of your works?
The sketch suggests it. But I prefer to work large.
Do you find it difficult to title your pieces?
Not at all. Usually I have titles before I have the drawing.
What’s your favorite piece?
The one I just finished called Tsunami. It’s always the one I just finished. I love it and then move on.
Where are your favorite places to see art?
I love seeing art everywhere but I especially love seeing art in public spaces. I was recently in front of the Plaza hotel where they had on exhibit huge bronzes of the Chinese artist Wei Wei. Each represented an element of the Chinese horoscope.
Who are your favorite artists?
I don’t have just one. I like Wei Wei and the work of Diego Rivera.
What are you currently working on?
I am still working on my environmental series and more skeleton paintings that will be more overtly political about the divide between the rich and the poor in this country. I also have a commission that I haven’t started so that will be first. And I am also writing now.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Money is a big challenge as is time to get it out there. As an artist I am constantly being judged. Am I good enough for the gallery where I want to show my work or for the newspaper to cover me? So I have to push back against that. Every one has an opinion in the art world and I have to have a thick skin. People either get the work or they don’t.
What impact has the Putnam Arts Council had on you?
The Arts Council has always been important to me since I moved up here. Nothing like this existed where I came from. It was great to find this community and make so many friends and meet other artists who are so welcoming.