By Clairan Ferrono for SAQA Blog
Interviewed July, 2013
Clairan Ferrono caught up with artist Sue Reno for this interview during the month of July. Sue was the SAQA.com Featured Artist in May 2013.
Q. Tell me about your background — where did you grow up, and how did this influence you as an artist?
A. I grew up in rural central Pennsylvania, in a Pennsylvania Dutch family and community. Self-sufficiency was a virtue, and I learned a lot of traditional crafts that would now qualify me as a hipster—gardening, canning, masonry, butchering hogs and steers—as well as the needle arts. I’ve been sewing since I was old enough to hold a needle, started making my own clothes when I was 11, and began a quilt when I was 13. Along with a solid grounding in craft practice, my upbringing gave me a sort of fearlessness in dealing with material objects. Things were mended and repurposed in the name of economy, scraps were saved, and patterns were altered and improvised to fit the need and the circumstances. So I’ve always felt like I can study a situation a bit, gather my resources, then jump in and do what needs to be done.
Q. What was your education? Was it art related, and how was it an influence?
A. I was Religious Studies major at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. It was the very best kind of liberal arts education, preparing me for a lifetime of critical thinking and intellectual exploration.
Through the college I was able to enroll in a unique opportunity to spend 6 months living and studying at the University of Mysore in India. It was a very unusual program, as at the time—mid 1970’s—U.S. diplomatic relations with India were chilly. But the Indian people themselves were wonderfully warm and welcoming, and I had amazing adventures travelling all around India and Nepal. It was then that I discovered Mysore silks, and hand-woven khadi cloth, and I ditched my clothes and filled my suitcases with fabric when I returned. So my work is informed in equal measure by both Pennsylvania Dutch and East Indian design aesthetics.
Q. When and why did you decide to become an artist?
A. I’d always made things, including contemporary quilts. But about 9 years ago, as my family responsibilities lessened, I made a conscious decision to pursue art quilting/fiber arts as a career choice. I’m an autodidact, so I just jumped in and started working at it with passion and discipline.
Q. What is the motivation and inspiration for your work?
A. My original focus was on the natural world. I spend a lot of time gardening, and hiking, and I wanted my work to reflect the deep connection and understanding I’ve worked on developing with my surroundings. I don’t choose my subjects lightly; it’s always something I’ve observed over time and in depth. I later expanded my repertoire, more or less by accident, to include architectural subjects. I was blindsided by the beauty of a historic building being renovated in Lancaster, and photographing it led me down an interesting and rewarding path.
Q. Who are your artistic role models?
A. I am very inner-directed. I’m interested creating design challenges and then working them out. I don’t have any particular stylistic role models as I am more concerned with developing my own style. But I do admire artists in any discipline whose work has integrity, and who tell the truth as it appears to them.
Q. Could you talk about your latest series of paintings/pieces and what you are trying to achieve with them? And how you see them as fitting in with what has preceded them?
A. I’m all over the map with what I’m trying to achieve right now! I’ve got a heady mix of ideas, goals, and deadlines pushing me in several directions at once. Aside from the always present time management issues, I think it’s a good thing, as I’m feeling very engaged and productive.
I’m working on my Flora and Fauna series with great gusto this year. This is where I combine cyanotypes images of mammal skulls with monoprints and vintage textiles. It’s not as macabre as it might sound; on the whole they are rather cheerful works. The series started out rather minimalistic and spare, like Groundhog and Green Bean, and has been growing more complex as I go along.
I’m currently working with the Rabbit, the Raccoon, and the Vole, and experimenting with a stitched pebbled texture that I like a lot. As the series grows, my goal is to find a venue to exhibit them all together. On my design wall right now is a new piece in my Garden series. It’s about a huge patch of volunteer Jack in the Pulpit that grows in my black currant bed, and combines cyanotypes, monoprints, and digital prints. Again, I’m doing some very detailed pebbled stitching.
I’m also laying out a new piece about the Susquehanna River. Its predecessor, In Dreams I Flew Over the River, was a lot of fun to put together, incorporating needlefelted elements, and I’m anxious to see where else I can take this idea.
My architectural pieces have been very rewarding for me, culminating a few weeks ago in a Purchase Award at the Pennsylvania State Museum for Silk Mill #3. Currently I am scouting around locally for another building to photograph and work with.
I’m intrigued with the idea that making art is not a linear process. I’m not trying to get from point A to point B in a series of progressive steps. I’m working more organically, attempting to construct in textiles a world that parallels my actual physical environment and my mental landscape. I break the works down into categories to make it easier to track them and view them and so on, but really, they are all part of one entire expanding personal paradigm.
Q. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A. I have an active, perhaps obsessive, work ethic, so I plan to keep on making art. I have a plethora of ideas and potential projects to consider and realize. I don’t anticipate changing mediums, as I find working with textiles deeply satisfying and culturally significant.
Aside from that, it would be hubris to try and predict the future, I think. Many of the grand things that have happened in my life sprang from taking bold chances to go in unexpected directions. I hope to stay curious and fully engaged in exploration.
Sue Reno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org