Spotlight: Susan Lenz, Fiber and Installation Artist
After spending a couple of decades studying and working with artists, Susan Lenz found her true calling: to BE an artist. She pushed the boundaries of traditional expectations with her first embroidery efforts and continues to make thought-provoking work.
Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.
My name is Susan Lenz. I’m a fiber and installation artist living in South Carolina.
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How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I look back and realize that for the first forty-two years of my life, I got as close to art as possible without risking the process of making anything.
In college, I majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies with a concentration on early Italian art of the 14th century … basically studying art made by others. After college, I started a custom picture framing business called Mouse House. I framed art made by other people for fifteen years. Finally, at age forty-two, I admitted my hidden passion, forcibly downsized my business, and rented a space in a cooperative artist studio setting.
At first, the transition was very, very difficult. I would stare at the four, blank, white walls in my little studio and wonder where all those ideas that kept me up late at night went.
Thankfully, the years of study and framing did assist me. I had learned how to WORK. Put in the hours, art happens. Like any other passion, the more you work, the better you get!
The thirteen artists in the cooperative studio space annually presented new work twice a year, once in the spring and once in November. I was expected to have something in all these shows. This commitment kept me busy, working and striving to make better work than the last show.
I was also very, very lucky to find a creative mentor almost immediately. His name is Stephen Chesley. Stephen is an impressionistic landscape oil painter, not a fiber artist at all. There is a great benefit in having a mentor whose work isn’t even slightly similar to one’s own. Conversations aren’t generally critiques but discussions on the pursuit of living a creative life and sustaining a professional studio practice.
Why do you create with fiber?
I honestly don’t know. Unlike many other fiber arts, I did not learn how to stitch while sitting at the knee of a grandmother, mother, or other female family member.
I had two horrible experiences with embroidery. One was as a Brownie in scouting. Each girl in my troop was given a piece of fabric onto which a cross-stitched design of radish appeared. We covered over all the x markings in red and green thread. They were hung on a fence. I was told mine wasn’t very good because the back was a complete mess. I didn’t care. Why? Well … it was still an ugly radish and who wanted to look at it on the back?
The other experience was with my grandmother. She gave me a doily with outlines of flowers. I was to fill in the spaces and lines exactly like they appeared in a photo. Continually, my grandmother smacked my hands and took out all my stitches because I wasn’t following the picture. Why? Well, I already knew what the picture looked like! I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to duplicate it. It wasn’t that pretty anyway! I guess, however, that these early experiences let me know that I could actually stitch even if others considered my effort unsuccessful.
As married graduate students, my husband Steve Dingman and I always went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. We would walk through the arts and industry building, past all the embroidery and quilts, and I would constantly say, “I could do that!” Steve always answered, “Put your money where your mouth is!” until I finally did.
Because we really didn’t have much money, I repeatedly checked out the Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Needlework from the library. Then I made one of everything in the book using supplies bought at a cheap store that resembles today’s Dollar Store. I loved it and it lead to finding the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, an organization I immediately joined. Embroidery expanded exponentially at that point. The sky was my new limit.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Does your work have stories to tell?
I have many inspirations and so my work almost always has a story. Inspirations include architecture, cemeteries, environmental issues, and especially the use of found objects to communicate a sense of memory and desire to leave a lasting mark on earth.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I’m not sure I do anything particularly different. In fact, I’m fairly sure that most approaches are shared by a number of other artists. So I subscribe to the adage: Everything old is new again. This is actually an important part of my work. I depend on the perceived relationships viewers have with the found objects I use in order for the themes to be obvious to them.
Is there an element of your art you enjoy working with most? Why?
I’ll use anything that seems appropriate to communicate an idea.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I hope not at all. My studio is generally quite a mess. I really hope my artistic message isn’t quite a total disaster!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
As someone whose approach to art comes from a foundation in embroidery, the indispensable tool is obviously a threaded needle. But not all my work requires stitching. For me, knowing when and how to use or not use certain tools and materials is much more important than any one of them.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I have gallery representation with the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, NC, and have been accepted into high end sales opportunities like the Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Shows with my “Stained Glass” and “In Box” series. These works are created using three different sizes of soldering irons and an industrial heat gun. Honestly, I’ve never soldered anything. I use the tools, however, to melt holes in my layers of polyester stretch velvet.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I do not use a sketchbook but I do journal regularly.
After going through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for the second time, I started typing my “Morning Pages” instead of writing them long-hand as suggested. I type out stream-of-consciousness entries at least four times a week, sometimes every single day for several weeks. I have entries dating back to 2007.
It is through this sort of mental conversation with myself that I explore ideas, work through development plans and then figure out whether my ideas are successfully communicated through my artwork. Of course, I also complain about life, the world, and bouts of slight depression. Anything goes when writing stream-of-consciousness but the results really do help me focus on what is truly important.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I switch from total silence to music streamed through my iPhone. I have a wide range of musical preferences but need the time without sound to break them up.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Both. I generally have an action plan but it is not particularly precise in the details.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
Writing Morning Pages. See above.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
I think I was contacted for this interview due to a recently finished piece called CRAZY (In the Millennial Age), and this piece is an excellent example for facing a challenge. I knew that I wanted to embellish the antique crazy quilt with anonymous photos, old keys, clock gears, buttons, and trinkets.
I knew that the easiest way to do this would require the antique crazy quilt to be stapled to stretcher bars. So I built the stretcher bar (64″ x 59″ outer dimensions) and stapled the quilt, often using a ladder to get to the top. The stretched crazy quilt was then supported by four work horses in my living room.
In order to use the anonymous photographs, I fused them to unbleached muslin. Why? Well, photographs are basically paper. Paper tears. Once fused to fabric, the photos became usable for hand stitching. So they no longer tear.
I used a tiny dab of glue to place literally hundreds of anonymous, fused, and cut photographs on the stretched antique crazy quilt. Then, I hand stitched around each one. I then added the old keys, clock gears, buttons, and trinkets.
I knew from the start, however, that I couldn’t reach the center of the piece. I knew that I would have to remove the piece from the stretcher bars in order to finish the center. My plan was to use two work horses to support a slab of wood on one side and the other two work horses to support another slab of wood on the other side. This held the weight of the piece and provided a space between the two sides for me to access the center and stitch that area.
Then, I covered the face of the stretcher bars with acid-free foam-centered board and re-stapled the crazy quilt. Finally, I stitched directly through the quilt and foam-centered board along the lines of the quilt block. This was done so that no part of the crazy quilt had to support the weight of more than a single block.
My plan worked. I describe it in detail in this blog post: http://artbysusanlenz.blogspot.com/2020/01/crazy-in-millennial-age.html
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Creativity is innate. Everyone has it but it is also a skill that can be deepened by practice, desire, and education/learning.
Who is the most creative person that you have ever known?
I have no idea. But I hope it is me.
How do you seek out opportunities for your art?
Internet searches and signing up for appropriate email newsletters from relevant organizations.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I view my website as a tool. It functions as a form of verification for organizations, curators, and professionals considering me for an opportunity. It functions as an easy way for people to find images and information about my work, my upcoming workshops and shows, and links to my TEDx talk, social media pages, and other videos. I hope people who find my website get the feeling that I am approachable … which is why I include a direct email address, not a “fill in the blank” way of communication.
Interview posted February 2020
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