There wasn't one particular moment when Susan Donahue realized she wanted to be an artist. She never thought she could be one, really, but her curiosity took hold of her, and the world pulled at her, and she responded through oil painting.
But first, she acquired a lot of education. She received a Ph.D. in English at the University of Washington and began a career as an English professor. Her studies in literature used a "cultural studies" approach, putting the work of early modern women writers in the context of contemporary art. In her work on Mary Wroth, who wrote Urania, a romance novel published in 1621, she used ideas of the Baroque to discuss Wroth's narrative strategies and gender presentation.
She had been a dreamy child in an overly protective, working-class environment. She read voraciously as a child--and still does--and her study of literature grew from her constant and early reading. As she progressed in her graduate studies, she realized that she could have a career teaching literature at a university. Besides, she needed a way to support herself and her two children.
Her academic life allowed her to travel in the summers to the great museums of Western and Eastern Europe, where she soaked up the profound emotional visual impact of the works she saw. She has a specific memory of being at the Rjksmuseum in Amsterdam. The galleries were fairly empty. She turned a corner and entered a room, all alone, where Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" was displayed. She gasped out loud and put her hand to her mouth. It was a moment when she knew that art, specifically oil painting, was deeply important to her. She began to tell herself that she would learn to paint when she got older. She wanted to participate in the mystery of how those painting were created and why they had such power.
She held on to these ideas while she changed careers, went to law school, and began practicing law in Birmimgham, Alabama, representing African-American plaintiffs in class action lawsuits against corporations that refused to promote their black employees to supervisory positions. The law brought her directly into contact with some of the most difficult civic and personal issues of the present day. When her children were raised and she could support herself with her law practice, she told herself that she had better learn to paint if she was going to do it at all. It was time.
BEGINNING TO PAINT
During a trip to the Gulf Coast, she decided to take photos and then use them as references for paintings--an idea she had long held. When she got home, she went to the nearby art supply store and bought an easel, some paints, brushes, and canvases and set about painting one of the photos. It was awful. She decided to return to the art store and to look for books to help, but found instead a placard announcing an art demonstration by the artist Mark Carder for the next Saturday. She signed up. The demonstration was a revelation.
Mark's approach is to show people how to see with an artist's eye and to translate that seeing into paint. He emphasizes how the materials work--how to mix oil paint, how to create values, how to stretch and stain a canvas, how to set up a studio, how to draw the images and how to lay the paint on the canvas. Five minutes into his demonstration, she knew she could learn to paint with his instructions. But, she didn't consider herself to be an artist just yet. She was "learning to paint." That was all.
Today, she does recognize herself as an artist. The change occurred about two years ago when she displayed two landscape paintings on the Art Wall at the local summer chamber music festival in the Methow Valley in Washington State where she and her husband had moved. A man came up to her and told her, "I love your paintings," and asked her if she would show them in the tasting room of his winery in the town where she lives. She was thrilled, but the date for the installation was a year and a half away. Soon, an idea came to her, seemingly "out of the blue", that she should paint ten views of the most prominent mountain in the valley, the one that she sees multiple times a day from her living room, dining room, and deck. Her series, "Ten Views of Mt. Gardner," allowed her to think of herself as an artist with purpose. It was something about finding ten ways to portray the same subject and having them all displayed at one time that clinched it for her.
She continues to be inspired by the beauty of the Methow Valley where she lives. Every day she sees something breathtaking and inspiring. Her decades-long study of art, art history, and particular artists has also influenced her. Conceiving of the Mt. Gardner series came to her in part, from her study of Monet's series, such as his Haystacks series, as Mornings on the Seine, and Cezanne's many views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Of course, these 19th Century painters were influenced, in turn, by Hokusai's series of Mt. Fuji.
For her, Monet's compositions as compelling as his use of color and brush strokes. She is also fascinated by how he became more abstract as he developed over the 70 years of his painting life. His very late work is astounding in its abstraction and, as we know, was a major influence on the development of abstract Expressionism in the 20th Century. As for Cezanne, she finds his sense of volume transfixing, achieved through his modulated colors and brush work, and especially by how he places the image in a push and pull relationship with the surface of the painting.
She finds that oil paint has an infinite ability to produce nuance and subtlety. She once read that "touch does not describe; it evokes," which is true about any kind of touch, be it with a brush or otherwise. One of the great pleasures of painting for her is to respond to the evocative touch of the artist as a viewer and to create that "touch" as an artist. She will continue painting the world that she sees every day and to learn from other artists, both in the past and in the present.
She sees her work as realism with a pull toward abstraction. She uses Mark Carder's Geneva paints in a limited palette for studio work. These are high quality paints that dry slowly and "flatten," but impasto is also possible. His paint is pre-mixed with a medium that does not contain solvents, so it makes for a healthier studio atmosphere. But mostly she loves the buttery, responsive feel of the paint. She paints on the highest quality, twice-primed Belgium linen canvas that she stretches herself. She chooses the size of the canvas to suit her sense what the image requires.
Her studio is a small basement room in her house in Winthrop. Unlike her first studio, which was the dining room in her Alabama home, and her second studio, which was the guest bedroom in her first Winthrop home, her studio now is completely devoted to her painting. She also uses the adjoining room for a workspace where she has a blue-painted, drop-leg table for stretching canvases and staining them.
When she moved to her present home in Winthrop, she painted her basement studio space a neutral, light brown--the color that she uses to stain her canvases--burrnt umber and white. The space focuses her attention on her easel--called a a "taboret"--the kind with a table attached at the back, where she keeps her paints, brushes, mediums and other small tools and devises that she uses regularly. The studio is so small that she had to place the easel so she can take long views of what she is painting from outside the room. But, she can catch quick glimpses of her painting as she walks past her studio room, and the quick looks show her where she might want to do some additional work on the image.
She never leaves a painting unfinished. In fact, she always completes one before starting another. She does this because she learned quickly that there is a point in a painting before the image emerges where the painting looks quite ugly--really awkward and wrong. This is because all of the optical illusions and contexts are not yet in place. Unlike her very first ugly paintings that she abandoned, she has learned to use all her techniques and skills so that she can paint through "the ugly" and fulfill her vision. She trusts that her close observation of nature, together with finding the correct values and all the other aspects of laying the paint down that she has learned, will take her through to the finish of each painting and that each painting will teach her important lessons for the next ones. She loves to feel that "push" of the paint. It transports her into the creative zone where surprising things happen.