Last winter on a trip to Brooklyn I visited Suzy Spence who is a painter, curator, and writer who grew up in Maine. We enjoyed connecting around our shared Maine experiences while she gave me a tour of her live/work studio. Suzy has been active in the New York art world since the 1990s when she worked at the New Museum and exhibited her own work with downtown gallery American Fine Arts. In addition to painting and a variety of curatorial projects she is the Executive Publisher of Artcritical Magazine. When I entered Suzy's stunning, modern home I was taken by the large equestrian portraits on the walls of her studio, and the way her work space was so much a part of her living space. It's the first room you walk into, just off the kitchen and facing the street, with gorgeous floor to ceiling windows (light envy!) and is draped with drop cloths.
Get a closer look at her creative process and space below!
EL- Can you describe your work using three words?
SS- Edgy, equestrian, paintings
EL- What type of work do you do and what kind of mediums do you use?
SS- I'm a figurative painter who was trained in conceptualism and feminist practice. I work with water based paints; I also use digital mediums to create images and animations.
EL- Tell me about your background...where did you grow up? How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
SS- My family is from New York City and Boston, but we moved to Maine when I was growing up. I always wanted to return to New York, and did when I was 19. My move to Brooklyn was in the mid 90s, along with the other droves of artists looking for affordable housing!
EL- Did you grow up in a creative household? If so, how did that influence your own art? If not, where do you feel your inspiration came from?
SS- My mother, Marcia Stremlau, is a painter who lives and works in Brooklin, Maine. She has been hugely supportive and influential, no one else more so. Her friendships with artists like Anina Porter Fuller who runs Artist’s Week on Great Spruce Head Island, and Lydia Cassat, and Mary Barnes and generally her extended community of painters, has influenced me by proximity. She gave me very good materials to work with at a young age, and we spent time at museums.
EL- Tell me about the different types of work you do in the arts: curating, making, etc. Is there one you are more passionate about?
SS- I love collaboration. That took a while to develop, but it’s the most rewarding aspect of being an artist. Collaboration can simply be the exchange two artists have in their studios; it can also take the form of moral support since what we’re trying to do is incredibly hard, let’s face it. Curating other work or writing about it is very gratifying; I learn so much, and gain a deeper understanding of someone else’s practice. That intimacy and connection is what keeps me going.
EL- Did you go to school for art? If so, how did this shape the artist you are today?
SS- I went to Parsons School of Design and majored in Fine Arts. I had fabulous professors, many of whom were engaged in social practice. All of the conceptual energy eventually flowed into my painting, making it stronger and more viable. I later got an MFA in Computer Art, and began working with digital art as well.
EL- Your studio space is also a part of your living space. Has this always been the case? How does this affect the way you work? Do you prefer it this way?
SS- Yes. Some of my favorite artists have done the same: Alice Neel and Fairfield Porter among them. I am also involved with the preservation of an artwork called “Womanhouse” (1972). This was an amazing collaboration between artists and students in an old mansion in Hollywood, lead by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro.
EL- Equestrian subject matter is a huge part of you work. Is this a new theme or something that has always been present? Where does it stem from?
SS- I’m the girl who had an immediate, incredible passion for this animal. I started riding as soon as I could convince my mother to pay for lessons, and it is still the most grounding and spiritual activity in my life. That said, the subject exists in western painting, going back to the Lascaux cave paintings. The hunt scene, and the genre of English sporting art, has been an especially rich area for me. There’s endless potential for symbolism whether looking at hierarchies like man, woman, hound, fox, landscape; or from a feminist perspective through the depiction of top hats, waistcoats, and the militaristic.
EL- Do you show your work a lot?
SS- I’ll be in a number of group shows this year, including one in Los Angels, Montreal, and in India. I am having a solo show in New York in January at Sears Peyton Gallery.
EL- What is it like being an artist in Brooklyn? Is it challenging or does the large creative community make it easier?
SS- I lived in Vermont full time recently, and I can tell you that being an artist in New York is a very different experience. I came to the city in 1988, I’ve been part of the art world in some fashion since then, but have a core group of artists that I stick with, who know and support me, and vice versa. Look, you have to build a community of like minded artists no matter where you live, but when you’re in New York that task is as easy as rolling out of bed. It’s all right here and on a very high level.
EL- How has your work changed over the years?
SS- I’ve become more myself, more self assured. I’ve combined my life with my art in ways that have surprised me. My work has become more collaborative, especially through parallel curating and writing practices.
EL- Tell me more about your curating job...
SS- I have had the most fun job for four years curating a private residential space in Brooklyn at One Grand Army Plaza. The 4,000 square foot downstairs of the Richard Meier designed condo building is turned over to a single artist for a period of four months. I work collaboratively with an art committee — resident volunteers who love art — to select the artists. It’s up to me to find and vet the work, but the residents and I do studio visits together, and they ultimately choose. It’s a blast, I’ve been very fortunate to work with them.
EL- How has having a child and being a mother affected your creative life?
SS- It was the best decision I ever made, despite some older women telling me it was not possible to do both. They advised against it. But I can’t imagine life with out my daughter, and at the same time I had to shut down my studio for periods in order to give her the parenting I felt she needed. So there was sacrifice. In 2009 I curated a show called “The Mood Back Home” with friend Leslie Brack. We delved into all of these issues, inviting other women artists/mothers to participate.
EL- Do you show your work a lot?
SS- I’ll be in a number of group shows this year, including one in Los Angeles, Montreal, and in India. I am having a solo show in New York in January at Sears Peyton Gallery.
EL- What is something you've struggled with the most?
SS- The difficulties of living in New York. Every day I question the benefit of being here versus a life in the country.
EL- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
SS- Living on a farm in Vermont.
For anyone in New York, Suzy is having a solo show “A Night Among the Horses” at Sears Peyton Gallery in Chelsea, opens Thursday January 11. For a preview you can visit: suzyspence.com
Find Suzy here: