Susan Sheets of Spring, Texas, is one of the four featured artists for October. We recently had a chance to interview her about her history and her art. Please enjoy!
Question: Tell us a bit about yourself--where you grew up, things you like to do besides art, interesting tidbits.
I grew up in San Antonio, and I am still very fond of the town. I love the hilly terrain, mesquite trees and lime-stone cliffs. Like all little girls, I wanted to “hang at the stables” and ride horses all day. No one ever bought me a horse; but my mom worked for a large-animal veterinarian, and he let me ride his horses one summer. It was hot and dusty, and I remember my friend and I riding across Austin Highway on our way to a picnic. Austin Highway wasn’t any more than a “two lane road” in those days. We found a vending machine and bought icy Cokes for a quarter, drinking them on horse-back on our way back.
Question: Did you start art as a kid or do other creative things like music or dance?
My Dad encouraged me to draw and supplied me with reams of paper. He once bought me a pair of electric scissors. I can do anything with scissors now! I learned to draw Teddy bears when I took lessons at McNay Art Institute in San Antonio as a child. When I was a teenager, I got a job as a waitress and with my wages I bought my first set of oil paints. They were tiny little tubes and so expensive, I hated to use the paint.
Question: When did you start to paint?
I learned to oil paint at the University of Houston. We were taught to begin with glazes and
apply opaque paint on top in layers. I really began to paint with oils when I had to teach it
to High school students. My students were very successful with the technique and took
honors at the Scholastics Competition. I took one student to an award ceremony in
Washington D.C. and then to New York.
One summer I applied for a residency at the Arrowmont School of
School of Art in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I was admitted and really got a lot out of the
experience. I decided I wanted to apply for more Residencies. I applied the following
summer to a Residency in Wyoming which I was awarded a three-week Residency. I
believe that was the experience which taught me to believe in myself as an artist.
Question: How did you come to choose your medium?
I think it had something to do with Rembrandt. I was very “taken” with his painting “Man in a Golden Helmet, which was latter disclaimed as not even a real Rembrandt! I always thought I wanted to paint in oil. I bought acrylic paints and hated them. They dried brighter than they looked wet.
Who was your most influential mentor? Why? How?
I do not remember ever having a mentor. I was very much self-taught. I took art classes first
at Baylor University, when I was being defiant. I was a nursing major and did not like the
program, so I signed up for art without a counselor’s approval, or my parents.
Then I got married, moved to Alaska and took art classes at the University of Alaska. My
husband was in the Army and was sent to Korea, so I returned to Texas and went to the
University of Houston where I got a degree in Interior Design. I was advised that would be a
better career than Art. Next I attended Sam Houston University, took art classes and got a
Certification in Education. Next I got my Masters in Art Education at Sam Houston.
Still, no one stands out in my education as a mentor. If anything, instructors were really
harmful. At one point, I decided after a bad critique, “I would never paint again!” Then I
decided I could paint, but it would never leave the garage. Then I got angry, and got an
“I’ll show you” attitude. I began to study artists from every period. I remember seeing a
show at U. of H. of Chuck Close. It inspired me and I began to paint really big canvases. I still
have that huge painting of my dog – it’s a good painting – real gutsy! But too big to hang in
the house! I mean nobody wants to look at a dog that big!
Question: Who is your favorite artist?
I like a lot of artists but I was influenced early by Whayne Thiebaud. I was amazed by a white rabbit he did in pastel on white paper. He hardly made any marks at all and it still has terrific volume! I appreciate his subject matter. I once made my students paint ice cream cones
In pastel. What a mess! Next I bought all kinds of bread, cheeses, meat, lettuce, tomatoes, olives and condiments and let every student build a sandwich. We photographed the sandwiches under intense light and then they ate their sandwiches. The next day they painted those sandwiches. It was the best project ever! Several of those students got wonderful scholarships at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design for their portfolios.
One series of Thiebaud’s work was done in paint as thick as toothpaste. His color palette is impressive too.
For color palette, I love Monet.
For composition and patterning, I love Edouard Vuillard.
For composition and intimacy in room scenes, all those mirrors and reflections, I love Pierre Bonnard.
I really appreciate Toulouse-Lautrec’s linear qualities, his fluid marks, his brevity in creating personalities.
Probably Caravaggio is the classic artist who moves me the most. His dark shadows and powerful compositions are really worth studying. His work is visceral – you experience what his subjects are feeling.
Question: Where do you get your inspiration for your work?
I began as an equine artist. I begged ranchers to allow me to photograph their horses and I painted horses. Dressage horses are my favorite. I went on a photo -shoot in Wyoming and photo-graphed cowboys and a herd of horses for three days. I’ve hired re-enactment cowboys and taken hundreds of photos of them in action. I’ve taken classes just so that I can photograph the horses they model. I’ve been to horse auctions for photo opportunities. I’ve been to Boy Scout camps in New Mexico to photograph horses. I’ve moved on to paint long-horns and photographed the cattle on a friend’s ranch. I have done commissions on a couple of cattle ranches. Now I am studying dogs, my own and others. Cats too. Finally, I want to do figurative work. My family are my subjects. This is my next ambition. However, I have a complete series of works of my students. That deals with their identities, and how their clothes and fashions define them.
Question: Tell us a bit about your process.
First I decide what I would like to focus on. I started with horses close up. Then I wanted horses in a herd in motion. Next I was interested in Mares and their off-spring. I would find someone with horses I am interested in photographing. I will spend hours studying the horses and taking hundreds of photos. I study those photos to determine which ones “move me.” I figure out what it is that is unique. I narrow the collection down and think about how I would approach my favorite photos if I painted them. I sleep on it and the next day one or more will “stick with me.” I figure out how big I feel it needs to be, order the stretchers, decide on color palette, stretch the canvas, draw up the composition, glaze the dark values first rapidly with fluid strokes and I work on the texture, wait for it to dry, apply opaque colors, I want to work the whole canvas, but I always start in my favorite area first. I am always tempted to finish the main figure too soon, but that is how I get excited about the work. When I think it’s done, I move it to another easel where I study it. I always see things I want to improve on, and do more work until it is truly done. Then I sign it.