Painter Susanne Kerr looks at the precarious balance between humans and nature. From her studio in Wellington, she talks to us about communication, curiosity, and concept of Ma.
What themes do you pursue?
I have been reflecting on the social connections – spoken and unspoken – that tie people together, and the way humans are increasingly damaging the environment; and I am exploring the double-edged sword of how our survival and the depletion of the earth’s resources are interwoven. The ribbons depicted in current works intertwine and connect people with botanical forms. The forms are visual metaphors of power and control, and internal conflict, and reflect our reliance on and desire to manipulate nature to our advantage. I am painting the beauty of nature on a large scale to emphasize its importance, and hope that in focusing on it we will want to preserve its beauty for generations to come. Coronavirus and the global implications of it for human health have made it an interesting time to see the ramifications of free will versus social responsibility, and this has shaped some of my recent work.
Describe your creative process
I am observing the world and trying to communicate and make sense of current issues, and individual concerns. My ideas are from research, sketches, and notes from my visual diary. Many materialise in the process of creating or experimenting in the studio. Curiosity – not quite knowing where a thread will go – is what motivates me in my artistic endeavours. Lacking certainty on how it will resolve can be nerve-racking and intriguing, and that is half the fun of it. My gouache paintings on paper evolve out of composite drawings that are made up of many small individual sketches on separate sheets of paper. I consider composition, scale, narrative, and energy flow, and reflect and redraw before they coalesce into the larger drawings that provide the essential structure to the subsequent paintings. The paintings are sixty percent planned in the drawing phase, but are altered, or added to, or have elements removed over the course of painting. Being open to this is an important part of resolving each work. I experiment with materials and techniques. When I get stuck or tired, I move everything to the edge of the studio and disengage from the artistic problems by doing yoga and meditation. This helps me respond rather than react to the issues I am trying to resolve.
What is the most indispensable item in your studio?
A pencil is the one thing I most often have in my hand or carelessly placed in my hair-knot for quick access. While I am particularly fond of my BIC 0.7mm mechanical pencils, whose greatest attribute is the lack of time wasted sharpening them. I think I would be most frustrated without wheels on all my studio furniture, which are indispensable for moving heavy easels, tables, and storage units about so I can easily and quickly reconfigure the studio to enable me to work on different projects.
I’d also be more than a little lost without my favorite watercolor paper roll and brushes, and my attachment to both is due in part to having invested the time learning how they will deliver or react, the limits of what I can expect from them, and what brush I need to achieve a particular outcome on the paper surface. A couple of years ago Pēbēo ceased its Cobra range of brushes (which had the perfect tuft length, ferrule width, and long handle), and since then I have spent many years and far too much money trying out other brushes to find the right fit for me.
In two sentences, teach us something we may not know.
For the past 10 years I have been interested in the Japanese philosophical and aesthetic concept of Ma, which can be spatial, physical or temporal; but as it pertains to the arts, it is the space or void between drawn parts, the silence between notes, or the void inside a clay pot where the concept of pot is realised. In simple terms in my work it is the white space that is present in my paintings, where areas of empty paper serve as a compositional device, revealing the shape of a mountain, river, lake, foliage, or vessel, or it may have no form at all but be an expanse of white paper that gives a pause or a resting point for the eye.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I find I absorb advice best in written form and so the books I read have a powerful effect over me. The following lines I refer back to time and again. Unfortunately I’m not good at remembering book titles and author’s names so I can’t name the source, but here they are, “The mind is a powerful tool. It can enslave us or empower us. It can take us to the depths of despair or to the height of ecstasy. Learn to use its power wisely.”
What is a skill or talent you have that most people wouldn’t guess?
I can adapt most recipes according to what I have in the cupboards. I rarely follow a recipe faithfully and this skill has become further refined as I have had to work around food allergies for myself and other family members, adapting recipes to be vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy, corn, pea, soy and chickpea free.
Susanne is represented by Milford Galleries in New Zealand and GallerySmith in Australia. She’s working towards a show for Melbourne in 2021, and Pātaka Art + Museum for early 2022.
Images courtesy of the artist, Milford Galleries in Dunedin and Queenstown, and GallerySmith in Melbourne. Photography by Stephen A’Court.
Tributary (2019), gouache and pencil on watercolor paper, 1420 x 1245 mm
The Arrangement (2019), gouache, pencil and Japanese-paper collage on watercolor paper, 1430 x 1248 mm
A Fragile State (2019), gouache, pencil and Japanese-paper collage on watercolor paper, 1310 x 1220 mm
Parachute (2018), gouache and pencil on watercolor paper, 1290 x 1220 mm
Ties That Bind (2019), gouache and pencil on watercolor paper, Paper size 1421 x 1245 mm
Remnant (2019), gouache, pencil and Japanese-paper collage on watercolor paper, 1433 x 1194 mm