Saturday, September 21, 2013

Susan Ernst Featured Guild Member

Each month the Stratford Arts Guild conducts an interview with one of its members and publishes it in their newsletter. I am the featured artist for September. Here is my interview.

Featured Guild Member

Susan Ernst
Paper & Collage Artist
Susan Ernst's passion early on was for the beauty of the natural world. She earned an AAS degree in Ornamental Horticulture at the age of 21. She has been making paper from plants and reclaimed materials since 2003. Deciding to learn about fine art, she studied fine art at Southern Connecticut State University and earned a BS degree in Studio Art/Printmaking in 2011, at the age of 50.

Since 2012, Ernst has been studying with the Connecticut Natural Science Illustrators at the Yale Peabody Education Center. She has also been exhibiting and selling her art, handmade paper and journals and has recently begun offering classes, workshops and retreats.


SAG: First, let's talk about collage, which is to say, layered work you create from reclaimed papers. What is at the heart of a "good" collage, do you think,  and how do you know when a combination is working?
SE: I think working from the heart is the key to any successful piece of art. It is where I begin. For instance, in my Songbird Silhouettes Series, I used pages from old books on attracting birds, notes of various sorts that were written by my mother, grandmother, husband, and children, along with old ledger paper and other ephemera.

I have a reverence for old books, nature, family stories and the everyday items from the past that to me have historical value. I try to incorporate these into my work. The viewer may not see or understand the significance of these papers but they add a personal dimension to each piece.

SAG: Much of your work is about breaking things down (plants, old clothes, etc.) to remake them into a kind of blank canvas or new form. That part of the work is somewhat hidden from the final result, isn't it?
SE: I spend a significant amount of time making paper. Cutting up and beating old cotton or linen cloth as well as cooking, rinsing and beating plant fibers can take several hours to several days. It takes maybe an average of three hours to make 50 sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper. Add to that drying time. I do it because I enjoy the process. I find it rewarding to create something new from something that otherwise would have been thrown away.
SAG: It's plain to see you use the natural world in your work, such as birds and plants. Why is this motif so important to you?
SE:  I'm not sure. I grew up in a newly-built neighborhood in Queens where we had a small backyard with some grass and a few shrubs. Not much animal or bird life. I enjoyed visiting my grandparents, who lived upstate and my aunt and uncle who lived on Long Island, partly because there were blue jays, butterflies, hydrangeas, tomato plants, shade trees and more always around.

The natural world is something I've always been excited and passionate about. As an adult, nature continues to teach me life lessons and new wonders are discovered almost daily. For instance, there is a bird visiting my garden the past few days that I have not yet been able to positively identify. I find that exciting! 
SAG: We are an intensely digital world. How do people respond to the sale of handmade paper?
SE: They love how it feels and looks. Often they say they are afraid to use it because it is so lovely. And they find it fascinating that paper can be made from things other than trees. Learning that paper can be made from reclaimed materials such as cotton or linen cloth, or that it can be sustainably harvested from a number of plants, appeals as well.
SAG: You were a "late bloomer" in terms of art training (receiving your degree in studio art and printmaking at the age of 50). What happened?
SE: My situation was that I had no art classes at all until one class in middle school which I loved. So I had no exposure to art. I loved to draw and color and did paint-by-numbers as a child, but it was never viewed as anything more than child's play.

I did have an interest in interior design as a teenager and looked into studying that. I was strongly discouraged by the admissions counselor at a well known interior design school because I did not have an art portfolio and was told that it was a closed field open only to gay men. That was in 1979, can you believe that? I discovered that I could study Ornamental Horticulture so did that. My plan was to focus on landscape design, but after a class with a particularly terrible teacher (he wasn't hired back the next semester) who failed me, I decided to switch to nursery management instead.

These creative desires were satisfied as the years went by through decorating my apartments, then later my home and, finally, designing and planting gardens of my own. When I began seeing the artwork my children brought home from school, I realized I wanted to learn to do this stuff too. I began by taking classes at the Brookfield Craft Center, Housatonic Community College, Creative Arts Workshop (CAW) and then, formally, at Southern CT State University.

I still take classes at CAW as well as with the CT Natural Science Illustrators at the Peabody Museum Education Center in Orange. They will begin offering a certificate program in the spring which I plan to do. I must say that while at Housatonic, I received much encouragement from two professors. It is because of them that I had the confidence to further my degree by going to Southern. Encouragement makes a huge difference in the life of someone who is unsure of a path to follow, whether a child, young adult or even a "mature" adult.

SAG: Recently you've started hosting creativity workshops at your home studio. How have they been going?
SE: The response by attendees has been very positive. It is in promoting the events and finding a time of day that works for folks that is the difficult part.

SAG: Thanks Susan!
Ernst will be showing her work at the Autumn ARTS Festival in Killingsworth, October 12 & 13th, demonstrating how to make paper from cotton rags at Milford Historical Society's Yankee Pedlar Fair on October 19th, and she will be participating in artspace New Haven's City-Wide Open Studios at Alternative Space, Goffe Street Armory, October 26 & 27th.  You can follow Susan Ernst on Facebook.

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