I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend, and fellow artist Suzanne Halstead about her Earth & Spirit Exhibition at Water Gallery in Lansdale, PA, March 18-April 24, 2011. I checked out the show and it was a delight seeing the oil pastel colorings, as Suzanne calls them, full size. I first witnessed them in a draft of her book, coauthored with Wanda Schwandt, Drawing Nearer: Devotional Workbook of Creative Prayer.
Suzanne uses a powerful metaphor for her artistic process, that of seining the soul. As a child at her grandparent’s ocean cottage, she would seine for sea creatures, to see what treasures emerged. Marine biologists also use seining to take a census of the sea, in hopes of preserving the ecosystem by seeing what is thriving and what is disappearing. This kind of curiosity is intrinsic to her art.
An art retreat in the summer of 2000, with Pat Allen, sowed the seed for this series of oil pastels. Allen, author of Art as a Way of Knowing, had participants fix large sheets of paper to the wall with masking tape, and then start using oil pastels in whatever gestures and colors each desired. Suzanne describes becoming enamored with the process “automatic drawing,” addressing the images in real time, as they come up on the paper. She describes her art as a total body experience, listening to music, using gestures of dance, an organic process where she feels most alive. Allen’s model of the Pardes Studio had three steps, Intention, Attention/Process, and Witness. Suzanne resonates with the image of archaeology, digging into the images, and witnessing them, working with our psyches, which are complex and layered.
Then, after exploring with pastels over the next two years, with an incredible longing to keep the exploration going, this woman who loves the ocean, had a desert time of not making art, in the midst of moving to Mensch Mill church camp, where her husband Gary was called to be director, job angst, teaching workshops, and being in flux and transition. She relates a turning point that began when Gary gave her a gift of oil pastels for Christmas in 2003, which ultimately led to the piece above, Offering of Color.
She tells how couple months after Christmas, with the pastels still in their box, she went out for an early morning walk in the woods, and the words “Go use the pastels” came into her head, and heart. She went home and taped a piece of paper to the window in her back door. With the dawn light filtering through, as the sun rose, she was keenly aware of the pattern of the paper, the arrangement of the fibers, and it was calling the her. She used every color in the box but black and brown, and let the paper tell her what to do. Then 2 or 3 hours later, she peeled away the tape, which was a breakthrough experience for her. Suzanne describes how the actual taping of the paper, and then the taking the tape off is like the beginning and end of prayerful intention, and that tape acts as buffer for using the pastels with abandon, and as she peels the tape away, and a clean edge is revealed, she can witness again what she created. The works are not static, as she goes back in to rework images, not as a way to perfect them, but in response to what she is witnessing.
She worked in bursts of 5 or 6 days in a row, over the next year and a half to create the body of work in Earth & Spirit at Water Gallery. Suzanne ends her artist statement with the following, “While all art making is personal or ‘of the artist’, the images created in this body of work feel like a gift I am honored to be sharing them with you as a witness to these works.”
Interview with Suzanne Halstead Part 2: Release from Realism.
Drawing Nearer: Art, Prayer, Retreat
Doris Chan A cool friend of Suzanne’s, you can only see the back of her head in the photo at the top, plus some lovely blue yarn, and one of her original crochet creations.