Talking with Suzanne Halstead reminded me of one of the most important things I learned from her, which was approaching art as a form of play. She has a Master of Arts in Education from Concordia University, with an emphasis on the development of creativity, play and informal learning environments. She says play is serious business for kids, one of the ways in which they learn about the world. Adults don’t allow this for themselves, often abandoning the act of making things, and thinking of art as “drawing something you can identify.” Suzanne describes another walk at Mensch Mill church camp, to the pond, and more drawing which began to feel more like “an exercise of skill rather than the passion of who I am,” and when releasing herself to the images on the page, vivid jagged spikes of red blossomed from the top of the watery blue green. This openness to the alive and growing edge of the soul is part of enlivens Suzanne’s pastels. She often uses “child’s pastels” which may not last forever, but she loves the color, and the beauty of playing with them.
There are ways in which realism can limit our ways of seeing, and Suzanne remarks on the transformation when drawing something in the world, something “real” but which she has a relationship with, a friend of the trees, not a scientific, botanically accurate relationship, but one of love. When she goes back into a drawing to explore it further, she is drawn to using her fingers, moving from the implement of a pastel crayon, to making a physical imprint on the page.
She suspects that this is a possibly unique process, and many of her colorings have the actual marks of her fingers as part of their composition. This series of pastels was a result of allowing herself to stay with one medium. Her love of different art media is irrepressible, and her studio is a treasure trove of supplies from printmaking, collage, and papermaking, but staying with the pastels was rewarding, seeing what she could learn from the medium.
Reality is so much more interesting than one type of “realism” and the pastel on the left, Coming to Grips with Green, comes out of both using green, a color she is not usually attracted to, and a visitation of 17-year locusts. The red glows amidst its opposite on the color wheel, and vivifies the green. The spiritual aspect of working through pain, and being open to joy, is essential to Suzanne’s work, and she related how the book Drawing Nearer: Devotional Workbook of Creative Prayer came to be. While attending an annual conference for the United Church of Christ in 2007, she was talking with a pastor who was aking her about vocation, and vision in her life, and she mentioned her series of pastels. He suggested she talk to Rev. Wanda Schwandt, a writer, who was leading a workshop on different forms of prayer. Later in the evening, Suzanne went to the dessert table and reached for a slice of chocolate cheesecake, at the same time as another woman was reaching in, and looking over she saw the nametag said “Wanda Schwandt,” so out of 300 attendees at this conference, they had found each other!
Wanda invited Suzanne to help lead a Forms of Prayer Workshop that Spring, and after getting to know each other, then started doing several successful workshops together. It was a year or so later that an ‘Art & Prayer’ workshop they were offering together had no one sign up so they took that as a sign to start working on the book sign to start work together on a book combining Wanda’s writings on prayer, with Suzanne’s pastels. I was privileged to be part of a “tester group” in Lent of 2008, using the book as a Lenten devotional, with prayers to contemplate, and prompts for drawing in pastels, in order to explore images in the same playful, intuitive manner that has been a passion for Suzanne. I was in a desert place of the spirit at this time, but the possibility of drawing, using color, and not being expected to do something “perfectly” or “right” opened the potential to explore.