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Artist Interview: Sue Chenoweth

When I first moved to the Phoenix area ten years ago, Sue Chenoweth was one of the first artists that I heard about. Everyone in town knew of her, and her work. So, of course, I had to see what what all the buzz was about. I went to see her work whenever possible including the shows, “Predator and Prey”, at Bragg’s Pie Factory, “Spyhopping: Adventures with Sue Chenoweth and the Permanent Collection” at SMOCA (Scottsdale), and “Presence” at the EyeLounge (Phoenix), to name a few. I have never been disappointed by her challenging shows.

But, her work is not easy. Her paintings have been inspired by great white sharks, maps, insane asylums, volcanoes, sex, games, grizzly bear maulings, and cannibalism. She is keenly aware that nature can be beautiful, but also threatening and unpredictable. There is always something sinister lurking underneath her urgently beautiful work. What I love about her work, is that the more that you know about the back story, the more thrilling and fascinating the work becomes.

Wouldn’t He Remember His First Home? What Passed for Wisdom There?
Gouache, acrylic, ink, graphite, Letraset and flocked paper on paper
80 x 80″
This will show in Rio de Janerio, Brazil
and also showed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) In Philadelphia.

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Finally, I contacted her after connecting on facebook, and Spotify (She has terrific taste in music, by the way!), and met at her studio for this interview. I didn’t know what to expect, but was fascinated by her stories, the work that she showed me, and her very curious dogs. Here is our interview.

Your art seems to be childlike one second, and then very adult in an instant. Am I far off there?
I am often surprised that my art would be considered childlike because I think it is anything but childlike. People often get mixed up between ‘childlike’ and deconstructed. When looking at children’s artwork one can see a distinct pattern of development as they acclimate society’s conventions. Children start out being very authentic (which only lasts a short while), and slowly add in stereotypes and conventions. I can right now see in my mind a third graders rendition of a house and a tree. Children begin to draw what they think an artist should draw like as soon as they can speak. Society gives them rules of what is acceptable at an early age.

Then how do you see your art?
One of my ‘missions’ as an artist is to break down symbols and signs given from society which I call ‘habit imagery.’ These stereotypical symbols and signs are over loaded with information and can take away from a painting’s/drawing’s authenticity. After I have broken down these signs I then find that I then develop my own ‘habit imagery’ which must then again to be broken down.It never ends.

Do you have any influences?
The first thing I am going to say here is that I don’t have a clue when I will be struck with an idea for a piece. It could be from anywhere. The ideas often are not clever, but come from the everyday life. I believe everyday life has more magic in it than any clever/ironic idea.

To Climb the Highest Peak
2011
Gouache, acrylic, ink, graphite, Letraset and Pantone paper on paper
80 x80”
This will show in Rio de Janerio, Brazil
and also showed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) in Philadelphia.

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I get much of my influences from the biological sciences and books about the biological sciences and history. I never plan what I am going to do in a piece and wait patiently until I get a ‘starting place gift.’ A ‘starting place gift’ comes generally out of the blue and I then know how I will start the work I begin with this idea but as I paint wait for a ‘hook’ to tell me where I need to go next.

Many times I set up adventures for myself and paint what I call ‘pre-memories’ of the adventure before I experience it and then paint what happens after I have the adventure. (i.e. I went diving with Great White Sharks to become prey for an exhibition I had called Predator and Prey’ The pre-memories of this experience were much different than the actual experience. The entire experience was set up like a grand myth.  I set out after a monster, but alas, the monster was not the monster but something all together different that what I envisioned. The entire experience changed my life and flipped my thought process on its head.

Has teaching changed your artwork?
I use teaching as a balance for my life. It helps me stay sane while I make work. It is a structure that I need for my own personal journey. I paint in small spurts all day long when I am home. An hour here, five minutes there and maybe a brush stroke at another time as I walk by my unfinished painting to my computer. I am always amazed that I can develop a body of work this way. I used to fight how I worked but then began to understand that how I ‘thought I should work’ showed the same dynamics as how people ‘think they should draw.’ Part of my understanding art on a deep level has to do with how I live my life with an attitude of surrender. Teaching has had to help me put words on to what I know.

How long have you been doing this?
I always made art as far back as I can remember. In fact I feel that I was a better artist before I learned to put words to what I know.

So, what are thinking about now?
Mortality. I have never been one to dwell on death, but the older I get I desperately want to experience and learn things in the time I have left.

My Mother is  declining in her advanced age and I see my own demise sneaking up on me. I now understand what ‘over the hill’ means. It means we can see our own death looming. No one gets to really understand this phrase until they do.

What’s next for you?
I am working on a body of work that will show in Largo Das Artes, a beautiful gallery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in August and September of 2012. Every experience I have could be part of a painting.

I just got back from Paris a couple of weeks ago and I can became enchanted with the tiny round windows that are in the roofs in the buildings that surround the Louvre. I took photos of them and wonder how they will be integrated into my work someday. I am very surprised at what becomes important to me.

Could you tell me a little about what you expect in Rio?
Favelas
are shanty towns built into the hillsides. They have an organic appearance and it seems like they could be plucked out of the landscape or incised. This made me think of organic systems present in nature like carbuncles and furnacles (systems of carbuncles) which need to be incised and popped. This then made me think of volcanoes which led to all the notorious volcanoes in the world…either the ones that killed the most people or ones that we recognize. This led to sex and ejaculations…etc etc etc. I have no idea what the end product will be for this show but I do have faith that the connections I find will be important. I have to remember that I can pull this off. That I always pull this off and I always have extreme doubts about myself as an artist as I approach a new body of work. This is all part of the cycle.

I will be staying 6 weeks in a compound  in the rain forest. I have no idea what will happen. That is what makes it interesting. Right now I am painting my ‘pre-memories’ of my adventure. Some of the work will be painted when I get to Rio. The painting  that are executed there will show my actual experience there. Who knows what they will look like and what they will end up being about. I only have my starting place of favelas, carbuncles, furnacles, volcanoes and sex.


Timothy Treadwell
2007
30 x 44 inches
Gouache, acrylic, model railroad turf, model railroad flock, graphite, Letraset and Pantone paper on paper

Showed  in the show, Predator and Prey
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Website

Artist Statement
Born 1953, Plainview, Texas, USA. Lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Sue Chenoweth’s installations and paintings are investigations of memory, myth and place explored through historical narrative, architectural as well as the physical and biological sciences. Through her exploratory research and travel, she often paints ‘pre-memories’ of adventures before she experiences them, investigating the similarities and differences between the ‘pre-memory’ and the ‘actual experience.’

The subject matter following her research investigates a wide variety of subjects, whether it is swimming with great white sharks or exploring the sub-basements of estate houses of the gilded age, her work always traces back to a universal understanding of the human experience. Through these encounters Chenoweth captures the archetypes of the common man and delves into the everyday experience of being human. By combining seemingly disparate subject matter, Chenoweth comes up with unique connections often overlooked.



  1. Ted Decker (Reply) on Monday 23, 2012

    Wonderful Chris and Sue! Thanks! Don’t forget that phICA is co-producing the artist residency and solo exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, our first “on the road” project. THANKS so much for this great coverage of a most talented visual artist in our midst. Ted