by Lisa L. Cyr
This month’s Mixed Media Alchemy column presents an insightful interview with Canadian artist Susan Leopold, one of the featured three-dimensional artists from my mixed-media bestseller Art Revolution. Her signature work employs processes such as carving, molding, etching, scratching, wrapping, sculpted embossing, encaustics, image transfer and stitching work in tandem with a diverse range of materials from handmade paper and woven fabric to distressed wood, found metal and glass. Susan’s sensitive and almost poetic use of materials and processes communicate to us on many levels. Beyond their elicit texture and three-dimensional depth, Leopold’s sculptural works tease the boundaries of space to establish multiple layers of meaning. They transcend their physical presence to establish a direct sensory connection with the viewer. If you love working with materials and unique processes, you will fall in love with Susan’s work, as I have. Happy Valentine’s Day and enjoy the article!
Q:Your mixed-media work incorporates so many materials from custom handmade paper, fabric, wood and metal to yarn, thread, wire and wax. Can you tell us a bit about some of the unique processes and materials you use and how they help you to communicate a message or tell a story?
A: My work illustrates the essence of a narrative rather than one particular moment in time. I choose a multi-layered approach because it allows me to get closer to the essence of the subject. The multi-layered approach feels closer to what we actually experience in reality. Our perceptions are also multi-layered and much more complex. I use materials to create a substrate to hold and bury objects. I destroy it by digging back in or ripping it up and using it in a new way. Working in layers allows the flexibility to build up, tear down and move backwards and forwards through the piece and, in a sense, through time. I have the freedom to evolve in any direction I want. Nothing has to be permanent until the piece is resolved and therefore there are no wrong moves. If I allow myself to follow the image, it will emerge and surprise in an often mysterious way. There are connections to hide and seek: losing and finding held together in both material and process. I use a wide variety of materials in my work that perhaps mirror or represent emotional qualities that contribute to a rich kinaesthetic feel or embodied response in the viewer.
Q: Do you work in journals or sketchbooks to develop your ideas? Please detail your conceptual approach to picture making.
A: I take a process-oriented approach to concept development. I start with an initial research stage in all my work, which involves both a cognitive and kinesthetic component. For example, I read widely on the topic and gather resources from many sources, letting the idea(s) percolate until I feel ready to literally “feel” my way into the creative process. My approach involves the kinesthetic component of holding and touching the found objects and materials that I might use in the art.
Q: How did you develop your signature style?
A: I was working primarily in two-dimensional drawing and painting and was introduced to handmade paper as a surface for working. This led me to making my own handmade paper to work on. I then became drawn to the actual handmade paper as a sculptural media in its own right. I found that I could use this element as a substrate to hold the layering of my work. I could both add and subtract to this basic substrate, which had links for me to archeology and time.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your love of handmade paper and how you create custom surfaces infused with different elements?
A: I love the feel and versatility of this shapes-shifting medium, which can be shaped and sculpted or remain smooth and flat. I use cotton, silk and other natural materials which I place into a beater or blender and form sheets by hand to the specifications required. The material is ancient and contemporary.
Q: Your use of encaustics in quite interesting. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your work?
A: I was looking for a way to preserve my found ephemeral texts and photos and stumbled across using encaustic as a medium. I am drawn to the idea of how the encaustic preserves and holds these fragile elements as if they are suspended in time. Wax itself is an ancient and natural medium that is beautiful and flexible.
Q: Describe your artistic working environment and how it helps support your distinctive process and approach.
A: I work in an old distillery that has been preserved and restored. There are large windows and the light is fantastic. I am able to work large and store my work as well as give workshops in the space.
Q: What are your artistic influences and where do you look for inspiration.
A: Presently, I look to nature for inspiration as well as the artwork of children and outsider art. As a Creative/Expressive art therapist, I have the opportunity to engage with clients in the creative process and find this very inspiring. Anything can be inspirational; it’s a matter of continually noticing what is around and paying attention to what I am paying attention to.
Q: What do you see yourself incorporating in your work as your mixed-media vision evolves?
A: I am very interested in time based work and larger sculptural/environmental pieces. I don’t have a plan but rather find that following my curiosity seems to work.
Q: What are your future aspirations creatively? Any interesting projects that you would like to share with us?
I am working on a manuscript and series for a book on trees.
Susan Leopold is an internationally known artist and award-winning mixed-media visual artist/illustrator. Leopold has won numerous gold, silver and bronze awards from groups such as Dimensional Illustrators, Society of Illustrators New York, Society of Illustrators Los Angeles, Communication Arts, Society of Publication Designers, Print and Art Direction. Leopold received a BFA in Fine Art from the University of Michigan and an MA in Medical Illustration from University of California. Her work has been shown in the USA, Canada and Europe and has been displayed at the Museum of American Illustration, The Art Directors Club, Salmagundi Club and *new gallery, the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design in “Right Here in the USA” (which the Eisner described as “showcasing work from 24 of the most influential photographers and illustrators in advertising today).” Leopold’s work has been featured in Lisa Cyr’s Art Revolution as well as in The Art of Feminine Drawing, which showcased contemporary illustrators from around the world, I remember Mama, a book based on a two part juried exhibit at the International Quilt Show that traveled internationally and Homage to Jiri Kolar. Her work was featured in Cloth, Paper, Scissors a magazine about contemporary collage, Somerset Magazine, Step by Step, Applied Arts, Fiberarts and Legacy. Leopold has taught illustration and Design at OCAD, Sheridan and Voice Intermediate School. She is currently completing a Masters in Creative Art Therapy and is a training analyst at the Toronto Child Psychoanalytic Institute. She is represented by Lindgren & Smith.
To see more work and a step-by-step demo by Susan Leopold on how to make, color, sculpt and embellish handmade paper, check out Art Revolution, a mixed-media book that is the forefront in exploring alternative, innovative ways of conceptualizing and creating art that is on the cutting-edge. Throughout the highly visual book, insightful and thought-provoking profiles of leading artists and illustrators accompany stellar, multi-media work. The book also provides insight into the historical influences behind contemporary thinking and approaches, investigating the origins of alternative, unconventional picture making throughout the decades. In addition, exciting splash spreads featuring demonstrations and behind-the-scene looks at groundbreaking artists at work help shed light on signature processes and techniques. There is a rich amalgam of media available to creatives today, offering a wide range of possibilities for exploration and experimentation. Art Revolution reveals how alternative, mixed media aesthetics is uniting the disciplines of two-dimensional, three-dimensional, digital and new media art in inventive combinations. For those wanting to venture outside the norm, the book includes a directory of the manufacturers and suppliers used by the featured artists so that sources for materials, access to health and safety procedures and additional information on unconventional techniques and approaches are easily accessible. For artists that are looking for an edge, wanting to push their work further, this book is a valuable asset and ongoing source for inspiration.
Artists featured include: Marshall Arisman, Brad Holland, Dave McKean, Barron Storey, David Mack, Kazuhiko Sano, Fred Otnes, Michael Mew, Kathleen Conover, Rudy Gutierrez, Lynne Foster, Lisa L. Cyr, Cynthia von Buhler, Robert Maloney, Susan Leopold, AE Ryan, Matt Manley, Stephanie Dalton Cowan, Richard Tuschman, Dorothy Simpson Krause and Camille Utterback.