Last week I sat down with Susan Singer, one of VisArts’ long time instructors who, before teaching, took many classes here as a student. We chatted before one of the sessions of her Visual Journaling class.
I knew I wanted to pursue art when I started doing polymer clay, which was in about 1996. A friend taught me how to do it, and I took a fabulous weekend workshop here at VisArts with City Zen Cane. They make the most incredible canes out of polymer clay and put them together to make jewelry and other things. It was so cool that I couldn’t stop making them–I turned them into jewelry and candle holders. Then I became a member of the co-op gallery “But Is It Art,” and that also sort of launched me, and I knew then that I had to be doing as much art as I could.
What were you doing before that point?
I was a teacher. I taught German in Austria, and then I was a tutor here in town while I was raising my kids, and I continued to do that up until four years ago.
Can you tell me about some of the other classes you took at VisArts before becoming an instructor?
Well, let’s see if I can remember them. I took a drawing class–it was one of those classes that eventually dwindled down to one person. I remember drawing a Wayne Thiebaud piece of cake, and then a shell that we were supposed to draw very large, and I got so attached to it that the instructor eventually gave me the shell, and there was such kindness in that. I still have it. I’ll find it on my desk every once in awhile. I took a paper-making class. And the vats–this was before the building was renovated, in 1988 or 90–they left the vats out all the time, so I would come in whenever I could and make more paper. But that was so fun to learn that process and the skill behind it. I wish they would teach that again. And I took watercolor. Those might have been the major classes before I started doing art on my own.
Since I’m a teacher here, we get to take a class every semester that we’re teaching, and so I’ve taken beginning classes in clay, letterpress, printing, glass bead making; I’ve taken several figure drawing classes with Tommy Van Auken, and David Tanner’s oil painting. I’ve taken Adobe InDesign–I was working on a book and wanted to know how to design the book myself. I try to take something in a different area each time, because as an artist I find that I get stuck in a rut sometimes, and when I take a class in something where I get to me a beginner, it’s total freedom for me. I get to be a little bit perfectionistic in my normal work, but when I’m a beginner I know I can’t be perfect and I know I’m not going to be good at it, so I can just screw up all I want to, and learn and have the opportunity to do something brand new and exciting.
Do you find that teaching art is different from the kind of teaching you did as a schoolteacher and tutor?
Yes, when I taught German that was in elementary schools, and so everything about that was different, and it was in a country where they got to practice the language every day. And then when I was tutoring, that was all academic subjects kids were having trouble with, and some of them didn’t want to be there. Teaching adults art is exhilarating, because they want to be here, they want to experience their creativity. Many of them have had a yearning to do art all their lives and have never given themselves a chance–they’ve now retired, they now have time. It’s a partnership, which is a little different than teaching in the schools. It’s partnership with people who want to be there and want to learn and are excited by everything they’re doing.
What other projects are you working on outside of teaching?
So many! I’ve recently written and illustrated a book called Birth Affirmations. It’s 69 affirmations and 29 illustrations to help empower women to have the kind of birth that they want, and to feel comfortable and confident in their birthing and parenting. Then I’m working on organizing an artist’s and writer’s retreat to Iceland this coming summer. I was there last year and loved it, so I’ve got to go back. I’m working on a body affirmations book right now that will be similar to the first book, but a little bit larger and I’ll use paintings that I’ve done of female nudes in that from my “Beyond Barbie” series. And then I’m working on a Spanish version of Birth Affirmations–one of my students from here is helping me translate it into Spanish. I’m doing a lot of drawings from Iceland–I’ve never done landscapes before, particularly.. And I’m doing a plein air workshop in Lottsburg, Virginia next weekend–I always have about eight or ten things going on.
Can you tell me more about your new Visual Journaling class here at VisArts?
At first, we take a piece of canvas, and in the first part of the class we decorate the canvas. And then we get a lot of really beautiful paper, and we tear the paper and put them into folios, which are the little groups of pages, and the students learn how to sew it and bind it together. In the next six weeks of class, we decorate them. Tonight we’re doing a vision board; other nights we’ll do other exercises. One of the women is using the book to give to her daughter to celebrate the wedding she just had, another is doing one about a relationship she used to be in, and another just wants to play. It’s an opportunity for people to make a really beautiful book and then they get to play in it, which is even better. I have one that I did from my journey this summer to Iceland, Austria and Amsterdam that has all my fun stuff that I got there, so it’s like a scrapbook.
What would you say to an adult who might be hesitant to explore their creative side?
I would say that VisArts is a fantastic place to do it, because they have skill-based, beginning classes where you can come in knowing nothing and learn specific skills that will take you to the next level. Almost every single teacher I’ve had here has been excellent. Not only are they skillful in their own art, they’re kind people who want to be teaching and who have a real ability to find the creativity in each person. So it’s not just the creativity but the skills–and art is a skill. A lot of people don’t know that. They think if you aren’t born with it, you can’t do it. Some people are born with more skill than others, but you can’t do it until you learn it. This places, more than anywhere else I’ve taken classes, teaches you the skills so you can learn it and become good. I didn’t go to art school; I learned my art here.
Learn more about Susan’s art and projects at her website, SusanSinger.com. Look for Susan’s upcoming winter classes in drawing, pastels, zentangles and bookmaking at VisArts.