Our Spotlight page features interviews with artists in our growing community, offering a glimpse into their backgrounds, interests, and creative practices. This interview is with mixed-media artist Sue Teller. She was provided a list of written questions and her answers and images are presented here.
KB: Where did you grow up?
ST: I grew up in Norridge, a northwest suburb of Chicago.
KB: What were you like as a kid?
ST: I was a happy, busy kid. I was always busy and on the go. I loved going swimming in the summer, riding my bike, and racing other kids in the neighborhood. We were outside all day playing pretend, putting on shows, playing games, and building forts. We would only come home for meals and for the night. I found myself as a diplomat when kids didn't get along. I tried to get everyone together happily with no hurt feelings. School was another thing; I did okay but didn't really care about it until I got to college and I got to study what I wanted. I probably would have liked school much more now because they study the same theme with all the subjects. There was such a disconnect between subjects when I went to school that it was hard to see the threads connecting them.
KB: Can you describe one event from your childhood that left an indelible mark?
ST: Gee, that's a tough one. I guess it would be my father dying when I was 12 years old. But who wants to talk about death at this time? There is too much of that going on now.....
I think it was the freedom I realized I had once I could ride a two wheel bike. I recall that many of the kids in the neighborhood were older than me and already riding two wheelers. I think it was a bet that I had with the neighborhood kids that I couldn't ride Dick's bike that made me do it. Dick was older than me by about 3 to 4 years. He had this dark red bike. It was huge. I think it was a mixed frame because how else could I ride it? I remember getting on it and Dick pushing me off down the driveway. The steering was crazy but I was able to ride down the street and back. Unfortunately I didn't know how to stop and had to jump off. I ran down the street to my home to tell my parents that I could ride a bike. When I got in the yard all I could see was my father's legs in the garage. The door was three quarters of the way down. When he opened the door he had a brand new blue bike for me with training wheels! He didn't take the news that I didn't need the training wheels very well--they must have been a bother to get on the bike. I went down the street and borrowed the big red bike to show him that I could ride without the training wheels. The training wheels came off the bike begrudgingly. I now had a new bike and could go on further adventures from home. I was so happy with my new freedom.
KB: When did you become aware of art and having an interest in making things?
ST: As a family we always made things. My mother sewed much of my clothing and home decorations. She also knit and did crafts. My father would on occasion paint watercolors. My brother made models and had a stamp collection. I remember him designing his own stamps. My parents would have special projects for weekends like painting the house. I just thought this was the way everyone lived. It wasn't until about 4th-5th grade when going in a friend's house that I realized we were different. Karen's mother had an easel in the living room and was painting an oil painting. Mrs. Wedhack and my father were talking about painting and I realized that was a common thread we had that we didn't have with my neighborhood kids. Karen was the girl that I did art with all day at school. We would make our own versions of Exquisite Corpse and draw animals during class. It was either her or me that would get to do the display case for our classroom--the class honor. Urban Animal, a painted clay piece, is one of my favorite art projects from that time.
KB: Who and what inspires your creative work?
ST: I enjoy so many artist's work and when I don't understand their work, I like to think about it for a long time until I get it. The first time that happened to me was when I went to a Giacometti show at the Art Institute of Chicago while I was in college. The first time I went to the show I thought "Okay, this guy is famous, but why? What's so special about his artwork?" I saw nothing. I went to the gallery again about a week later and I was amazed at what I saw! I could see his thinking about how he was drawing the front and the back and all dimensions together. This guy was so good! I think it's important to spend time with great artworks and just look to understand, not just accept the academia of why these pieces are great. You miss out if you just accept what others say about art.
There are so many artists that inspire me and my artwork. I love the earthworks of Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Smithson, the beautiful textures and colors of Anselm Kiefer and Mark Bradford, and the ironic humor of Candy Jernigan's notebooks. I also like Kiki Smith's figurative and folkloric work, the art of Agnes Martin, the watery look of Marlene Dumas paintings, and Lee Bontecou's world. Lately I've been on a women artists binge. I want to know more about them.
I would say that texture, nature, and the passing of time are what inspire my artwork. The fact that we know so little about our world. We just recently learned that trees communicate with each other. What else is going on that we don't know about right under our feet.
KB: What materials do you like working with?
ST: I like to work with both traditional and non-traditional materials. There isn't anything more sensuous than a painting or a very dark drawing to me. Like Mark Bradford, I like using materials from our contemporary world to mark ourselves in the present and show what our world is made from. That's how I find myself using construction and building materials. I also like to get messy.
KB: What has been your favorite job to date?
ST: I'd have to say being a children's librarian. I love to find things for people that excite them and continue them on a lifelong journey of learning. I do this Nature Play program with the little kids, just having sand, water, plants, and insects. The only rules are not to throw or hit and always be gentle with nature. Watching the little ones explore their world, becoming more curious, and losing that ick factor of getting messy makes me so happy.
KB: What types of books do you enjoy reading?
ST: My reading is pretty eclectic. I'm a children's librarian so I read a lot of juvenile books. I enjoy a good adult novel, historical fiction, and a lot of non-fiction. I just finished reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer which was absolutely great. She writes so beautifully and opened my eyes to so much. I read slowly. I like to say I'm the person an author writes for because I read every single word they write.
KB: What makes you laugh?
ST: Irony to me is the funniest thing. When I was young there was a photographer who had a studio on Belmont by Broadway called Grimm Photos. It had to be their name but how could they not see the irony of that name!
KB: Where is the next place you want to go on vacation?
ST: I'll be visiting family on the east coast this summer. There is talk about renting a place on the shore for a week but I don't know if that will happen. My husband and I hope to drive down to the Smoky Mountains this fall for at least a long weekend. It is such a great place to recharge. I'd like to take some day trips to Wisconsin to see some art and just get outside the Chicago area.
KB: What are you working on now?
ST: I've been working in my sketchbook on drawings related to my Tyvek wrapped boards and the phases of the moon. I'm starting a new series of large drawings and paintings from these.
KB: Why do you make art?
ST: Well it sure was a lifesaver during the pandemic. Once I start drawing or painting it is much like being in a meditative state. All I'm thinking about is how that line is going down and following it, or how that paint is moving across the surface. I'm creating my own world that I'm reacting to. I love the surprises that happen that I didn't expect--they usually are good things and push the artwork further than I was expecting it to go. It's the give and take process that I love. All that anybody sees is the history of what I've made and where I've been. I hope that my audience can enjoy my work from different perspectives far away and up close. I guess I would say that making art makes me feel balanced in the rocky, shaky world we are living in.