Oregon-based artist Susannah Kelly creates dark, intricate drawings that take figurative portraiture to another level. She owns and curates Antler Gallery in the Alberta Arts District of Portland with fellow artist, Neil M. Perry.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process, from the initial image or idea to the finished piece?
I start with rough thumbnails to work out a basic composition. Then I move on to a very detailed sketch. I spend the most time tweeking the poses of the figures. When I’m finished with that step it looks like a messy version of the finished product. When I embark on the final drawing the most important part to me is keeping my surfaces clean. I think my work started to improve when I embraced the fact that I can be a little uptight…
What appeals to you most about working in pencil? What are some of your favourite materials to use and why?
Since my subject matter can be intense, I find that the cool grey of graphite can temper it a little. I love the smooth surfaces that can be created, especially with powdered graphite. Also, it doesn’t hurt that you can erase. As far as materials go, I just discovered eraser pencils, they’re pretty cool!
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
I think of individual pieces as snapshots, but they usually fit into the story of the series I’m working on. The drawings I’m working on right now feel like the sequel to a series of drawings I did about three years ago, in pen and ink. Similar themes, but they have evolved a little.
Much of your work plays with distortions of the body. Why do you suppose the human body figures so heavily in your work? And why the inclination to take it to such extreme degrees of “unnatural” distortion?
Most of my work is a reflection of relationships and the impact we have on one another. People have a pretty difficult time understanding each other, and sometimes our interactions can really tear us apart.
What size do you tend to work and why?
I prefer for 18” to be the smallest dimension on my drawings, but actually I’m not sure why.
Do you have a favourite subject matter? What’s the particular attraction?
I tend to enjoy drawing wooden constructions inside of bodies. I think most people think of themselves as “works in progress” I know I do!
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
My absolute favorite creative experience is having a full, uninterrupted day to draw. Preferably it’s raining outside too.
You’re one of the founders of Antler Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Could you tell us a bit about that space and the ethos behind it?
Neil Perry and I opened Antler Gallery in January 2012. Our first location made us the smallest art gallery in Portland, Oregon. We were a tiny office sublet with a large window facing Alberta Street, the whole space totalled at 100 square feet. The neighborhood we opened in (and still exist in) is called the Alberta Arts District. It is currently in a period of transition, becoming on of the destination streets in Portland. Neil and I wanted to make sure that the artistic nature of the street was not lost with all of the changes. We were delighted with the response we had to our strange tiny space and within the first two years we were able to move to a stand alone building just ten blocks down the street. Being artists and not business people, this experience definitely has a steep learning curve. However, Neil and I both have a passion for the artists we work with, and are truly enjoying the ride.
Do you have any early memories of drawing or, what’s your first memory of an image?
I grew up in Southern California, and when I was a kid my mom took my sister and me to visit the artist Beatrice Wood in Ojai. I was too young to know who she was or much about her life, but I was excited to meet a real live artist. I wanted to show her that I was one too, so a made her a stack of drawings. When we got to Ojai, we found out that she was too ill to be visited by kids, so only my mom was aloud to go in. My mom gave her the drawings, and Beatrice Wood got out her sketchbook and drew something for me. She was over 100 years old when that happened and I was under 10. I have a notoriously terrible memory, but that day is really special to me.
What other artists/illustrators do you find inspiring?
One of the amazing things about curating a space is constantly being exposed to new work by incredibly talented artists. There are too many to list here, but recently I have been working on a collaborative piece with an artist I have admired for a long time, John Casey. I think that’s a great part of the art world, sometimes you get to meet and work with the people that inspire you.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I tend to keep many sketchbooks at the same time. When I want to draw I try to find the one that has the most blank pages.
I also tend to tear out pages of sketches that I like and want to use later. It’s is a pretty bad idea since once they are out of the sketchbook they are usually lost immediately to an insatiable paper demon in my apartment. The long and short of it is, I lose a lot of things, a lot of the time.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to from you next?
I am currently making work for a show at Antler that will open later this year. I will be showing with Jeremy Hush and Tiny Pencil Alumni Allison Sommers. I feel so lucky to be showing with these amazing artists and am looking forward to seeing everyone’s work!
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
Right or left-handed?
What was the last film you saw in the cinema?
Die Hard (This was a re-run of the film shown in December 2013, not 1988!)
What books are on your bedside table right now?
October Country by Ray Bradbury
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Coffee and booze, sometimes together!
Favourite city in the world?
Portland. I have everything I need here, my basset hound Duncan, great food, great beer, and an incredibly unique art community.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
Also Portland! I really love it here.
Susannah’s work appears in Issue 3 of Tiny Pencil: The Beast Issue… Monsters, Machines and Unnatural Things! Available to buy here.
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