Today we’d like to introduce you to Susan Arena.
Susan, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
There are a few places and times in my life that shape who I am as a person and as an artist. First, I grew up in a small town by the sea in Massachusetts. The town is very old, originally settled as a fishing village, and is full of antique houses that look like tiny, eccentric, colorful dollhouses. As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get out of this small town, but as I get older, it’s a place I am drawn back to, and that represents an important part of who I am. Something about a love for the old, the slightly strange, the folksy, the handmade.
After college, I got a grant to go to Cairo, Egypt and spent two years living and working there. I got to work with a master of Islamic calligraphy, and I became passionate about Islamic art. During that time, I traveled in the region, going to Sinai, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. In my experience, Egyptians are some of the kindest, warmest people I have met, but I also found something about this region of the world to have a harshness that I found both compelling and also chilling. I ended up making paintings that were about exploring how humans create meaning and ritual in their lives. Sometimes these rituals that we may find aesthetically compelling are morally complex, such as women wearing the veil, animals being sacrificed, or families living in villages they have made of garbage.
The constant through-line in my work is an obsession with representing the human figure. I studied at the New York Studio School, where students spend all day painting and drawing from the figure. I got my MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale School of Art. I learned a lot about traditions of painting from these institutions and was lucky enough to have a lot of great teachers at these schools. I never set out to, but have become a teacher of art. I’ve taught art at the college, graduate, adult, and children’s’ level on the East and West coasts. Now I am head of the art department at Crossroads Elementary School in Santa Monica. Teaching forces me to question my own art practice: it is both exciting and humbling.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
As I’ve already said, I’ve always been drawn to the human figure as a carrier of meaning. I make paintings, drawings, and currently also ceramics, that represent in many ways, my process of negotiating my journey through the world. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a friend, a teacher. I look out at the people around me, both living and dead, and use their faces as inspiration to tap into emotional archetypes. The people who orbit my life torment me and teach me. I am who I am because of them. I continue to learn who I am and to work through a way of accepting myself and my people for our many failings.
Sometimes this process starts with a work on paper and sometimes it starts with molding a character in clay. Each medium builds on the other, and each subsequent work I make somehow leads to the next. I feel that the meaning of my work is cumulative–I want my drawings or ceramic pieces to be displayed together in groups to form families. The characters that I make are individual to my own life, but hopefully, they are cracked open just enough for the viewer to inhabit them with their own stories. I feel like my works are my babies, and I enjoy having them around me. They keep me company and comfort me.
What do you think it takes to be successful as an artist?
As I tell my students, I think success as an artist is about commitment and passion. It’s about getting up every morning to work, to discover, to grow as an artist and as a human being. As Vincent Van Gogh said: “I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
Right now some of my work is on display at the Sam Francis Gallery at Crossroads School as part of the faculty show. I have shown extensively at Gallery 825, an artist-run gallery that promotes LA artists. I find it rewarding to work with fellow artist to organize shows and open studios in local spaces. I am working now with another artist and educator to organize a show tentatively titled “Ordinary Objects.” My part will be paintings and writings about objects found in my mother’s house in Massachusetts, dealing with themes of nostalgia, memory, and loss.
- Address: 2101 4th Ave.
Los Angeles CA
- Website: susanarena.com
- Phone: (323)309-6396
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: sugiarena
- Facebook: Susan Arena
Photos of Susan by Birdie Blaugrund