To say Susan Groce is down to earth is an
Her work — as artist, art professor and chair of the
University of Maine Department of Art — is firmly grounded in the
natural world. Nearly a decade ago, she championed UMaine's pioneering
move toward safer printmaking processes. Today — as always — her subject
matter reflects themes of sustainability and the impact of human
behavior on the environment.
One series of drawings from her travels Down Under
incorporates Australian soil, rubbed into the paper to achieve a
burnt-orange hue. An upcoming, large-scale print installation, Invasive
Species, juxtaposes macro images of hurricanes and military airfields
with electron microscope images of leaves and seedpods. On a smaller
scale, Groce's meticulously detailed travel journals are a meditation on
pattern and rhythm, where words become graphic elements and images speak
Though each of her series has a distinct aesthetic,
everything is interrelated; every piece informs the larger body of work.
In March, selections from that body of work will be on display as part
of the 4 in Maine exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland,
Maine, showcasing four of the state's contemporary artists.
This is the latest in a long line of exclusive shows
for Groce. Her prints and drawings have been in more than 170 solo,
invitational and juried exhibitions. In addition, she has served as a
guest lecturer and visiting researcher — with a focus on safer print
practices — at more than 40 art schools worldwide. In 2001, she was
awarded a University of Maine Trustee Professorship.
We caught up with Groce in her immaculate,
sun-drenched studio in Martinsville, a "suburb" of Port Clyde and
Tenants Harbor, to find out what inspires her and how her work has
evolved — and endured.
Describe how the natural environment and issues surrounding land use
have influenced you as an artist and an educator.
The fragility of the environment, whether natural,
constructed, external or internal, has been a consistent and rather
elusive subject in my work in the past 25 years. Many of my pieces
allude to invented places that exist, out of contextual time, in
isolation or within zones of instability between pressures of
urbanization and the fragility of the environment.
Often, my work explores the provisional nature of
matter — how through environmental time, elemental forces such as wind,
water, fire, as well as human activity, can dramatically alter our
surroundings. What I find really fascinating is how these monumental
changes seem to occur on the very edge of visibility and presence,
affecting what we perceive as permanent.
In my work, I try to make visible the processes and
forces that underpin these changes, forces that are so micro- or
macroscopic that we fail to notice them on a daily basis.
Awareness of our changing environment, due to our
own activity, is still a progression, and awareness and action can be
isolated events. Converting to more environmentally responsible
practices in making and teaching art is just one piece of a very complex
How has your work changed over time?
Over the years, I have incorporated new techniques,
materials and processes, yet my work is still built on the same
foundations. Safer printmaking is not the focus of my work, but it
certainly is a more responsible way of working. The biggest change is
that I now have the ability to align safer processes with work that is
about the environment. One of the driving forces for this change was the
incompatibility I had felt between my subjects and my materials.
Invasive Species, a large-scale print installation that I am currently
printing, brings together environmentally safer methods of production
with a direct environmental theme.
How has the safer printmaking program at UMaine evolved?
In the mid '90s, we were in transition from
traditional to safer print materials and processes, including digital
technologies. Now it's a question of refinement and adaptation as
materials and their sources keep changing. We have made the transition
to a complete system for handwork and photo-polymer etching, as well as
polyester litho plates. Still, there is constant innovation and
experimentation. As always, we aim for a balance between the conceptual
content of the work and the media or process. Printmaking has a long
history of incorporating changing technologies.
Tell us about your creative process.
My process is fairly simple. I take small notebooks
with me everywhere. In them I gather source material — text and visual
references filtered through travel experiences, itineraries, maps,
observations, impressions, conversations and readings. Each entry is
built on words and images that remind or evoke.
Next is a more in-depth exploration of these quick
notebook references and observations through small-scale drawings, much
like a rough draft with lots of edits. In this stage, text and images
are integrated, layered and pushed to form new meanings,
interpretations, orientations and perspectives. From piles of these
small drawings, I distill and recombine text, images and ideas into
large-scale mixed-media drawings and prints. The result is a mixture of
fact, observation altered by memory, and imagination.
What landscapes are most intriguing to you?
I am drawn to desert environments. Deserts are
harsh, fragile, subtle, monumental and stark — full of contrasts. For
me, desert locations are so streamlined that they provide both solitude
and a clarity of vision. In a desert, it is so much easier to see how
precarious and fragile an ecosystem can be.
How have your world travels shaped your perspective?
Travel involves a change in perspective, perception
and sense of time. Removing myself from my own routines and experiencing
different viewpoints are essential to seeing things in different ways.
In fact, reorientation of perspective is a major factor in my work.
Vantage points in my perspectives are often angled,
aerial and skewed to create unexpected shifts that "unfix" an assumed
viewpoint. I use the rationality of maps and a wide variety of
diagrammatical and measurement systems to try to logically or
scientifically explain the references I make to a landscape or place
that is, in the end, filtered through experience.
Sometimes it's as simple as re-creating surfaces,
textures and purely visual elements, or using on-site materials such as
pigmented dirt. When traveling, I take tons of photos to use later back
in the studio. I also try to record areas from every possible viewpoint,
often hitching rides in small planes for aerial views.
What is the allure of working in such a large scale?
My larger pieces range from 51⁄2 feet to 21 feet
long, and in one installation, more than 10 feet high. Large-scale work
involves real expanses of space, time and movement — an important
reference for my work.
On space: I'm interested in navigating a somewhat
difficult terrain between physicality and immateriality. Often in
large-scale works I will angle and alter the ground plane to avoid the
safe and grounded viewpoints that we normally take for granted. I have
fun breaking the rules of common physical and spatial sense by creating
illusionary forms that seem solid yet defy the laws of gravity, contain
nonsensical angles and occupy unexpected spatial positions on a
On time: I reference elements of time in my work by
pulling together illusions of form and mass in the process of change:
evolving, expanding, contracting or dissolving. I like to create
ambiguity, to question whether the time referenced in a piece is an
instant or an eternity, and whether time, through its presence, has the
ability to transform.
In some of my work, architectonic forms are
appropriated and lifted out of context to undo what is time-bound and
place-specific. I like to create a sense of timelessness.
On movement: In my work, illusions of
three-dimensional forms often rotate and shift in multiple perspectives.
The movement in the large-scale works — particularly of what would seem
stable architectural forms — questions permanence, and how one can
navigate through a changing landscape. Pace is important. Movement can
be glacial (environmental time) or very rapid.
A good question; a tough question. My best work
seems to come when I'm open to integrating new things within the context
of ongoing work. That newness by definition means that what comes next
will be something unanticipated. For now, I have an extensive series of
large-scale mixed media drawings in the works based on my Australian
journal, as well another photo-polymer print installation planned based
on aerial landscapes of compromised terrain. Also, practically speaking,
when my chair term is over, I plan to spend a very long, uninterrupted
period of time in my studio.
by Kristen Andresen
January - February, 2009
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