The Collector’s Dream

Interview with Suzanne Stryk by Jill Jones

collectors-dream-studioJill Jones: At times your paintings seem to be child-like collections of feathers, eggs—small treasures collected on a sunny afternoon. But the work can also have a mystical or ritualistic feel. Is this accurate?

Suzanne Stryk: Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by the impulse behind collecting. Basically it’s a wish to possess those things we love, a wish to connect our own lives with them, and it can take on the spirit of a ritual. The mood created by collections displayed in old oak cases of natural history museums intrigues me—the lining up and labeling of once-living things gives them a new kind of meaning, be it a bird, insect, or dinosaur bone. Personally, I can’t go for a walk without collecting something—a feather, insect wing, nest—something always comes back in my pocket or bag. Or I take it with me in the form of a drawing in my sketchbook.

The title of the show, “The Collector’s Dream,” is a seminal idea behind my work—that of collecting, and as you suggest, something beyond. Collecting suggests our need to impose order on the natural world, while dream refers to the opposite—the intuitive, the wild, the unraveling of our attempts at order, the unknown.

Jones: Is there significance then in the arrangement of objects?

Stryk: Very much. The visual counterpoint between stillness and activity, dark and light, within the different panels relates to the ideas I’ve just described. In “Birdhouse,” the birds are in the structure of a houseplan, left of which is a very ordered list of species. But the right panel is freer and evocative of wild plant growth.

Jones: Your current work focuses on birds. Why? Is there personal symbolism here?

Stryk: My imagery in the past has included insects, antelope-like creatures, snakes—and only recently, birds. Yet birds were my first passion. At 15 I’d take my binoculars and Peterson Field Guide and walk the countryside trying to identify birds. I recall struggling to identify a little greenish-yellow bird—was it a goldfinch, a warbler, or a vireo? Funny now that it gave me such trouble. And while a name in itself doesn’t mean much, the importance was that learning names was a way of noticing subtle distinctions and developing an intense awareness of other creatures’ existence. From that time on I no longer felt that people were the center of the universe.

And of course there’s more to my bird imagery. Take, for instance, feathers. The spatial possibilities of using feathers as if falling in space, as well as their rhythmic and color variations, have been a real find, both visually and metaphorically. And the egg represents the perfect beginning of life—life which is destined later for the fierce struggle to survive.

Jones: Are your pieces, at any level, self-portraits?

Stryk: Only in the way that all artwork reflects its maker. But I will say this, that I hope my images might work simultaneously as correlatives for our personal experiences of life, as well as perceptions of the natural world. I want the images to remain open enough so the viewer can create new interpretations.

Jones: How do you approach a new piece? Is your work developed intuitively or analytically or both?

Stryk: I begin building up the surface of each wood panel with modeling paste or torn paper, and since this isn’t easily removed, I must have a compositional plan for the painting. When I finish the surface and relief elements, such as the nests, I apply layers of acrylic paint and medium, glazing and scraping to establish a tone and texture. Then come the images. Mentally I’ve visualized the work, but often what ensues is a dialogue between my original intention and what the painting seems to want to be. I’m interested in recording the accidents and erasures in the process. At all stages I must remain open to the unexpected, the surprising.

Jones: Your use of rich texture seems to suggest age, constancy of idea, or the passage to time. How do you see it?

Stryk: The texture is often intended to evoke an aged surface, an artifact or wall. And I like your words referring to both the passage of time and age, because I’m often thinking about how the particular in nature is so ephemeral, while life itself is so enduring.

Jones: One of the most interesting aspects of your work is the juxtaposition of rough textures with refined images. Do you see the two as complementing each other, or is it a study in contrasts?

Stryk: I see them as creating a dynamic visual relationship, which relates to the qualities I observe in the world.

Jones: What other artists have influenced your work?

Stryk: I love the rough surfaces of Etruscan wall paintings, and at the same time I’m attracted to the refined details of Persian miniatures. The Renaissance artist Pisanello’s intensely observed animals have influenced me for their frozen gestures. And I admire early naturalist-painters such as Mark Catesby and Maria-Sibylla Merian. And I might add that on a recent trip to the Netherlands I became quite enamored by Dutch Golden Age painting.

Jones: Tell us about your use of light. Some of the objects in your paintings seem to glow.

Stryk: While painting eggs on a black surface, I started glazing them until part of their edge dissolved and they appeared lit, resembling the Dutch and La Tour paintings I had recently admired. This glowing effect became part of my attempt to create images that had an immediate sensual appeal, ones that might initially draw the viewer in a very visceral way.

Jones: Text is an important component in your work, serving as a constant reminder to the viewer of the human presence in the natural world. How long have your been using text, and why?

Stryk: In the late 80’s I realized the possibilities of text from looking at my own sketchbooks—in them the drawn images are surrounded by my notes, dates, measurements, and lists. I liked the way the writing represented my compulsive need to interpret experience with language, so I began to use it in my paintings. I’m interested in how words and numbers both draw us closer to the thing examined and distance us from it. And the writing itself has different moods, ranging from ordered hieroglyphics to subconscious scribbles.

Jones: What about the genetic symbols that appear in so much of your work?

Stryk: I consider DNA the myth of our time—myth in the sense of an explanation of reality. It’s a very contemporary discovery, yet of course it’s as ancient as life itself. I’m in awe of the variations of life. Even within an individual organism…take one feather. Look at the placement of spots—in line with other feathers the spots create a stripe on the wing. No other feather is like it on the bird, all because of a minute chemical blueprint.

Jones: You have said that your paintings are about how we as humans perceive nature, not a description of nature itself. Why do you think this distinction is important?

Stryk: As Heisenberg said, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” We always see nature through the screen of our own perceptions.

Jones: Do you consider yourself an activist artist?

Stryk: I’d love to believe that art could help solve ecological problems, but that’s debatable. Yet it can fulfill the reason I perceive for being here on earth. And simply stated, it’s to bear witness. Or, in other words, to pay attention. You know, the human mind is such an incredible product of evolution—imagine a creature who tries to understand other creatures just for the sake of doing so? One can find other animals who can do everything better than we can—jump, swim, fly—but our species can reflect on the whole array of life and make meaning for it… and make art of it. So I explore that unique human potential.

Jill Jones is an artist, writer, and member of the exhibitions committee at the Spartanburg County Museum of Art

“Second Nature” The Art of Suzanne Stryk

Interview with the artist conducted by
William King Museum curator Matthew Mangold

Matthew Mangold: What do you think about regarding the title of the exhibition and the term “second nature?” Does it revolve around your observations of the natural world or the decisions you make while being an artist—or neither?

Suzanne Stryk: Both painting and my interest in the natural world are so deeply rooted in my life they’ve become “second nature.” And they’re intertwined—discovering a dragonfly I might observe its glistening amber wings, sketch it, then read about it in field guide. Later the drawing might become the source for a painting.

But the phrase “second nature” has many shades of meaning, another being the way art symbolically depicts the natural world—a painting of a sparrow is not the sparrow itself. One might even think of “second nature” as human consciousness—along with the biosphere and atmosphere, we’ve added the sphere of human thought, as Teilhard de Chardin put it.

MM: That said, then what is the primary or “first nature?”

SS: You might say it’s all that is wild, from stars to cicadas to our own bodies, and not a creation springing from our minds.

Most people assume science is closer to what you’re calling primary nature, yet science is also second nature. Data, gene sequences and graphs describing a salamander aren’t the salamander itself. As myth served for older cultures, science is a translation of nature, attempting to explain the mysterious.

Yet neither really tells us how the salamander experiences the world, although that doesn’t make our efforts any less important and fascinating.

I address these ideas in my work, juxtaposing wildness with scientific order, such as in “Shard Diptych,” where one side is a diagram of an insect, the other side wild, disordered, dark. “The Collector’s Confession” presents a similar contrast—the ordered section contains a book with notes and a collection of eggs, while in the top section feathers fly in dark space.

MM: Does your use of animal representations heighten or dispel the sense of the mythological within our culture? How do you discriminate between science and myth?

SS: From my first mature work such as the “Insect Collection” and “Double Helix” series, to my most recent paintings, I investigate those very questions. Science functions as myth in our culture—myth in the sense of an explanation of reality. In the “Prairie Cycle” paintings I explored how words and symbols function to draw us closer to nature but also separate us from it. To do so I invented a mythological antelope, filling its body with writing.

For a while in the 90’s my interest was in myths and legends about the natural world, represented in this exhibit by “Snake Doctor.” It was believed by early Southerners that dragonflies raised snakes from the ground Lazarus-style in spring. I’m intrigued by our impulse to transform observed natural phenomena into imaginative stories, and, by doing so, create new meanings.

MM: Well, do you think that science and art have any similarities within our culture?

SS: They have similarities in their creative process, both often beginning with the question: What If? What if I put these two chemicals together? What if I search a new habitat for a rare orchid? What if I combine two disparate images? What if I create an imaginary ladder made of feathers? When I painted “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction” I wondered what ideas the feather ladder and the nest would trigger when surrounding the grackle.

Your question leads me to another thought: I feel people see the world of art and science as much too separate. After all, their origins were intertwined—the first people who drew on cave walls created images in order to understand and control nature—the first partnership of science and art.

In an interview, Jacques Cousteau was asked what he thought would make people more environmentally aware. I was surprised when he replied the study of the humanities. He suggested reading Kafka! Of course, what his comment implies is not that the study of science should be neglected, but rather should be coupled with the study of the arts. I agree—the arts and sciences should be partners in making people sensitive, imaginative and knowledgeable about the living world and the highest human potential.

MM: How important is your background, specifically your training as a scientific illustrator?

SS: Art school in the early 70’s was a tough time for an 18-year-old who wanted to paint bugs, toads, birds and turtles! Studio art teachers discouraged the precise biological imagery I was interested in. They preferred student’s big gestural abstractions or pop art images of celebrities, so I diverted my studies to art history, for which every paper I chose to write was about the representation of nature—birds in Egyptian tomb painting, origins of landscape painting in the early Renaissance, Brueghel’s Alpine studies, and so on.

By the early 80’s, still unable to merge my biological interests with the practice of fine art, I studied scientific illustration, and then worked for a university’s biology department. The patience required for that discipline remains with me in the studio to this day, along with the iconographic influence the arrows, labels, measurements, and grids that fill my images.

For those few years when my art materials were technical pens and Bristol board, while stippling the millions of dots on a leaf or scale, I used to think: What does this scientific drawing really say about the prairie plant swaying under the hot sun? What does my careful rendering of a turtle tell us about the dim, mysterious, prehistoric life of this creature? Doesn’t this drawing say more about us as a species of observers, than the turtle itself? I thought my mind was straying but I was in fact developing the concepts that would later become the core of my art.

MM: But though your work is detailed with seeming biological accuracy, it’s also full of mark-marking issues: brushstrokes, over-painting, and scumbling of fine art.

SS: Yes, I use paint and materials expressively—even the rather meticulous feathers or insects are juxtaposed with rougher textures, often divided into sections of the same panel. For example, the top half of “The Collector’s Calendar,” though full of biological notations and precise details, is created by scraping and scumbling paint to suggest a wall or fossil. In my recent series, “Genomes and Daily Observations,” I contrast the free marks of the umber stain with more realistic renderings of animals. The combination of different paint qualities, from the rough to the sensuously refined, relates to the different qualities I observe in nature.

One viewer described my work as realistic abstraction. You know, after all I’ve said, the colors, shapes, and textures are as much the theme of my work as anything. So I hope my paintings remain open to purely visual and personal responses of the viewer, as well as interpretations of the natural world.

MM: Earlier works show your use of gouache but now you use acrylics—why the change?

SS: I loved the suggestive surfaces of Morris Graves paintings and Persian miniatures, both painted with gouache, so I was inspired to use that medium when returning to personal artwork. Gouache allowed me to etch minute veins of a dragonfly’s wing, while creating flat dusty surfaces suggesting age and transience. From 1990 to 1997 I painted exclusively with gouache. Then I desired a greater object-quality for my work, a greater physical presence. So in 1997 I began to experiment with acrylics on wood panel, represented in this exhibit by the painting “Clone.” From then on I evolved a technique glazing with acrylics and building up surfaces with modeling paste.

MM: So your use of acrylic reflects your desire to be more visible to the viewer?

SS: That’s an interesting way of putting it, since people had to practically put their noses up to my gouache paintings to see them! I wanted my paintings to have a life both close-up and at a distance, to have a greater surface variety, which eventually led to my sculpting nests and wings in relief, and attaching actual books and plants to the surface of the paintings.

Hoping to involve the viewer even more directly led to my developing an installation approach to the “Genomes and Daily Observations” series, in which I place a naturalist’s desk and a mirror in the gallery space beside the grid of drawings.

MM: How have you seen your use of motifs change over the last 15 years?

SS: Last spring while thinking about preparing for this exhibit, “Second Nature,” I reflected on the main motifs preoccupying me for the past decade and a half. And the result is the painting “A Natural History,” a sixteen-panel piece exploring those recurring motifs. In it, I’ve lined up eggs and labeled them as if specimens in a museum collection. One panel has a shard to suggest age, another notations like my sketchbooks. I placed a hummingbird in a niche like an icon. A double helix twists down the side of a panel, yet another has a sculpted nest, and so on. These motifs have emerged throughout my artistic life, though the media and compositions have varied.

I’ve heard it said that a novelist has one story to tell and just keeps telling it in different ways. Perhaps my story, so to speak, is our species’ unique role witnessing the whole array of life on earth, and I keep envisioning different ways to tell it.

Matthew Mangold is the curator of William King Museum in Abington, VA
September 2005