Susan Savage doesn’t paint people. Portraiture or candid shots in a park—neither really captivates her. Nor does she draw traditional landscapes or representational village scenes or abstract village scenes. She doesn’t paint animals in the wild nor animals in captivity. Sleeping puppies forego her brush. She doesn’t paint many battle sequences, nor does she paint neoclassical scenes of loves lost, oaths taken, and mortals transmuted into various star constellations.
That’s not to say she couldn’t paint those subjects. Even a glance at her work is enough to make the most technically gifted pre-Raphaelite squeal with envy. The acuity with which Savage employs her acrylics on canvas makes it easy to believe that she could well render anything she chose. That she could render it precision just short of photo-realism, but well past mere representation on the metaphysical level. Savage could not only capture perfectly the sheen of your hair or forehead, but also that anxiety you might be feeling for your first sitting, or the deep bitterness you’ve always harbored just above your left ear. She can paint you, and the you you’ve always felt was there but never reflected in a mirror.
That may be why she has always been drawn to the “humble beauty and quiet simplicity found in common objects.” The quietness, she says, is what compels her to draw the still lifes for which she is known. “Mystery can be found in anything,” she wrote for a recent solo exhibition at the Reynolds Gallery, “if time is taken to look for it.” Everyday items such as apples, wooden boxes wrapped with twine, white cloth, and red ribbon are among the objects in which she often finds significance, mystery, and transcendence.
“Her works are representational, still life images,” said Makoto Fujimura, the famed abstract painter in the Nihonga style. “But I find that, as with all good representational works, hers are filled with abstract potential and mystery. They [are] still life works in which the reflections are more important than the depiction of objects.”
The subject of objects has been at the forefront of Savage’s artistic thought for most of her career. But six years ago, she came upon an object that would present the perfect balance of technical challenge and spiritual importance. It was something that could “become more than it was.” The possibilities would fascinate her and continue to dominate her work, for more than half a decade.
It was the silver bowl, about which she says:
In this case with the bowl, which has a lot more angles to it to than just a reflective piece of metal. The metal reflects our surroundings. But if we put ourselves into what the bowl is (means), we open ourselves up. So much of the left brain is about recognizing things and moving on. But with this, it’s about staying there and finding more.
For Savage, the ability of the painting to cause viewers to stop—actually stop, reflect, and see the deeper, spiritual meanings in everyday objects—is paramount. Each person’s insight into the spiritual presence that is just waiting to be dealt with is a revelation. Each interpretation is a different story.
Savage’s story has been one of contentment thus far, not due to an easy pass in life—though her childhood was admittedly “Leave It to Beaver”—but because of an emphasis on choice. “We can choose to go to the darkness. Or we can choose to see what’s in the light.”
Growing up in the idyllic and idealized 1950s in northern California, Susan credits her loving two-parent family structure as the great source of enduring strength. Speaking to her now, you get the sense that Susan Savage is a deeply stable person. Conversations tend to take a turn toward counselling. It’s hard not to want to tell her everything you’ve done wrong. There’s a sense that she’ll tell you how to fix things. If you don’t know what a well-adjusted person looks like, consider the painter Susan Savage, but then for a closer look, consider her paintings.
After a first job in a camera and art supply shop, she completed undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At the time, the curriculum at UCSB was less structured than she would have preferred. “They said, ‘Bring twenty paintings at the end of the semester,’ and that was it.” For Savage, this practical approach, while satisfactory in honing her technical proficiency, didn’t allow her to really study the masters, and guide that technique toward a desired end. On her own time she pored over books of Cézanne and Manet: “They were very stable artists in their day . . . it wasn’t a flash in the pan. ‘This day I’m doing this. This day I’m doing that.’ They were doing something very specific.”
For a young artist, this was the critical question. What would her art be about? As for technique, she began looking at the works of recent artists such as Janet Fish (“Her work is eye-popping . . . fabulous”) and Claudio Bravo (“Technically, I drool over the things he can do”). But for Susan Savage, the question would come back, again and again, early in her career. What would be the message?
During this time, Susan established two lifelong passions in addition to painting: one for teaching, and the other for her future husband, Dennis, whom she met through a teaching association. After completing a Master of Fine Arts degree, Savage was called by Westmont College to teach a class. Here, again, arose the question of message. As a Christian school, one of the premises of the teacher’s role at Westmont was to help students integrate their faith with their work. “That was a challenge for me. How do I teach it when I don’t do it?” In her education, she had not received “message training,” as she calls it.
And so Savage made the promise to her students that she would take the journey with them. That didn’t mean, of course, that she would assign crèche scenery painting, or the Stations of the Cross. Far from it: “None of us wants to look like kitsch. I would hope that those of us who are artists and Christian—if it is lifted up to a realm of ‘exhibitable’—I would hope it would be of highest quality. I would hope those artists would strive away from cliché.”
In her own journey, Savage came to a few conclusions. “The ultimate test,” she says, of a work of art, “is what it does for a viewer. Great art comes from who sees it and what they do with it.” This didn’t seem like the typical reader-response theory, however. For Susan Savage, the real work being done is at the exhibit. The meditative experience in front of something beautiful, human relationships, “the things we kind of think about, but don’t know how to express,” all present themselves existentially, in the gallery. The painting, like the silver bowl, is vessel and vehicle.
To that end, still life becomes something much greater. After all, the objects are created items for use. They have been arranged in a specific position. There is purposefulness to the scene. Everything about the still life points to a human presence.
Savage has found a reverent message in the process of her painting. Her method is first to draw every object with charcoal. After a fine lacquer coating, she blocks in the entire canvas, so that no blank spaces are left. From here she puts down the colours, stroke after stroke of acrylic, moving from the cold darks to the warm lights. “I paint with lots of layers. It takes a long time.”
Interestingly, the lightest portions of Susan Savage’s paintings, the most ethereal swaths of sun and shimmer, are the thickest with paint. The lights are on top of the shadow. For Susan Savage, that’s how life works: “If you cover things up, it doesn’t work. What was there supports and informs the next move.”
As with the everyday objects that are the subjects of her paintings, it is easy to pass by Savage’s process. But to stop, and consider her still lifes, her technique, and the conceptual care of her work, is to confront this question: What is our message?
“My process is to work from dark to light. I think that’s the kind of the story I’m telling. I’m working up to the light. It’s there. I’m just finding it. I think a person can live their life always finding the light.”