Are you a Recent or an Ancient?
An Interview with Susan Preston
I had this conversation with my mother, Susan Preston, during the year I was a student in the MFA Poetics program at Mills College, the same school from which she received her MFA in Painting a decade prior. My mother has one of her notebooks open and sketches occasionally in black pen while we talk. Her drawing of the soul—when she speaks of it—like a perfectly halved apple.
FP: I was wondering if you could talk about what I see as the appendages in your work: the parts that hang from bodies, shoes on the top of heads, or trunks off of noses, unidentifiable belongings, shards, eggs…
SP: Well, I think that when you are in your body, you never see your body in one piece; you only see part of it. Other people see your body, but you don’t. You don’t see it. And it seems to me that the contemporary condition is defined by these feelings of incompleteness, of having parts of yourself abandon you. The feeling that you’re not whole.
There was this woman I used to work on a lot; I think she originally may have come from the Hungry Ghost in Buddhism, and she would come back again and again. She’s small, with a really long neck, and scaly like a reptile. And in one painting if you look closely at her elbow, you see that it’s an armed grenade.
I guess I think of people in terms of being…imperfect. And your mind and your emotions as being separate.
Do you remember the point when you first thought of yourself as an artist, what it was like to begin to paint?
When you were growing up actually, I used to get up in the middle of the night and paint. I remember the time that I was doing figure drawing and I was so obsessed with it that I couldn’t cook—and I’d always loved cooking dinners for my family. So one night I came home and I bought frozen fish sticks and frozen peas, and without any preface I put them on the table. And the three of you just looked at me, like what is going on.
And there was a period when I lost all taste, because I was so intent on the drawing.
I don’t even remember any of this!
I guess you must have been about seven? And Maggie, I used to feel guilty when she was rebellious; I thought it was because I was too absorbed in my work.
I know that it was a pivotal moment when you realized you couldn’t paint on canvas – Can you talk about that?
Before graduate school, my canvases were about five feet high, really heavy, and I was always struggling with them, turning them around and upside down. And it was like working with an elephant. So when I started graduate school at Mills, I ordered about six of those canvases made, because it was just too hard to make them myself—it really took a lot of strength. And as soon as I got them to my studio, it was increasingly like having these people sitting in the corner, these people you… don’t really like that much! And they were just sitting there. And then, I guess it was about halfway through graduate school, an English political artist came and made a studio visit. She looked at my paintings and all the drawings I had stuck all over the walls and all over the floors, and she said, “Well it just looks to me like you have a feel for paper.” And when she said that it was just such a relief…because I knew I had a feel for paper. She told me that the renaissance masters sold all their paintings but they kept their work on paper. The work on paper is what lasts the longest.
And I took all the canvases out of my studio.
But before that, when I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do, and was open to everything—I would sometimes just sit up all night long and stare at this billboard outside of my window. And in the daytime—I had put all these army blankets under this big table in my studio and inside was a mattress—like this hole, this hidey hole. And I would sleep. A lot.
Did you feel like you were out of it?
Ahhh, No! I mean, I didn’t even know, I was just…out of touch. I knew that I would pull something off, but I didn’t know what it was.
Actually, the first thing I did—when I wasn’t sleeping under my table—was I went and got some tar, and I went and got a sack of rice. And I put tar and rice on these canvases. And it was just awful. I don’t know why anyone would do that. And the other thing I did was, I decided I wanted to work with cowgut. So somebody told me, well, you go get a cow stomach. So I went to Chinatown, I still remember, I went to this really large chinese meat market, and I said to the man: “I want two cow stomachs.” And it took us a long time to get through (laughs), but finally he said, “Oh! I will find you…most…beautiful…cow stomachs.” And I took them out and got some rock salt. I had these big tweezers and every night I would salt them, and cover them with gunny sack. I always did that in the dark. And one night I was talking to Nana, my mother, and I told her what I was doing, and she said, “Well, I think you better get a flashlight and go out there because you’re going to see a lot of maggots.”
How long had it been?
It had been a couple of weeks. And I wouldn’t even look at them, really, just salt them in the dark. They were crawling with maggots. And I hadn’t even noticed!
Other materials you used, and use now?
I use a lot of archival glue and rabbit skin glue, which I make, and beeswax. A lot of inks, charcoal, newspaper, particularly a series I did using the stock market page. I’ve always watched people read the stock market pages…and I’ve…it’s like it’s hard to comprehend. And also lots of lace and ribbon.
I think about the lace, because to me it’s the pattern in it that’s so organic, it’s like dried bone, especially when it gets painted over with wax, it seems very—of the body. You know, the holes where blood vessels were.
Oh! The bone! Yeah, yeah. I never thought of that. I know, I mean, I use it as lace, but I don’t think of any of the connotations, I don’t think of it as feminine at all. Well, I’m not sure, could it be a taking of the feminine, and seeking to almost annihilate it completely. After I’m finished with the lace, it’s been thoroughly abused…
When you got stressed out in graduate school, I remember you saying you’d go to Poppy Fabric in Oakland and walk around. What was it that was soothing about that?
Well…it was mostly looking at the ribbons and the lace. (laughs) I’d walk around to get my bearings, but the gravitation was to the ribbon. You know how you buy a chocolate bar, like that? I’d buy lace.
I’m looking at the windowsill above the sink, at all the things that you collect. The bowls of little plastic babies, and pigs, with pins stuck in them—they seem very much a part of you—and the glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary and the stems of mushrooms that are strung on thread.
Oh, you see, those, I love those. I love to thread mushrooms on string. Because they start out looking so fresh, and then they shrink up and end up looking like…tiny little nun’s bones.
Yeah, I think a lot of the organic shapes in your work, and in some of your sculptures, they’re shrunken. You really feel the liquid that’s gone out of them.
When I went to graduate school, I really loved giving up oil because I had gone through so much pain to learn how to paint. I always think about the word ‘pain’ and the word ‘paint’. And there was something about how you would use the acrylic with water, and you would reach this point where the pieces would just look beautiful. And then you would leave, and come back, and they were dried. And it was incredibly disappointing. And demoralizing.
I remembered something that happened to me when I was a little girl: I used to go down to the creek, with a hammer, and I would bang up rocks. This was where the leavings were, and so I would hammer up the rocks and I would arrange them in these old rusty bowls that were down there, and I would cover them up with moss. And then I would bring them to my mother, and I would always say, “Now, you have to just keep putting water on them, you just have to”—as if she had nothing better to do—“keep adding water.”
And so it was the same thing, in a way.
You’re still trying to preserve that freshness?
Yeah, I mean, that’s why I use beeswax.
How long have you been using text in your paintings?
I think it started with the word klepto…you know, kleptomaniac…I always kept a notebook and when I drew I always wrote. It’s an automatic thing, and it seems to come from maybe being an only child and walking around and saying words over and over again to myself.
If you use images, and I need images, you are constantly stealing. You know, you see a lamp, and the way the light attaches to the stand, and you look at the way things are attached. And I’ve always had this anthropomorphic thing…where I’m looking at, say, a rocking chair and suddenly it looks like a person, or a lampshade, and suddenly there will be a head on top of the lampshade. Or the lampshade will morph into a head. I’ve been doing that my whole life. And I think that’s often why the appendages look like nuts and bolts, or hardware. I mean, I can imagine somebody sitting in a bus and leaning over and unscrewing his leg and putting it in his briefcase, you know. That would seem kind of normal to me.
Can you talk about the text in this piece, Are You a Recent or an Ancient?
That comes from a Satyajit Ray film, I forget the name. In it, it was always about the idea of the old soul and the new soul. The person who has lived a long time, many centuries, and the person that maybe hasn’t lived a long time. And how these two people are in the same century, in the same time, but their whole experiences are different.
I used to go look around, look at people and decide if they’d lived for centuries or if they were new.
Which do you think you are?
Umm. Well, I’m both. Sometimes I’m old and sometimes I’m new.
Relating to that. Do you attempt to be prophetic in your work, to project—or to uncover, to dredge up?
Oh, absolutely, to dredge up. And that comes from being raised in a ghost town, that whole conflict of dredging. I think the reason I like to work with paper is that I can put it under those rubber mats and step on it, I can pour ink on it, I can alter it over and over again, alter and change and hopefully in doing that I dredge up things. Prophesizing, I’m not so good at.
I’m realizing that many of your paintings are predominantly shades of white—cream and mold and custard. And I’m wondering how you relate color to emotion.
I had this professor who said, “Susan, how do you get that dishwater color? That is your color.” I don’t know, sometimes I think it has to do with solipsism, and the soul. My catechism class when I was a kid had this picture of the soul—and I just stared at it so much. Sometimes I think I’m trying to return to that picture of the soul. With the lines on it, I don’t know, what are the lines—like, were they sins, or were they, you know, heroic deeds? I was always wondering what was being counted.