Thursday, November 18, 2004
A conversation with Sue Nees
You've probably already seen the sumi ink and color drawings of Sue Nees. They're everywhere. There are many New River Valley residents who proudly speak of their own private collection as "my Sue Nees bookmarks." Nees herself describes this set of her works as "story-cards" -- 2-inch by 3-inch laminated artworks. The backs of these cards tell something of the odd tales of the likewise odd creatures drawn on the front, sometimes with a bit of narrative, sometimes with keywords and catalog numbers to an imaginary library. Nees took a moment recently to talk about her work.
Can you tell me about your upcoming solo exhibit?
Sue Nees: It's gonna be a little of everything ... cards, bits and pieces of stories that I'm working on, and some original drawings which I haven't shown before, not here. I've shown them in Japan.
When did you go to Japan?
SN: I lived in Japan for five years. I learned stone carving there, and that's when I started working with the sumi ink. I just started teaching myself to use it because it was easy to get there.
What is sumi ink?
SN: That's the kind of ink that's made from soot. It's water-soluble. It's most well known for its use in Eastern calligraphy - Chinese brush painting and that kind of stuff.
What process is involved in creating your drawings?
SN: I use sharpened bamboo sticks and ordinary watercolor brushes. And then I scan it. The color images that you see are all digital. Sumi ink is just black, but then I do color digitally.
What's up with the stories and the technical stuff on the back?
SN: That's because I'm a geek. I just got really interested in the idea of cataloging, because at some point about two years ago, I was producing so much work it was overwhelming. It was really an explosion. I can't really say why I cataloged or made those cards, but for some reason it just makes me happy ... I had so many ideas and those are my notes - the cards are my notes - so it gives me a way to rearrange characters and bits ofstories ... just to associate things together and organize them ... It kind of corresponds to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the side that's visual and intuitive and the side that's like, "OK, what is it?" ... I think I have 10 stories, and none of them are finished. And I don't want to finish them because then I don't get to keep playing with them. And I also like the cards because I give them out to people and they get to interact with them and respond to them, and I get people's impressions of different characters and different parts of the story, and then I go back and add things in or add characters.
Where do these characters and stories come from?
SN: I do it all stream of consciousness. I start drawing and I write as I draw ... basically journal sketches. All of my drawings are basically journals.
So you're writing out a story and drawing in the character from that story?
SN: Less telling a story than trying to figure out life. And I'll come up with a little dude who kind of figures out life, and it's kind of an extension of what's going on for me.
What art are you inspired by?
SN: I'm very inspired by what people call "outsider art," though I don't like that term ... it's art by people who have been marginalized by society.
Anybody in particular?
SN: Just the idea of it, that people are doing it completely for themselves, to keep from going crazy, doing it for themselves rather than for egotistical purposes. ... I spent a lot of time in the high-art gallery and all that, when I was in Japan, and I'm completely turned off by it. I was involved in doing stone sculpture, and that is really a world of big monuments. "Mine's bigger. I have the best tools. I have the best crane." There's a lot of jockeying. ... But as far as influence, Yayoi Kusama ... she's a Japanese visionary artist, and I'm not necessarily influenced by her style or her aesthetics, but by her process. ... Since she was a child she's had these psychotic hallucinations. She's lived in a mental institution for most of her life. She's I think almost 70 now, and she still produces work. She's a real heavy hitter in the world of art, but she does it for herself. She does it to work her way out of madness. Art for sanity, not for vanity -- that's the catchphrase.
So here's the first question people will ask you: If you do it for yourself, then why give it to other people? Why not just write a novel and throw it in the trash?
SN: Because it makes other people feel like they can do the same thing, and I'm all about that. Because when you raise your voice - whether it's visual work, or verbally, or written or spoken - it makes other people say, "Hey I can do that, I don't have to sit here and be quiet." And it really does work.
Speaking of that, you teach. What kind of teaching do you do?
SN: I don't do a lot of teaching, but in the teaching work that I've done, with kids and with adults, this is the foundation of what I teach: "You're qualified, you're allowed to make art." Read "Art and the Cult of Inaccessibility" [essay by Nees, published on her Web site], and that says a lot about how I feel, about how fine art has appropriated the creative impulse, making people feel disenfranchised. ... I've taught classes, and I see this in adults much more than in children. ... I've seen a lot of art that's just buried in inaccessibility. I don't know why - maybe they think it makes them a real artist. I want my art to be able to be read and understood.
Well, I want to be a character in a story-card. What kind of animal would you draw me as?
SN: Well that depends. Do you want to be a bird, or do you want to be a pirate?