Susan Rice on Her Love of Drawing, Cartoons, Printmaking and Other Things: A Conversation

I first saw the work of Susan Rice in a group art exhibit at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, roughly two years ago, months before I started working for the organization itself. I then met Susan in person when I assumed the role of Program Director and worked with her in scheduling the printmaking classes. Susan Rice is an illustrator and printmaker who considers herself to be primarily a drawer. She has served on the board of the Somerville Arts Council and helped oversee Somerville Art Beat festival, an outdoor arts festival in Davis Square, as well as the Windows Art Project, one of the largest public art projects in the Boston area. Susan has exhibited her work through the Somerville Arts Council, The Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Arlington Center for the Arts and at the Nave Gallery, among other venues throughout Massachusetts. Susan continues to do a lot of illustration work for magazines including Dig Magazine—a magazine for children ages 9-14, published by Cobblestone Publishers. She is a member of the Blacksmith House Printmakers, a group that got its start at the Cambridge Center, and also the Earthscape Printmakers. I sat down with Susan on Monday December 7, 2015 in the Vogt Studio at the Cambridge Center to candidly talk about her work as a printmaker and illustrator, her influences as an artist and many other topics, including propaganda posters. This is the last interview in a series of interviews featuring the work of artists that will be part of the exhibit I am organizing for the Cambridge Center in January.

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Susan Rice, Image Courtesy of the Artist

Anulfo Baez: Susan, I wanted to thank you for taking some time to meet with me and interview you for my blog. I do have some questions about your work, but it is a conversation, so we can just go with the flow. One of my first questions is about your education. You went to RISD and you graduated with a bachelors in illustration, correct?

Susan Rice: Correct. That’s right.

AB: And did you take printmaking classes at RISD or how did you come about into the printmaking scene?

SR: Good question. I did take an etching class, an intaglio class at RISD, which I loved. I had taken a printmaking class prior to going to RISD, but it was sort of an introduction and I didn’t know very much.

AB: How long after RISD did you start getting really into printmaking?

SR: It was some years, after RISD. I had a friend, another teacher who was a printmaker and painter who taught a workshop on linoleum cut. So it was a very slow sort of evolution, but a natural one. Printmaking as you know is naturally affiliated with illustration, drawing and painting and many other of the arts.

AB: You’ve done a lot of things. Would you call yourself—an illustrator? A printmaker?

SR: I would call myself primarily a drawer. Drawing underlies almost everything I do and love of line was really my first love. It took me a long time to learn other things aside from line, but it was well worth the effort.

[We both burst into laughter simultaneously]

SR: I would say primarily a drawer and that goes into every field, really.

AB: Absolutely. You can apply that to anything. You have been a longtime supporter of CCAE, when did you get started with the organization?

SR: I took a printmaking class here—Printmaking without a Press—which I loved and then I took printmaking with Selma Bromberg.  It was a really great group, so I stuck with it.

AB: That seems to be the starting point for almost everyone who I’ve interviewed. They started with printmaking here at the Center by taking a class with Selma, so she sort of has been the anchor for printmaking here. You’ve also taught printmaking here at the Cambridge Center, when did you start teaching here?

SR: Yes, I teach a print workshop and have been a monitor in the print studio for eight years.  I have also been a substitute teacher for Selma. In addition, I have been teaching at a number of other places for about 14 years.

AB: So tell me about your work. I first came across your work at a group exhibition here at the Cambridge Center. Can you tell me more about your work and what inspires your work?

SR: Sure. My illustration work informs much of what I do in printmaking. The difference is, with illustration I obviously have to do work for clients so the venue determines how the  work will look. However, much of my work is either humorous or editorial—which means it has a point of view. Usually it goes along with text, so it has to reflect an idea or concept. That work actually carries over into a lot of my printmaking work; frequently, my printmaking work has started with basic ideas or concepts that interest me. Most of my work tends to be figurative or representational; however, I am branching out much more into abstraction through printmaking.

AB: Were you also part of the Blacksmith House Printmakers group?

SR: Yes

AB: And what does the group mean to you and when did you get involved with that group?

SR: I got involved with the group probably soon after I started Selma’s class—within a year, I would guess. I was still working as a monitor for the studio because I learned how the studio worked. It has been a great group. People share knowledge and processes. That was really fun and helpful.

AB: I know that the group has been very influential in other people’s lives and I know that a lot of people from the group have gone to have their own one-person shows elsewhere, so it’s been a really tight-knit group that supported each other, but also pushed each other when it came to making work here at the Center or elsewhere. Has teaching or being in the Blacksmith House Printmakers changed the way you do work? Has it influenced in any way how you make work as an artist?

SR: I’m sure it does. A lot of artmaking can be a solitary pursuit which is very difficult, it’s a chronic situation for artists.  Artists need to interact with other artists of any sort not just for inspiration, but also for practical knowledge and support. Yeah, I think learning about materials, and the practical nuts and bolts aspects of artmaking is really helpful, but just as important is just learning about other people’s working habits. For instance, some people jump right in and start exploring right away and other people are very deliberate, very methodical and slow. They know exactly where they want to go. I love seeing this range of approaches because it is a reminder not to be judgmental about my own process.

AB: So would you fall into the more experimental—you come into a studio and you start experimenting or you fall into the more methodical—let me do this and get to where I want to go?

SR: Good question! I would say it actually varies. It varies with how much time I have in the studio. If I only have half an hour to finish up a print, I have to make decisions quickly.  Art is all about decision-making. Sometimes it is a real pleasure, and sometimes it is like pulling teeth, so a deadline can help push one to make decisions. Other times I take forever and ruminate on an idea for months before doing something about it.

AB: yeah, that makes sense. As artists, everything we do needs to have a purpose, there needs to be a decision for every little move we make. If you’re not really thinking about the work, then what are you making? This leads me to your process. What is your process like? How do you start making work?

SR: Frequently, I write a lot and sketch a lot—sometimes very crude, rudimentary sketches, sometimes elaborate ones. This comes out of illustration work, especially conceptual work in which you have to work with both ideas and imagery at the same time. There’s a back and forth, an interplay between the verbal and the pictorial ideas, so I do a lot of note-taking.  If I want to create imagery about something that is not right in front of me, say a cow, I do research and I usually end up doing lots of sketches of cows. My illustration work for children’s magazines about archeology and history, also provides ideas for other work. I find out all these fun facts about history and I think “oh, that would be something really good to explore.”

AB: That’s very cool. Do you tend to prefer printmaking over illustration or are the two intertwined and they become an entire process that you follow along and it leads you to somewhere?

SR: I love both. Clearly there are limitations to each and advantages to each. Printmaking I would say is more of a fine art outlet for me, illustration is much more circumscribed, but I like that too. I like the fact that I have to work within parameters—physical and visual and conceptual and time-based parameters. It’s sort of like working a game or a puzzle.

AB: Has your work evolved as an artist since graduating from RISD?

SR: It definitely has evolved. Going to art school for me was great, but school is just the beginning for any artist and you realize when you get out that you’ve barely scratched the surface of any topic. One thing that I’ve continued from RISD and from illustration work, is that I try to keep building on the skills I already have and improving them and honing them. In terms of evolution or change, I’ve really come to love printmaking and fine arts. I understand more than I used to, about the formal concerns: color, texture, form and composition.

AB: How did you get involved with publishing in general?

SR: Well, I majored in illustration.

AB: Right.

SR: And it was my goal to work with a publishing company. However the illustration field changed pretty much overnight with the digital revolution and the sort of the collapse of a lot of the publishing industry, in particular newspapers. Illustrators also organized themselves differently. They used to be hired in-house, or they’d be in illustration firms so they could all share the administrative costs and all that, and now the field almost all freelance. This means you have to be a business person and administrator, and salesperson as well as the illustrator—you have to wear a lot of hats and that I find problematic. I tend to find clients and stick with them. I got involved with Cobblestone Magazine through some graphic designers in the area that I knew through the Somerville Arts Council, and they referred me.

AB: What are you currently working on in regards to illustration and printmaking?

SR: Well, with illustration I have on-going work with Cobblestone, and that’s been great. With prints, I’ve been doing a lot with monotypes. I’ve really started to expand beyond representational work and beyond my comfort zone.

AB: How do you feel about making work that is outside your comfort zone?

SR: Actually, I love it. Doing fine art or going outside my comfort zone is a lot easier if there aren’t ramifications. I know that my paycheck isn’t hanging in the balance.

I’ve tried these techniques—monotypes and collagraphs—in the past and just fallen on my face, you know, not done well with them and sort of backed off. I started taking them on again under the tutelage of people who know what they are doing and I’m doing much better.

AB: Do you have a preference for a certain technique in printmaking?

SR: I’ve done a lot of solar etching and some traditional intaglio which I love. With intaglio my imagery tends to be quite representational. These prints tend to be monochromatic, which I like, but I think it’s also great to branch into the wide world of color. I’ve really got into color with collagraphs, monotype, and linoleum and woodcut to a lesser extent.

AB: Do you feel attach to any of those over another?

SR: I would say intaglio etching. I think it’s my obsession with line.

[We both laugh at Susan’s comments on her obsession with drawing lines]

AB: I know that you mentioned you do a lot of research for your work. Where else do your ideas come from besides the research that you do for your illustration work?

SR: They come from life experiences outside of art. Some of my imagery that you would know is about animals, and although most of the images are not overtly political, I have an interest in the relationship between animals and humans and how conflicted that is, and has been through history. I’ve explored that theme without getting too hard hitting about it. I’ve sort of touched on that in a lot the imagery—whether it’s monkeys in a laboratory or animals in factory farms—I haven’t shown animals in a factory farm, but I am implicitly thinking about that when I portray farm animals.

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Susan Rice, Image Courtesy of the Artist

AB: Have you always wanted to make work with a political tone to it?

SR: Yes. I have yet to fully succeed or fully developed that desire. Part of it it’s because I am an illustrator and you have to curb your own opinions. The second reason is that working in fine art has not been a full-time pursuit. I usually squeeze it in between other work, and so I have been taking baby steps towards what I actually want to say—the imagery is still developing. I actually, love propaganda—not propaganda I don’t agree with, but propaganda in terms of posters with a definite point of view. It’s been a long tradition from all over the world. I love the ability of words and images to combine to really have a very profound impact on the viewer. Of course, there can be problems with propaganda too, as we know, when it is something vicious or underhanded.  I think posters work to distill thoughts down to something that is understandable at a common level.

AB: Absolutely, in fact, propaganda posters have been the subject of many recent exhibitions and almost every major museum has shown or is in the process of showing exhibitions relating to the art of the poster. I was just recently in New York City and there were at least, two or three museums with shows about posters: The Cooper Hewitt’s How Posters Work, the New York Historical Society’s Art as Activism: Graphic Art from the Merrill C. Berman Collection which showed posters made between 1930s and 1970s and while not an exhibition exclusively devoted to posters, the Museo del Barrio is still showing, I think an exhibition with activism posters in it. This leads me to the next question, who are your influences as an artist?

SR: In terms of printmaking, I look at a lot of different printmakers. Obviously, I’ve been influenced by Selma Bromberg and the other people in the Blacksmith House Printmakers group. I really like printmaking that is of a place and time, or it could be of a conceptual place and time. I love the Japanese printmakers, of course. Everyone is influenced by Goya, Manet.   Michael Mazur is a contemporary influence. He illustrated Dante’s Inferno that was translated by Robert Pinsky. Really incredible illustrations; they’re monochromatic prints. Grace Bentley-Scheck is another contemporary and local printmaker from Rhode Island. She makes collagraphs based on urban architecture, and is her work is informed by engineering. They’re absolutely incredible. I had a brief internship with her when I was at RISD and witnessed her process which was so far beyond anything I had ever seen. It’s unbelievable to see her process, it can take her months just to make one plate, they are so intricate.

AB: I also love the Japanese printmakers.

SR: Did you go to the Hokusai exhibit?

AB: Absolutely. I loved it.

SR: Yeah, that was amazing. And Hiroshige. We think of them as printmakers, but it is interesting to learn that they were the designers, not the printmakers. It’s actually helpful to understand that because you can start to think you’re an underachiever when you see what other people produce, but it turns out they had whole  print shops with staff. I also saw an exhibit about a year ago of Winslow Homer’s work of Civil War sketches for newspapers. Here again, he didn’t do the engravings, but he just did sketches for the newspaper engravers. He did have to adapt his imagery for the publication format. The British also have a great tradition of printmaking. I think if one likes books, one will like prints because print imagery has a long history of existing to be part of books and newspapers.

I am also influenced by cartoonists and by the art of sumi-e—being a lover of line. I also like painters who have a sense of humor.

AB: Who are some of your favorite cartoonists?

SR: George Herriman who did Krazy Kat would be a big favorite. I really like cartooning from the early part of the nineteen hundreds, not just from this country, but from around the world. Whenever friends of mine travel, I ask them to bring me back a magazine or newspaper that has a cartoon from that country.

AB: I take it that you’ve looked at a lot of cartoons throughout your life and a lot of them have had a profound impact on you as a person and on your work as an artist. That’s something I really don’t know much about, which is why I am asking you which cartoonists’ work influence you. I think it would be very interesting to look at some work by cartoonist you are influenced by.

SR: Sure. In terms of contemporary cartoonists, and political ones, you can take a look at Nick Thorkelson. He’s local. He’s a painter, printmaker, graphic designer but he also does a lot of cartooning and illustration, including illustrating very difficult political concepts. He’s made graphic novels about various political and historical figures and ideas. He’s really good at translating very abstract ideas into understandable ones, using the medium of comics.

AB: Thank you for the recommendation!

AB, December 7, 2015

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