The Oxford undergraduate contemplates the war poets
Susan Wilson is the tutor of our regular class ‘Drawing the Body Clothed’ which currently runs on Mondays at our Shoreditch studio.
Susan grew up in the mountain foothills of New Zealand’s South Island and hitch-hiked around Spain, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador in buses and trucks as a young woman, contributing to her love of Hispanic art. She studied at Camberwell and Royal Academy Schools and was later a Fellow of Painting at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Art and Technology. Susan is represented by Browse and Darby has work in public collections in UK and NZ.
How is your class ‘Drawing the Body Clothed’ distinct from other life drawing classes?
In the class I want the students to think about the concept of what makes an image, and I link each day back to paintings or pictures that I admire. I want them to think about clothing and textiles, and the idea that drives an image along. It seemed to me when I started here that clothing had been forgotten about. I‘m very interested in what we choose to wear and how we wear it, particularly in London. I’ve always lived near the Portobello Road, and on the Notting Hill Carnival route, so there were probably things that always subliminally affected my interest in clothing.
Idaho, 2007, oil on linen
In your class you often create scenes with costumes and other props. What’s one of the most ambitious that you’ve ever created for a class?
I tried to reconstruct a great production of La Fille Regimen recently staged at the Royal Opera House. They had this wonderful set of the Tyrolean Alps that was made of maps, which seemed to me the most brilliant idea, so I got all these maps and made a kind of mountain landscape in the studio and made the kind of clothing that Flores wears in the performance. It was sort of mad, like trying to put on Shakespeare with one person. Silly, but fun.
Lots of the things that you put together in your class are inspired by opera and theatre. Have you ever been involved with the theatre or the opera in the past?
I was in the New Zealand Youth Theatre and then I learnt dance and was involved in street theatre companies in Auckland as a young adult. I also did a short course at the Royal Opera House recently where we had to build a set, build a maquette and then build the actual set and the production took place on the last day. I think theatre relates very closely to painting, and artists have always stepped into the ballet: Picasso with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, Sidney Nolan did sets and costumes. There’s an amazing list of people who’ve stepped into the theatre and done really wonderful things.
Do you feel that those experiences and influences have fed into your own paintings in a tangible way?
I base some still lives on the opera. I made a whole lot of paintings about Agnes Baltsas singing ‘I Capuleti e i Montecchi’ by Bellini which was one of the great performances on the London stage. When the curtain goes up the stage sets are a bit like a painting, and I wish more artists made them, and not soap opera writers, or people out of film, because they don’t really get it. Artists get it. Hockney’s sets are fantastic – he did L’enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel and he did the The Rake’s Progress. They’re really rich and complex and there’s lots to think about.
As well as still lives, you’re known for painting people, including your family. How do they feel about that experience?
Well, my mother refused, she never ever sat for me and she didn’t like me to draw her either. My father and my uncle loved the process and my children liked it when they were young because I used to pay them! My husband still sits. I’ve painted other members of extended family regularly and it’s been very interesting. It’s a wonderful thing to do, but they have to be complicit. If they don’t want to do it or they’re bored it doesn’t work.
Do you ever feel that they take on a character when you’re painting them, or a persona that’s different from how they are normally?
No – in fact it’s almost the opposite. With my uncle it was interesting because he seemed to me a really confident man. He was a theologian and was a really thoughtful character, and I discovered when I painted him that he was shy and I’d never seen that in him before. He’d always seemed to me quite dashing and confident, able to speak in public and very funny, but when he sat in the studio he became definitely shy. And the picture’s shy, he’s got a shy glance.
Do you speak to your subjects when you’re painting them?
And often when your students are drawing in the class you read literature to them. What is it about reading to people as they’re drawing that you think works?
I think it enriches what you’re doing in this extraordinary way. I once read from Le Grand Meaulnes. It was the description of this grand fête that is really like something out of Tiepolo’s paintings, absolutely beautiful, with all these people dressed up in the dark, in the night in the French countryside. It’s so beautiful and the character can never find it again. He wonders whether it was a dream and I remember people being very moved by that and finding it extraordinary. In a way I think anything that takes people away from obsessing about things is good, because when people come into a class they sometimes feel that they’ve got all these practical chores they feel they ought to have done, and if you can release them so that they can enter another world, that’s brilliant. The main books I loved growing up were C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books because of that sense of entering another world and I think the classes are somehow better when people enter that world and get caught up in it.
Her First Ball (illustration from a Katherine Mansfield short story)
Do you draw regularly yourself? What does the act of drawing offer to you that’s different from painting?
Ingres said that drawing was the probity of art. I have these books which I just draw in constantly, and in a way they’re a bit like a diary because I draw all manner of things in them, which I don’t necessarily use.
Are you working on any interesting projects at the moment?
I’ve been asked to paint New Zealand writers, including a portrait of Janet Frame (author of An Angel at My Table). She died a couple of years ago, and there’s only one photograph of her. She was very reclusive, and she spent a lot of time in psychiatric hospitals. So I’ve only got this tiny black and white photograph of her, but I’ve used sketchbook drawings of landscape up above the town she lived in as a child, that I made last April in New Zealand. I’m always doing that now, pulling in things that are in sketchbooks into still lives and into portraits, as background., I’m really strict about not painting from photographs, but what can you do? It’s been so interesting, because I have a hundred and one thoughts about her and I’ve always read her books. She’s a wonderful writer.
You’ve been a tutor at The Prince’s Drawing School for many years now. Is there anything you could pinpoint that you’ve learnt from teaching here?
I have felt really free to develop an idea and a concept for a class here in a way that, when I taught at Chelsea, or taught at Wolverhampton, I couldn’t. I can develop a notion of how I want to teach, and research it, diversify. I can use contemporary exhibitions like the great shows in London, like the recent show of Matisse at the Tate Britain, a lot of which was about textiles. I’m really interested in clothes designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Hussein Chalayan, who makes things which are more like installations than clothes. The Prince’s Drawing School works really differently from the way other art schools work – it’s quite different as a concept.
Lastly, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about drawing, or some advice you’d give to someone learning to draw?
I can’t single out anything except that the staff at Camberwell really got us to draw, and it was really fantastic. They just got us to draw all sorts of things, in sketchbooks, and drawing everything and anything.
So there’s no quick fix…
No, that’s right, you just have to do it and you have to draw things that might look quite dull – I was looking through my sketchbook the other day and there’s a drawing of a carwash in Los Angeles and somehow it’s a really nice drawing. It’s just the carwash, because I was stuck there for half an hour – you know how you get stuck in places and you do these drawings inside of airports or bus stations or the tunnel at the tube? It’s not a prepossessing subject but actually it turns out to be fantastic.
Il Re Pastore
You can see more of Susan’s work at www.susanwilsonartist.com