Interview with Susan Yanero by Jack Rasmussen, October 26, 2012

JR: Sitting in your studio, surrounded by paintings you have been working on for several years, I am impressed by how very painterly and expressive they are. And yet, at the same time, your paintings have a great stillness. How do you achieve such a fine balance?
SY: In my painting, I am trying to stop that rushing feeling of time. I begin very loosely with gestures, but then I usually paint and repaint until I have formed a more solid figure and in that way to have the figures stop what they are doing and to attain a certain consciousness. Though I feel I am an intuitive painter, I like to bring out the figures or the landscape in a very conscious way. I want things to stop. Even things that run really fast, normally, like this helicopter [The Helicopter]. I have him stopping.
JR: The gesture comes first, and then you find your subject?
SY: Yes. I start with the gesture, trying to get the whole thing in and then sometimes I don’t know what the whole thing is going to be. I might start with one particular thing, like a person’s face, and then try to figure out what that face means. And I go on from there. Sometimes everything changes and a painting can take a really long time, and sometimes I never know what it means. I work from my intuition, and so there are parts I understand and other parts where I will never really know.
JR: Do you work out the whole composition gesturally, or do you focus on one thing and build from there?
SY: Well, I work out the whole composition in gestures, just feeling out that I might have two figures here, one figure there. For example, I have a very large horizontal painting, which is mostly dark [With Love, Danny]. It is about my father and my mother who were in the war together. She was British, and they met during the Second World War, and both of them have portraits of each other saying “With love, Danny” and “With love, Molly”. I was thinking of my father and so I did a painting of his face, a fairly large face. But it is not a complete face, just the eyes and the nose. I couldn’t get my father right, so I chose a photo of my brother that I had taken while he was watching a football game so he has an intense expression, and then, I just sort of went from there. I put up these black curtains, something theatrical, and then on the other side is a painting of a woman in the same way that the man is painted, and then there are symbols, like a large hand in the middle and these small children that look like broken dolls. My parents had three kids and these images in the painting symbolize both the war and their life, which was hard, and my brother’s and my early life, which also tended to be difficult.
JR: Tell me about the dark figure to the left.
SY: I seem to put this mysterious figure in a lot of my paintings, and I’m not really sure what he represents except maybe that’s just sort of the mystery of life. We never know what is going to happen. It’s a little bit scary. And then I put the children on wheels but the wheels are stopped
JR: Why are your parents gagged? They seem to be gagged.
SY: Well, my mother is gagged because she came into this country from a very liberal culture, from London. She was very cultured, and she came to West Virginia and she lived with my Italian immigrant grandmother. My father was the last son of 15 children, and my grandmother was very close to him, and he to her, so they lived with her. I don’t think there was much my mother could express in the house, and I think she was very much alone.
JR: Next to your mother’s face you have painted a large mouth.
SY: Yes, the mouth with red lipstick. My mother could talk to me. She told me all kinds of stories. And, I think, when she was dressed up, she was so pretty. There is a large cross in the painting, which symbolizes the Catholic Church. I was brought up very strongly in the Catholic Church. My grandmother was very involved in the Church, and so was my father.
JR: Where did you grow up?
SY: This was in Fairmont, West Virginia. It was a town of Polish and Italian immigrants. So, the Church we attended was rather backward, as maybe a lot of the Catholic Churches were at that time and in that part of the country. You had the fear of Hell, and that kind of thing, which always scared me. So the painting is a little dark.
JR: There are many layers of meaning in this one painting.
SY: Since my process is so intuitive, I am not sure of all the meanings. The hand in the center of With Love, Danny could be an occult or superstitious sign, or it could also mean “stop.” You were kind of repressed by the Church. That isn’t quite so true with the Church today because now they emphasize love. But in those days, in West Virginia, it emphasized the negative, everything you can’t do.
JR: What I love about your paintings are the disappearing figures. They come and then they are gone, depending on the stage of the painting. I’m pretty sure there used to be a couple more figures in this green painting [Arf, Arf], for example.
SY: Yeah, I started to do a bear there, and then the car up there.
JR: It is a large canvas, and you have just the few areas fully developed and you have a lot of areas that have been worked in and out and finally abandoned.
SY: Yes, sometimes the paintings become like that, where there isn’t an area of focus, and there are areas that are more open. The area to the right was so complex that I felt it needed some openness. If it all were to be terribly complex, it would lose the emphasis on what is going on over here, which emphasizes this little girl practicing her routine for the circus where she rubs her stomach and pats her head. That’s her show!
JR: Is that a trapeze to the left?
SY: Yes, that’s a trapeze with no one on it.
JR: That’s rather foreboding…that empty trapeze.
SY: Yeah, maybe someone fell from it? I don’t know. Sometimes I think about that when I paint circuses…I don’t like the idea of circuses because of the treatment of animals.
JR: Why do you paint them over and over again?
SY: Well, in my circuses I try to make the animals happy. And often there are little girls with the animals, and they are in love with the animals. They are not trying to train them or anything. In a couple of paintings I have had the lion chasing the little girl, but at the same time there is the feeling that the lion wouldn’t do anything if he caught up with her. The animals are all friendly and docile.
JR: The little girl seems very innocent in that context. She is like the animals.
SY: Yes, it is maybe like the idea of paradise where everyone gets along together. That car up there, just the outlines of it, is a little bit sinister. I was going to have more of an indication of a man in it, you know, sort of dark, but I kind of left it more light, and open to interpretation.
JR: What’s going on in the little wagon to the left of the girl with the circus animals?
SY: Well, there is a dog, and then there’s a negative thing going on, a little girl throwing up. And I think that indicates another side of life. She’s sick. I’ve made her green to bring in the idea of regular life. Regular life ends, but this other life, the happy life I try to capture on the right, I paint it as though it doesn’t end. So there is the element of fear here, just not being able to handle, maybe, life.
JR: Why is the dog barking?
SY: He is trying to talk! [Laughter]
JR: Would you tell me about this smaller painting with the red bird and the girl playing a bugle of some sort [Gabriel with the Tiger]?
SY: Gabriel is a girl, here, and she is playing her horn. And there is this little girl behind her who seems to be disappearing. I did have wings for the girl playing the horn, but I don’t know, they may come back. If they come back, then the girl behind isn’t going to be there. The tiger is very, very docile, and he is kind of like a saint tiger, and the red bird is kind of like a red bird of happiness, although actually when I think about it, it is supposed to be the blue bird of happiness. [Laughter]
JR: Tell me about the steps she is climbing?
SY: Well, she is climbing back up to heaven.
JR: But she does look a little bit precarious there, like she is leaning back a little bit, and the steps kind of de-materialize as she gets higher.
SY: Right. She doesn’t know if she is going to make it. It is kind of a long trek. So, I think it has to do with something, like, how far will she go? Because she is not really Gabriel the angel. She’s really a little girl playing a trumpet or something. But I can also see her as symbolic. She’s dressed in white and her face is white.
JR: That’s a fairly dirty white. [Laughter]
SY: Well, she has been on earth for a while. {Laughter]
JR: What I love about being in your studio at this time is that everything seems to be at a stage where anything could still happen. Your paintings are in a process of becoming and going away.
SY: I think a lot of painters feel like I do. The painting is becoming, but a lot of painters don’t know what it’s coming to. Things can change in an instant, you know. Like in that big one with the helicopter [The Helicopter], there was a girl in the middle – well, almost the middle – who was turned away. Her head was turned away. And then I thought, well, she doesn’t have much of a presence, although, I kind of liked her turned away. Now she is staring out, but she might be turned away again. And I kind of made her a little bit of a Lolita figure. So, I’m not sure what will happen. To the left there are two little girls with blindfolds on and these little magic sort-of fairy stars that little girls have as toys, and the girls are almost bound together – they could be bound together. It’s a whole yard full of children and swings and everything so the little girls might be playing a game, or maybe something more serious is happening.
JR: Well, there is a helicopter.
SY: Yes, that is a little bit ominous. And the little girl on the right hand side has a swimming pool, but it is so tiny. And yet, she is kind of pleased with it. She’s in a trance like little kids get into when they are so happy when they are playing with their toys.
JR: Well, I can see a trance, maybe. Not joyous happiness, but definitely a kind of a trance.
SY: And then there are animals, just because I like the idea of animals and children. I paint children so much and I really can’t say why. I think I really do have a love of children and memories of childhood. I think children are really somewhat wise – more than people give them credit for. They know a lot more. Adults seem to be in a different phase of life and children are in a state of becoming, just like my paintings.
JR: The first thing you said when we started talking about the big, dark painting [With Love, Danny], was there had been a difficult childhood for you and your brother.
SY: Yes, and some of these children are probably having difficulties, but in this painting I wanted them to have some fun.
JR: Well, the cat is having fun, but I’m not sure about the mouse. [Laughter]
SY: I didn’t know whether to put him in or not. I feel sorry for mice since I have 3 kitties and I always try to take the mice away when they are caught.
JR: The little girls to the left are blindfolded, perhaps bound together, yet this one has a magic wand. Does the wand represent belief, or is that power?
SY: I thought of it as a toy, but I also thought that she can waive her magic wand and this can all disappear and then she can have her sight back and her freedom. Maybe she is dreaming.
JR: And the helicopter can go away.
SY: Yes, the helicopter. A symbol of war.
JR: Do you think this painting is still pretty much up in the air as well?
SY: I think the right hand side is definitely going to stay, and I just need to clarify some of the little figures on the left a little more. You know, I have to decide if she is going to be a Lolita or if she is going to turn her head away. She keeps changing back and forth.
JR: I love the looseness of the paint, and then I also love the great resolution you bring to certain areas as well. There seems to be a really fine balance between expressionism and classicism. The painter Alan Feltus, your professor at AU in the 1970s, does compare you to some of the painters of the Renaissance.
SY: Well, I love Masaccio, and I love the earlier painters, Giotto and Duccio. I would just like to get the kind of solidity that they have. When I look at them, it makes me feel really happy. I mean, I love a lot of paintings, you know, but those earlier painters are very friendly with me. I like them. They are like friends. But I also like Titian. I like a lot of modern work. I like Kiki Smith. And I like the Post-Impressionists. And video. But I love those early Renaissance painters the most. I think there’s such an honesty there, and maybe there’s a faith or something.
JR: Those early Renaissance painters were all men working for the Catholic Church, so that is sort of interesting in terms of your own work.
SY: I think, in order to do those paintings, those men did have faith. I think it comes through in their work. Piero della Francesca and the beauty of his light. But I really go for more of the solidity of Masaccio and the earlier painters, too, that emphasized the heads of their figures. The heads were kind of simplified, but still they held your attention.
JR: The faces in some of your paintings are more fully realized than the rest of the paintings, almost like Byzantine icons.
SY: I tried to make them real, not in a realistic way, but sort of in an expressive way. My paintings aren’t easy, and I’m not a painter who paints easily. I don’t think I have a natural ability. I think I have always struggled with paint and so I think there is a good deal of struggle in my paintings. I mean, I know there is a good deal of struggle in them.
JR: I think that struggle is what is so attractive and interesting about your paintings. There is a process here that is as important as the final result.
SY: That’s an interesting way to look at it because for me that struggle, of course, makes me unhappy. [Laughter]
JR: Yes, well, we cannot all be Piero della Francesa. But I do feel these are very much Susan Yanero.
SY: I don’t know if that’s good or bad. [Laughter]
JR: Could you tell me about this painting with a kind of violet-purple woman leaning out of a bathtub? [Baptism]
SY: Baptism has a kind of crazy subject. I have the woman in a pose that reminds me of Mary Magdalene when she was washing the feet of Jesus. And then the water is coming down on her because she has been changed, transformed, through that act. The little boy to the side, he’s already innocent. He has his little toys.
JR: Is that the only boy I’ve seen in your paintings?
SY: So far, really, he’s the only little boy.
JR: And certainly the only innocent male figure. The other males seem to be much more foreboding. Likely to disappear or reappear unexpectedly.
JR: Why is her hair so long?
SY: Well, that is because, I think, Mary Magdalene had long hair. You know, people in those days, the women wore veils over their heads, but the people weren’t usually purple. The color just seemed to work out.
JR: And the cat has finally caught the mouse in this painting.
SY: I don’t know what that means. You know how some painters like Hogarth always put home life into their paintings? It’s like just the touch of comic relief.
JR: Not so much for the mouse.
SY: I know, those poor mice. Maybe that is, you know, the viciousness of life.
JR: It seems like a reference to reality as opposed to what we find in your other paintings where reality is suspended. Like the magical circus. The animals aren’t abused, and the girl and the animals are innocent and live in that special place.
SY: You are right. Because it is mean to have that little mouse hanging from the cat’s mouth.
JR: And the mouse is red.
SY: Little red mouse! Yes, and a dirty kitty.
JR. There are shower curtains in Baptism and in With Love, Danny. There are also curtains in this one [Mafia with Innocents].
SY: This is Mafia with Innocents, as in innocent babies. But I might change the title because it is about war, and about how children are often hurt during war, even though they supposedly aren’t meant to be hurt. Their suffering is just the by-product of war. I certainly didn’t want to put real suffering children in the painting, so I made them into dolls. I could never paint a real child that was suffering. I wouldn’t be able to do that. But if I symbolize them with dolls or something, then it makes it easier to paint them.
JR: The little girl in the center of Mafia with Innocents has a halo.
SY: Yes. That’s supposed to be the Christ child. The halo is a symbol of his future suffering.
JR: You have a little girl above who is able to climb up out of the way of the bullets.
SY: She is either holding on or letting go. Those little twirly things above the heads of the men are meant to be like tornados in their heads. Something violent.
JR: I love the gun barrels that end in a circle. There is no attempt at perspective. It’s more a cartoon gun.
SY: I think they are pointed at me. They are going to rub me out. I’ll swim with the fishes. [Laughter]
JR: I’m interested in this vertical painting of a guy on the Boardwalk. [The Boardwalk]
SY: My husband and I have spent a lot of time in Florida, and there are so many men there who were formerly businessmen but are now retired. Because of the period of time when they were working, I suppose, things were a little bit gruff, and so a lot of them have this gruffness. They’d wear these kinds of colorful shirts or t-shirts over their stomachs. They wear sunglasses. The cigar is symbolic of businessmen of that period of time. But the reason he is so short is because the little girl is next to him and I wanted to put one of those arcade games in the background. So, in order to that, I had to make him very short. So, he’s a midget businessman. [Laughter]
JR: In the arcade game behind the businessman, are those skulls?
SY: Yes, the little girl in her innocence won the last little doll. The man is very small. But, you know, I wouldn’t want to mess with him. He has long arms and great big hands, but tiny little legs and feet. He is carrying an inner tube, so he’s going to go swimming.
JR: That’s actually a life preserver.
SY: Oh yes! Maybe he’s trying to preserve his life against the oncoming years…you know, he’s older.
JR: What is his relationship to the girl?
SY: There is not much of a relationship. You know, it’s not like he is leering at her or anything. He is kind of innocent. The girl has this innocent life, but his life has been all beaten up. He has been involved, maybe, in some business that wasn’t completely lawful.
JR: That is some of the thickest paint I’ve seen, and that’s saying something! Did you work on this painting a long time?
SY: I did. And there are a lot of other paintings underneath it. Sometimes I have to take an electric sander to sand them down so they don’t get too bumpy. This one has been sanded down a couple times.
JR: What was painted here before?
SY: One painting was of these two little girls tied together. I don’t know why I got rid of them. I couldn’t get the rope to actually tie somehow. But, then, I had another idea. I had this girl playing with a bear, but it looked too childlike. Then it developed into this. You know, the one on top isn’t any better than the two underneath. But that’s what happens. Rather than evolve, sometimes my paintings just totally change into another subject. Like, I would try to just keep on going with one painting, but then the subject matter changes completely.
JR: The Boardwalk is a lot like the circus.
SY: Yes.
JR: There is a certain kind of vulgarity going on at the same time there’s the innocence of the child that just won a little teddy bear. It’s not a shooting gallery behind her, but some kind of arcade game.
SY: Yes. 10 cents a throw. But there are skeletons up there. The prizes have morphed into skeletons, instead of dolls.
JR: There is a plane flying overhead.
SY: Yes. Maybe taking some people to another place. Its kind of a crazy painting. It did take a really long time. Once I decided this painting was going to be it, I’m not doing any more paintings on top of it. For one thing, the paint is so thick, I had to really work to get these figures together beneath the shooting gallery. I wasn’t as committed to the other paintings underneath, for some reason. I had to take it as far as I could take it.
JR: Any reason you can think of for stopping with this painting?
SY: Well, I was always fascinated in Florida by these gruff ex-businessmen. They just interested me. And then I’ve always wanted to put opposites in my paintings, like the girl in her kind of innocence and youth next to the retired businessman. So, it’s like the old against the young. And also there is the time element… how many years are between them? And then the skulls, you know? That’s ultimately where he will go soon, and where she will go eventually, too. It’s a part of life, you know? I try to throw that in. Not to be scary, but just to recognize that it’s a part of life.
JR: Like the cat and the mouse.
SY: Yes. That’s a natural thing, but I don’t like it. I don’t like the predator thing, but, you know, that is how it is.