Interview with Susan Rubin, August 29, 2014
Susan and I are gallery sitting at Spark gallery on a Friday evening, the beginning of Labor Day weekend. We are fulfilling our responsibilities as gallery members to keep the doors open.
May I as your age?
58, but I look 57.
How long have you lived in Denver?
I have lived here since 1957, almost my entire life. I grew up near Cheesman Park, at 3rd and Marion.
Can you please tell us about your earlier years?
My family was pretty adventurous and creative. For instance, we have a cabin near Fraser that my parents built themselves (from a library book in Norwegian) when I was 4. This cabin had no plumbing or electricity, but we stayed there all summer and often during winter as well.
My father died suddenly when I was 11. During my teenage years my remarkable mother was enrolled at D.U., working on her Ph.D. in Creative Writing. She was also a docent at the Denver Art Museum. She was curious and talkative, so she often invited visiting artists who she met through her activities to our house for dinner. Our dinner guests \ included Gio Ponti, Christo and Jean-Claude (while they were engaged with the Valley Curtain project in Rifle, CO), and Saul Bellow. It would be me, my mom, my siblings, and Saul Bellow, eating meatloaf...
Were you aware of who these people were?
Of course. I was expected to listen and learn and keep up with the conversation!
When did art, and art making, become a part of your life?
Art was always a part of my life. Since before I could write I was drawing. I always had a little sketchbook in my pocket. I guess it never really stopped. At career day in third grade, I said I wanted to be a “Color Namer” and also to be the person who drew those little interstitial ink drawings for the New Yorker.
What did you draw?
I always drew what I could really see. I would draw flowers, buildings, people, and so forth. Though I love abstract art, it has never been in me to produce it.
At East High School I had a wonderful art teacher for three years, Carolyn Roth. She encouraged my drawing, and also taught me painting and silver-smithing. All of this came in handy as I grew older.
At Colorado College, where I minored in art, I drew house-portraits for realtors, silk-screened posters for college events and made jewelry and silver music boxes to help pay for school.
What was your experience at Colorado College?
During my Junior year I studied abroad, in Exeter, England. One of my art instructors also did botanical illustration, which is a time-honored art tradition in the UK. I really connected to this - to the detail, the science, observing perfection, and using drawing to explore nature.
How did art fit into your life?
There were always creative activities. I had two small businesses. I designed indoor play tents for children and hired other moms to sew for me in a cottage industry. We made hundreds of tents. Also, in the 1980’s, a friend and I came up with the idea of staging houses for sale and we reworked almost 500 houses. I wish I had trademarked that idea! I always took art classes at various venues.
When I was 34 I took a botanical illustration class, then newly offered at the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was a natural fit. After completing the rigorous Certificate in Botanical Illustration, I was offered professional illustration work. I began to exhibit my work. I was offered a teaching position at the Gardens in 1998, and I continue to teach there.
How does your art differ from the work you do professionally?
Professionally, I teach botanical art and illustration, so it doesn’t really differ at all!
My work involves more than a scientifically accurate depiction of a particular plant specimen. There is a larger relationship that I want to explore, and that concerns the connection we have with the world of plants. We eat plants, we wear plants, we medicate with plants and we live in them. And yet I sense an ongoing disconnect; a lack of awareness about the role of plants in history, in the economy, and in the world. I want my work to tell stories of this relationship; of how our lives are woven inextricably into the world of plants.
Do you have any expectations of the viewer?
I hope to introduce people to these relationships and for them to then pay attention to the natural world with added insight.
Any final thoughts?
I hope that people won't dismiss my art because the subject matter is botanical and because the work is accessible. There is a place for realism in art, and I have a story to tell.
What kind of colored pencil do you use now?
Faber-Castell Polychromos. I still have the set of Prismacolor pencils my grandfather used when he was a bridge designer in Oklahoma in the 1930s.
I guess I come by this honestly.