BY AMY J. BARRY SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Susan Stephenson's vibrant paintings of familiar downtown scenes pull the viewer smack-dab into the middle of them. You suddenly find yourself waiting at an intersection to cross the street… surrounded by trees bursting into spring bloom or autumn color… feeling a heightened awareness of the interplay of warm sun and cool shadows on pavement and buildings, reflected in windows in myriad patterns.
A full-time associate professor and chair of the painting department at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts since 1995, Stephenson's artwork is currently on view in the college's annual Studio Faculty Exhibition.
The award-winning artist earned a BFA from Louisiana Tech University and MFA in Painting from Boston University. Her work is in corporate and private collections throughout New England and the South.
Originally from Louisiana, the Westerly, Rhode Island resident ended up staying in Southern New England after taking part in an international artist-in-residence program at New London's Griffis Art Center. This was also when she first began painting outdoors, on location.
"Working outside has changed my perception of space, my work patterns," Stephenson says. "I work more quickly, in bursts of time. I used to use a more limited palate, and have gradually added to it. The pursuit of color is the most driving force in what makes me want to paint. Even though I'm interested in the place and space, it's the color and capturing the interaction of one color with another on site that draws me, resonates with me."
Stephenson is always on the look out for local scenes where she can set up her easel and paint en plein air.
"I'll be driving on my normal route and see something on the way that will catch my eye, like the interaction of buildings with each other, and I've gotten into finding reflections in windows and seeing the hidden colors in the street," Stephenson says.
"The curvilinear (wrap-around) perspective I've been interest in lately, really helps capture that feeling of the buildings that surround me," she explains. "I'll find myself in that zone, standing in one spot, bringing everything from both extremes into one framework. It's a hallmark of the work I've been doing for the last 10 years, and now it's second nature."
Stephenson is particularly enamored of Stonington Borough, where she's represented at Water Street's Cate Charles Gallery.
"The colors people have used to paint their doorways and homes are pretty and bright and cheerful, like an island," she says. "The light quality is sparkling clean. And people are very appreciative and understand what I'm trying to do. They stop to see the progress and are very courteous and pleasant."
Her Other Love - Teaching
Stephenson strives to achieve a balance between her own work and her students.
"I do think teaching and interacting with students is important," she says. "It's reciprocal. It can open up new avenues; ways of thinking about your own work, even thought it's in a classroom. Helping students with their work can impact your work in unexpected ways."
She points out that it's isolating for an artist to work alone in a studio.
"It's healthy to have the other side and get out in the community, involved with other artists," she says. "It can be very creative and satisfying, too - to interact with other people."
Technology, she notes, has become a big distraction in our lives, and creating art requires disengaging from computers and cell phones and engaging fully in the artistic process.
"I hope my students can learn that art is a discipline. Showing up and doing the work, even when you don't feel like it is part of having a successful career," she says.
"Also, if they can slow down and see things clearly and not jump to conclusions about what they're looking at, they'll be much more intuitive, and what they come up with will have more sense of relevance and resonance," she continues. "There's something about a harmonious interaction with our surroundings that can be meditative, and things come across more truthfully when you slow down and see what's there and get rid of preconceived notions."
As for where her own art is destined, Stephenson describes it at a gradual evolution, which she expects will continue.
"Everything is still interesting to me," she says. "One thing leads to the next… like the change of seasons. I love it."
The Studio Faculty Exhibition continues through Jan. 17, 2012 in the Chauncey Stillman Gallery of Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, 84 Lyme St., Old Lyme. In addition to Stephenson's paintings are works by Roland Becerra, Brian Craig-Wankiiri, Nancy Friese, Nancy Peel Gladwell, Debra Goertz, Randolphlee McIver, Randy Melick, Patricia Miranda, Peter Muehlhaeusser, Richard Rose, Paul Selwyn, Stephen Shaheen, David Wenzel and Peter Zallinger.
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