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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    For love of art and music: For Susan MacKay, inspiration and dreams abound

    “Neist Point, Scotland” by Susan MacKay
    “Sel-portrait at Thunderhall, Acadia, Maine” by Susan MacKay
    Susan MacKay in her Uncasville home studio Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Good things come to those who paint — er, wait.

    Or both.

    Susan MacKay, for example, is an accomplished artist whose seascapes and glass tile pieces will be on display in her first-ever gallery show, “Nature’s Embrace” — a three-artist exhibition also featuring works by coral sculptor/painter Tekla Zweir and encaustic painter Linda Dempsey — opening Saturday in New London’s Hygienic Galleries with a reception and running through July 20..

    Given that MacKay is 60 and started her lifelong artistic pursuits at 3 years old, this is really good but long overdue news.

    “I always thought I’d make it as a successful artist. I wasn’t sure how it would happen, and it hasn’t happened in the way I dreamed,” MacKay said by phone earlier this week from her home in Uncasville. She laughed. “I know how old I am, but I haven’t given up and I still have hope. The Hygienic show is a godsend because people will see my work.”

    But MacKay wasn’t complaining, and she isn’t naïve. “I’ve been trying to do art my whole life,” MacKay said. “What you learn along the way is part of it all. I have a wonderful family and a lifetime of great experiences.”

    For the “Nature’s Embrace” exhibit, MacKay will display several painted seascapes, two large mixed media pieces, four ceramic art glass tops and possibly some ceramic tile prints. Her naturalistic depictions are bright and infuse the sand/sea aesthetic with implications of longing, contemplation and simple happiness. And the way she translates those visions in montage-style tile work is clever and evocative.

    MacKay said she was particularly proud to be part of a show with Dempsey and Zweir, and that the theme of the exhibition is the exploration of how nature influences life and art.

    “Linda’s work is colorful, beautiful and ethereal. Dreamlike, even!” she said. “And Tekla’s paintings are vibrant, and her wall-mounted and free-standing sculptures of coral reefs and marine life highlight their beauty and diversity.

    “All three of us are using our art and vision to portray the beauty of the world around us as well as our concern for the well-being of the planet. I’m thrilled to have my work among such talented artists.”

    Born to create

    MacKay grew up in Mystic in a house her father built, and she graduated from Fitch High School in 1982. Among her earliest memories are those of her mother, Cindy Schaub, constantly drawing. Schaub, 93, is still drawing.

    “My mom is a true artist,” MacKay said. “As far back as I can remember, she was drawing everywhere we went. On a scrap of paper or a menu. I remember once she said, ‘I could have cleaned the house today, but I went to Mystic Seaport to draw.’ And that’s what I wanted to do. With my mom’s guidance, I drew portraits when I was 3. She tells me I was instinctively doing eyelashes and shadow.”

    As soon as MacKay graduated from Fitch, she entered the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts. The school wasn’t accredited then, but the education was stellar, and MacKay took advantage of the possibilities by attending classes day and night to try all sorts of media and techniques.

    She described the faculty as outstanding, singling out portrait painter Aaron Shikler and sculpture teacher Laci de Gerenday as particularly inspirational.

    “Aaron painted official portraits of JFK, Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, and he was so kind and helpful,” MacKay said. “And Laci was equally amazing. He wouldn’t tell you what was wrong with your piece. He’d get you to figure out the problem for yourself, saying that art was really training your eye to see.”

    Outside of class, MacKay took any opportunity — from designing album covers for local bands to placing artwork for sale in restaurants or in libraries and businesses.

    She also met and married Chris MacKay, a musician who’d played in one of the area’s biggest local bands, the New Johnny Five, and started a job at Crystal Rock Water Company. Susan was pulling full-time night shifts as a bartender at Go Fish and, given that Lyme Academy was unaccredited, earned her BA from Connecticut College in New London with a double major in studio art and art history.

    She was also painting. A lot.

    The lure of portraiture

    “I started to do a lot of portrait commissions — husbands, wives, kids, cats, dogs … The thing is, I don’t think I valued my time. I was charging $25 for a portrait, and it’d take a couple of months to finish it.” MacKay laughed. “In all my education, the one course I didn’t take that I should have, was marketing!”

    Finding it difficult to gain a footing in the art world, MacKay considered teaching because “passing along what I’d learned seemed worthwhile.” But she realized to do so would require advanced degrees, and by then Susan and Chris had two young boys, Skylar and Ellis.

    “They’re now 23 and 19, respectively, because time moves along,” MacKay said.

    While she augmented the family income with a steady stream of commissioned portraits, she also worked on her own projects. She began experimenting on land- and seascapes, sculpture and ceramic art tiles. Some pieces took on a “family affair” dimension when Susan would find old or broken tables, inlay scenes in painted tile, and then Chris would refinish the structure of the furniture.

    Family band

    Another spousal concept that took off is the very popular roots band Chris MacKay & the ToneShifters — a group that traveled the Atlantic Seaboard and recorded in such storied facilities as Sun Studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Susan, who is a fine pianist, plays accordion and provides background vocals in the band.

    “Sue is a selfless, kind, compassionate and nurturing soul with a beautiful spirit. People love her energy and vibe,” said Chris MacKay. “She brings that passion and energy to everything she does. She just gets pure joy out of being creative with both her painting and playing music and it takes her to another place. You can see it and feel the spirit of who she is as a person.

    “Music brings me a whole other sense of joy,” she said. “I mean, I’m just a side person in the ToneShifters, but it’s a band that requires a lot of energy from all of us. It’s a lot of fun.

    “Music also feeds into my art. They’re two different disciplines, but I enjoy the creative overlap. I remember, back in art school, we were painting in a big group, and someone called out to me, ‘Hey, are you SINGING over there?’” And I was. I’m always listening to music when I work. I have a soundtrack in my mind that plays while I’m painting.”

    While the Hygienic show is indeed a milestone, MacKay is always busy with new projects. She’s now a day-side waitress at Mystic’s breakfast/lunch spot Somewhere in Time, and the ToneShifters have a full slate of summer gigs. She still enjoys her commissioned portraits sideline; she might take an afternoon break, when the house is empty, to sit at the piano and play Bach or Beethoven; and she’s always, ALWAYS working on new paintings of tile pieces.

    “It’s the little things that keep you going,” she said. “A stranger compliments one of my paintings. A quick trip to New York City, just to paint. A writing class at Middlesex Community College because that’s interesting. And I’m just fascinated by painting the sea. It’s always changing, always inspiring.”

    If you go

    What: “Nature’s Embrace”

    Who: Susan MacKay, Linda Dempsey and Tekla Zweir

    When: Opening reception 6-9 p.m. Saturday; show runs through July 20.

    How much: Free

    For more information: hygienic.org

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