It’s been a busy season for Susan MacQueen. First up was the recent Hopewell Tour Des Arts when visitors made their way through the studios of several dozen Hopewell-area artists. MacQueen’s studio is at Highland Design Farm on Van Dyke Road — former chicken coops where eight other artists rent space. “It’s friendly and lively here, with others for inspiration, and I’m not distracted by things at home,” says MacQueen, who moved her workspace from her home in Hopewell a year and a half ago.
Now MacQueen is participating in two exhibitions: “Animal Nature” at Art Times Two Gallery at Princeton Brain and Spine through March, 2016, and “Susan MacQueen and Hannah Fink: Drawing and Mixed Media,” an Arts Council of Princeton show on view at the Princeton Public Library through January 17, 2016.
Both MacQueen and Fink will give a gallery talk on Monday, November 16, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Entering her studio, MacQueen greets it — “Hello” — like it’s a being, and indeed there are presences in her gallery. Sheep that are simultaneously lifelike and fanciful are what MacQueen is known for. She has exhibited these at the Arts Council of Princeton and D&R Greenway Land Trust, among other venues.
The studio, with windows to another artist’s studio that have been covered with drapes — MacQueen and Pamela Kogan can agree to open up to each other at mutually convenient times — is like a mini museum of her work and can be viewed by appointment throughout the year. Working in this gallery-like setting enables MacQueen to see the interconnectedness of her output in different materials. And though the work is presented for viewing, MacQueen is busy at work, revising her sheep. “Sheep are still a big part of what I care about; they are object lessons and relate to what I’m working on in myself.”
“Marshmallow” is a sheep to whom she’s given new ears and a simpler face. “Sewing is a relaxing way to revisit this art with craft,” says MacQueen, who has explored sheep through sculpture, installation, monoprint, and drawing. Fleece, rope, ribbon, string, lace, mop heads, and gesso are among the materials used to make the coats of the quadruped ruminant.
It began with collage, for which she had used glassine, natural fibers and string. “So I have this debris, and it was sitting on the table for a while, and I gathered them up to play with them and realized the materials looked like sheep,” she said.
“Sheep appeal to me as a model of cooperation, though not a perfect model. But they do a pretty good job. They remain in my thoughts because of the time we live in, and the flock is a model of living together, being different and getting along.”
Most people see sheep as dots on a pastoral landscape, but MacQueen wanted to bring out their rugged individuality. Using everything from felt, fringe, old T-shirts, fabric, grass, flowers, lace, paper, and chenille robes to the bathroom rug, she weaves these around a frame made from fencing and wooden legs. “It’s put together with human will and glue.”
These are not stuffed animals you would tuck under the covers with a sleeping child. “Sheep aren’t really fluffy,” she says. “They lie in dirt and stuff gets caught in their coat as a kind of diary of their experiences.”
In addition to three-dimensional work, MacQueen loves to draw and has made intricate drawings of bovids. On a table is a taped-together drawing that looks like it could be a preliminary sketch, but in fact the drawings often come after the sculptural pieces. There are notes describing the flock: “This one wears his/her experience in her fleece.” “This one has a medusa like quality around the face.” “This one heavily gessoed canvas wrapped like Lazarus or home from the war.” “A bit like a puff ball, heavily ruffled, wool strips dipped in tea.”
MacQueen grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, but visited her father, a horse trainer (when he wasn’t selling cars), who lived in the country. As a child, she wasn’t interested in school. “It didn’t seem a worthy endeavor, but put paper in front of me and that was an opportunity, compared to the closed box that was school.”
Art was important in her family — her mother, a homemaker, went to museums, opera, and theater. MacQueen went to Windham College in Putney, Vermont, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “It was a wild and crazy time. I met art teachers who were showing in New York, at places like Paula Cooper. I learned that art really is important and you have to spend time doing it. I studied life drawing and design but was given the space to spend time. The way I was taught worked well for me. As a child I was buffeted around, but in college I learned to search for my soul, and that was what I wanted to express.”
Her favorite question is, “What would happen if…?” For example, what would happen if sheep had human consciousness?
For her newest work, MacQueen went through the archives in her storage unit and excavated a hand-held sculpture. “I am still interested in that shape,” she says of her find. “I brought it out and used it as a basis for drawing. I traced around it, flying through turbulence.” It became a surreal figure of a woman floating in space with an orb. MacQueen is exploring an interest in Venetian plaster — “What would it be like to use shapes and press them into the plaster, to embed and excise,” she says. “I want to find a way of working with materials that is engaging, and investigate the forms in a different situation, reiterating an idea in a different way. Materials have voices.”
Venetian plaster “is more natural than brush strokes, and it goes into crevices. I’m interested in things that look like they are naturally occurring. It’s a time-consuming process to create texture. It takes time to figure out where it wants to go, but it’s wonderful to have it to look at for a long time.” The result is contemporary imagery in an ancient material, like sgraffito or sprouting seeds.
MacQueen taught at Crossroads Nursery School from 1994 to spring 2015. “Working with little children reminds you of what’s important, and the value of play,” she says. “If you’re immersed in play, you don’t feel silly. We learn a lot being with children.”
MacQueen’s daughter, 32, is also an artist (with a studio in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn) who studied at Copper Union and taught at Rutgers while earning her MFA there. When she was a student at Princeton Day School, the two held a mother-daughter showing of their work at Small World Coffee.
From MacQueen’s studio ceiling hang pods, like paper heads. “They are my ideas of enclosures that nature makes to develop things to protect, like a chrysalis — a place for the transformation that is demanded of us as the world changes. We have to change, too.” MacQueen has also been drawing cocoons. “It’s about how we care about the idea of home.”
“Your values are poured into the things you stir up, and at this point of life I do have a point of view,” she continues. “I’m hoping the meek will inherit the earth — they are so everyman, my heart is with them.”
Art Talk with Susan MacQueen and Hannah Fink, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Monday, November 16, 7 to 9 p.m. The talk is in conjunction with their library exhibition on view through Sunday, January 17, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 1 to 6 p.m. 609-924-9529 or princetonlibrary.org.
Animal Nature, Art Times Two Gallery, Princeton Brain and Spine, 731 Alexander Road, Suite 200, Princeton. Through March, 2016, open business hours. 609-203-4622 or www.arttimestwo.com.
To visit Susan MacQueen’s studio, E-mail email@example.com