Through the windows of Suzanne Dinger’s studio in the loft at Artworks Trenton, one gets a view of the surrounding neighborhood filtered by branches and, in season, leaves. Hanging from one of these windows is a large, antique clock face with a hollow center. It is a reminder of the passage of time and that all that we see is momentary. Perhaps it is this awareness of time passing that makes Dinger such a persistent painter.
The artist Mel Leipzig, who once taught Dinger at Mercer County Community College, where he taught painting and art history, calls her persistent. “Persistence, not talent, is what makes an artist,” he is fond of saying, though Dinger has demonstrated plenty of the latter, as well.
An exhibit of Dinger’s work, “Outside/Inside,” is on view at Rider University’s Gallery of Art through April 15. An artist’s talk takes place Thursday, March 8, at 7 p.m.
The title, “Outside/Inside,” pretty much sums up her practice. This magnificent studio space is her staging ground, where she stretches canvases and puts on finishing touches, but mostly Dinger works outdoors, on location. Unlike plein air painters who focus on atmospheric landscapes, Dinger paints buildings. Preferably older buildings, with architectural heft; with red brick and metallic parts that are crumbling and rusting. She especially likes to paint rust and is quite good at it.
The title also refers to one of her paintings. “It was a building that was about to collapse, so all the outside light was inside. There was this whole juxtaposition going on because you could see through the window and you’d think that you would be looking inside, but you’re really getting outside light. It was sort of a meditation on that. A lot of the work in (the exhibition) is interiors as well as exteriors.”
She paints from observation “so that means that everything that’s in the show is something that I was standing in front of,” says Dinger. “That requires that you are subjected to the whims of the weather. If it’s too cold out, you would be inside, but whenever I can I would choose to be outside. There is something, for me and my temperament, that makes me a better painter when I am out in the world. I am more attentive. I respond to more stimuli that way.”
A Pennington resident, Dinger has honed a deep relationship with the Capital City. From 2001 to 2011 she worked for Zienowicz Signs (also known as “Z Signs”) on Canal Street in Trenton, where she developed a reputation as “the lady who goes up in the bucket truck.” Z Signs projects include the signs for Princeton’s Quark Park, Trenton’s Conduit, Bordentown’s Record Collector, and D&R Greenway’s Poetry Trail, among others. “George (Zienowicz) can build anything with his hands,” says Dinger.
“It was a fun job,” she says, “working in the shop with tools, building things to communicate ideas.” But after 10 years “I started to feel old climbing ladders and working in all weather conditions.” So at the urging of Rider University art professor Harry Naar, she decided to pursue her MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (Dinger completed a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Rider in 2002, where Naar had been her professor. Naar also directs the Gallery at Rider.)
While she was completing the MFA (which she earned in 2014), Dinger and the artist Kate Graves painted together at the abandoned Roebling complex. They both had a fascination with Trenton’s crumbling old buildings, and both had the courage to go through a hole in the chain link fence surrounding it. “You would have thought you were in a forest, it was so peaceful and quiet,” she says, referring to the wild growth that quickly overtakes abandoned urban properties. “It was like our own atelier.”
From the third floor, they looked down, and the standing water, with stuff growing in it, became what Dinger describes as an “aqua world.”
Although there were no other humans there at the time, they came upon evidence that people had been sleeping at the site at night. Dinger and Graves never felt endangered (though they frequently let artist friends know they were there, just in case they didn’t return). “When you’re outside painting people come up and engage in benign positive conversations. ‘Oh, it’s so nice that you’re painting this building before it’s torn down.’”
In fact, one of the buildings they painted, an old furniture factory off Olden Avenue, is no longer standing. Dinger and Graves took a First Friday bike ride through Trenton and saw that the building had been leveled by fire.
“My painting has evolved,” she says. “Every time I paint I learn something. I can reflect on what I didn’t know, figure it out, and make a new discovery.” A fine example of persistence.
Also, like Leipzig, Dinger does not work from photographs. They do not give enough information to work with, and she prefers to immerse in real time with light and sounds and smells.
The daughter of an airforce fighter pilot, Dinger, 56, was born in Germany to American parents. She lived in six places by the time she was in seventh grade. Then her parents divorced and she moved to Iowa with her mother, an artist and art teacher. Dinger’s great grandmother, an artist, had studied under Grant Wood (“American Gothic”).
Encouraged by her mother, Dinger studied art at the University of Iowa, Cornell College, and then back at the University of Iowa in the 1980s. She felt disconnected to the departments that focused on post modern, installation, performance, and video art, spending all her time in the sculpture and ceramics studio.
Through a friend she met her husband in Chicago and the couple lived in San Franciso; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Voorhees, where she worked in a management training program at Bonwit Teller; and finally Pennington. While working for the Hopewell Valley School District, working with a student with a cochlear implant, Dinger decided she liked teaching and in 1999 was sent to Rider by the district for teacher certification. Soon she started taking painting classes with Naar. In all her classes at the University of Iowa and Cornell College, she had never taken painting.
“Painting was an amazing and transformative experience for me,” she says. “I love painting, and I love the endless challenges inherent in painting. That first painting class with Professor Naar with his more classical and traditional approach to image making opened up a whole new world to me. He was very encouraging, had great ideas, and had ways to motivate you.”
She went to PAFA on a scholarship. At nearly twice the age of fellow students, she was undeterred. After completing her MFA, Dinger went back to Rider as adjunct faculty, teaching such classes as Three-D Design, Foundational Painting, Art and Society, and 20th Century Art.
Among the familiar sites Dinger has painted is Trenton’s Griffith Electric Building and an old barn near the quarry on Route 29 toward Lambertville. “I was interested in the tunnel and the play of light and shadow,” she says. To prepare for plein air, she packs plenty of water, sun block, a hat (for shade), and all her painting supplies — canvases, easel, paints, etc. — into her Nissan Murano with the seats down. “I don’t mind the heat, and I don’t attract bugs,” she says. “I love to be outside. Even if I paint cityscapes, I’m more a country person that a city person.”
She will paint outside in 50-degree weather wearing insulated coveralls. This usually means April through November. On a recent day in February, she was working on an interior painting of the ceiling trusses in the Artworks building.
Some of the challenges she has faced outdoors have been keeping the easel weighted so that wind won’t knock it down. One time, while painting the barn on Route 29, a road crew had taken over her spot as a pull-off for trucks; another time when painting a silo, a train went by and the whoosh of the wind blew the painting right on her. When painting an old corn sweetener plant in Morrisville, with magnificent metal whistle blowers and a rusty holding tank, she wore flip flops while standing on creosote and stained her feet black.
“Oil paint is very forgiving,” she says. “There are no permanent tragedies.”
Outside/Inside, Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Through April 15. Artist’s talk, Thursday, March 8, 7 p.m. Free. 609-921-2663. www.rider.edu/artgallery