While regional artist Susan DeConcini says she is not someone who does a good job about talking about her art, she thinks it is “really cool” that she was invited by the Arts Council of Princeton to participate in its monthly virtual conversation series between artists and curators.
DeConcini’s talk with art collector and ACP past president Timothy M. Andrews is set for Tuesday, June 23, at 7 p.m.
She said she was selected in part because it helps preview her exhibition set for late March, 2021, at the council’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts on Witherspoon Street — one that complements her smaller, recent 2019 winter exhibition at the Princeton Public Library.
She says the invitation was basically a call with the questions, “Do you want to talk about your watercolors?
Yet the caller could have also asked if the artist wanted to talk about her painted works using piano and latex, her work using plastered wood and resin, or her 14-year career as a scenic designer painter at McCarter Theater, which began when she showed up with a portfolio a year after she graduated from college.
But watercolor painting is a good place to start.
“A lot of my watercolors are about understanding how to paint things,” she says during a recent interview.
“As a scenic artist I need to be a jack of all trades. So if someone comes to me and says I need clouds, I have to know how to paint clouds. A lot of my watercolors are about learning how to paint things.”
Another watercolor-scenery connection is her approach to painting the surface material.
“Painting on muslin (the fabric used for scenery) is like painting watercolors. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t mess it up. It has to be right.”
Then again, she is ready to talk about that “other stuff.”
In contrast to her bright and lively water and sky images, she produces moody charcoal drawings and works on wood inspired by the faces that seem to emerge from the pieces of wood used at McCarter and found in the discard pile.
There is also her “Piano Series,” works created on the remains of old pianos that had been dismantled for use in a McCarter production.
“I loved the age and history of the pieces,” she says in a statement about them. “They were remnants from several different pianos. I imagined the piano lessons, performances, composing, and general goofing around that likely occurred on them. Instead of just painting anything on the wood, I felt led to pull out some of the essences of the piano, how it makes us feel, the people it makes us think of.”
She adds, “This series explores the faces of some of the great pianists and composers, but also pieces of music themselves, and the keyboard as our connection to the music made.”
Accordingly the viewer will find images of Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, and others as well as musical passages.
Here the artist also bypasses the subtlety of watercolor and uses the high-quality latex scenery paint McCarter uses to render the images.
The resin and piano works “are more about experimentation, while my watercolors are about understanding,” she says.
Living in Lambertville with her husband, Grant Larouere, a prop builder at McCarter, DeConcini originally comes from outside the Camden region and studied theater and art in the Midwest.
She credits her career choice to become a set painter to her mechanic father, Frank DeConcini. “My dad is part of the reason I love theater. He loves live theater. The first show he ever saw was ‘West Side Story’ and he loved it. So it was something we did together. We would go to school plays. We would go to New York to double-header Broadway shows.”
She also credits her father for the way she approaches her work. “Since he owns his machine shop, he has to plan how something will work. I paint the same way.”
To illustrate that point, DeConcini says she researches the subject of a painting so she has “a general idea where it is going to go.”
The research involves sketching — she travels with a notebook — and sometimes photographs, taken by her or public domain images.
For the watercolor paintings of water, she says she applies a base of color, maps the design, and uses a combination of masking and color wash to get the desired effect.
Despite a bachelor’s in theater and scenic design and minor in fine arts, she says she has never had watercolor lessons and calls herself self-taught.
While the majority of her work is connected to nature, like her leaf series, she says she also gets inspiration from looking at online images.
“I’m inspired by hundreds of people working today,” she says.
However, two contemporaries readily come to mind.
“Dinotopia” series illustrator James Gurney is the first. And while she says the “geek” in her likes Gurney’s boldly colored dinosaurs, her real connection comes from observing his technique of using ink drawings with gouache — as shown on his online videos.
The other, Montana sculptor Beth Cavener, attracts her with “sketchy” wild animal works that convey a sense of energy.
Since COVID-19 closed McCarter, DeConcini says she has been spending the time “basically making stuff all day long. I felt for my mental health I had to make something every day.”
Some of her self-generated projects are whimsical. That includes designing a fantasy motif to an indoor aquarium. And there is also making “painted” pasta from scratch. She says she makes the dough, rolls and slices it, and puts a portion in beet juice to color it. Then she arranges the dish with layers of color and herbs and cooks it.
A more serious activity is using her website, where existing and new work can be viewed and purchased (prices range from $35 to $650) with a percentage going to timely causes: the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP legal Defense and Educational Fund.
And then there is the steady work of being an artist and her preparation for next year’s exhibition. “A lot of stuff happens between the summer and March,” she says. “So it’s about inspiration. And right now, it’s painting water.”
In Conversation with Susan DeConcini, Arts Council of Princeton. Tuesday, June 23, 7 to 8 p.m. Free. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.