Every Tuesday for the duration of Waterloo Festival 2020, we'll be meeting an artist who either lives in or is connected to Waterloo. Susan Haire, our guest this week, not only lives and has a studio in Waterloo but was also the curator of 'Nothing Endures but Change', a sculpture exhibition in St John’s churchyard for Waterloo Festival 2018.
I studied sculpture but a year into being a post-graduate at the RA Schools I switched to painting and painted for many years until I was offered a solo show in Peterborough Cathedral (2012). I sat in the nave thinking, I can’t do paintings for this – they will look like postage stamps. Instead I did 18 installations including one, requested by the clergy, reaching over 30m into the tower (1). My studio has been in The Cello Factory, in Waterloo, since 2006. The main space enabled me to make the large installations for Peterborough and conveniently the length of the space corresponded to the width of the cathedral (2). Since then I have made sculpture, photography and video.
Earlier influences were Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation and Georges de La Tour’s candle paintings (3). Dadaism and Duchamp have had a far-reaching effect – anything goes, you make your own rules which you can break and through this, as a painter, chance has been my special friend. It’s involved working on the floor pouring (4), throwing (5) and flicking paint, drawing/squirting with a medicine dropper and hair-drying the paint.
A solo show in response to Pollock’s late painting, Out of the Deep (6), was the inception of years of work focusing on red and white paint that had a visceral quality that seemed to touch on human vulnerability in an unsettling but powerful way. One example of this was the series entitled Mysteries (7) made in response to Biber’s Mystery Sonatas which I listened to the whole time I worked on it. The paintings were an abstract rendering of the Stations of the Cross but with intimations of a writhing body and were shown in three different churches.
I have recently made a great deal of work in response to Leavers (hunter-gatherers) and Takers (us) from Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael (8, 9, 10, 11). I used offerings as one metaphor for Leavers. Another was interconnectedness inspired by both particle physics and Eastern thinking which meet in the Dalai Lama including his book the Universe in a Single Atom (12). This was one of a number of collaborations with NY composer and Chinese guqin player, Stephen Dydo, which started in 2007 and included Reflection in Peterborough Cathedral – his music still features in work I show.
'Prayers to Durga' was made in response to a Hindu Shrine with prayers on rolled up paper tied to a tree. My rolled up paper were hundreds of reminder notes I obsessively write to myself.
11. Link to video, Outcasts’ Graveyard (near London Bridge Station), filmed with the permission of the Bankside Open Spaces Trust
Soundtrack by Andrea Cavallari, Flute Roberto Fabbriciani
Filmed with the permission of the Bankside Open Spaces Trust
This site near London Bridge Station is thought to be an old burial ground for the Winchester Geese, medieval prostitutes (licensed by the Bishops of Winchester) and other outcasts from one of London’s poorest and most violent slums. it held the remains of an estimated 15,000 paupers and is now a shrine dedicated to ‘The outcast dead’.
I have made Leavers’ work from litter I’ve picked-up in the street and put in my pocket while walking around Waterloo (13, 14). I put together composite structures from the bits of litter and then photographed them and manipulated them a lot on the computer, especially using transparency and layering. I was able to blow these small images up into a series of 10 big prints. This work echoes my earlier red and white paintings.
I have kept all kinds of off-cuts and made work with them. Many of the photographs in As Above so Below (15) are of off-cuts of the hangings in the piece. I liked putting parts of the work back into the work – mirroring, Russian Dolls, self-similarity or something out of Borges?
It’s clear from these accompanying images that in all the different media I have worked in I’ve used series and multiples (16, 17) over and over again and it has enabled me to make very large-scale work (paintings up to 7m long) as has my mainly making suspended sculpture.
I have mostly painted a new body of work for each show starting with a theme and a title. One of the hardest things is making the very first painting. I don’t think, I just do it, making a mess and I might make many paintings that are no good until something new arrests me.
And one of the most demanding and difficult things is knowing when a painting is finished. Sometimes one can scrape the paint off or paint out a problem but sometimes one can’t. The theologian Vanstone wrote about creativity in Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense as an example of kenosis, self-emptying. When this is applied to a painting you have ruined or overworked you have to use every last drop of your resources to risk pushing the painting far into the unknown to try precariously to redeem it and the outcome will be triumph or tragedy. When it works something completely new can emerge and one’s direction as an artist can be radically changed by this experience.
In the same way Lorca’s duende is the creative spirit that grabs you by the throat as you grapple with it, like fighting with death on the edge of a precipice.
I haven’t been naturally suited to the necessary isolation of being an artist although I appreciate it a lot more as time goes by. I’ve been a gregarious person and talking to people has been one of my favourite pastimes. This isolation has been balanced by my always having collaborated with composers. Over the years I kept going and kept sane because of collaborative discussions and some of my best memories are of our 5 hour lunches. Music has been very important to me and I was an a capella singer for years specialising in early sacred choral music. I listened to music all the time I painted and at one time I listened to Brumel’s Missa Berzerette Savoyennes all day everyday on repeat for three months.
The magic of painting is that something is made from nothing but when it works the painting looks as if it hasn’t been made by me but it just is and every time I go into the studio and see it again the conviction that it’s right hits me.
It’s things like this that have recently been making me think that I need to go back to painting and the introspection of lockdown is reinforcing this. Although the ideas behind my sculpture and digital work fascinate me the making is very mechanical and repetitive whether it’s sitting at a computer or, for example, tying thousands of knots. I yearn for the autonomy, the intimacy and human-ness of painting, the physicality of handling paint, the deliciousness of mixing colours but also chance, the spontaneity and serendipity, the unpredictable, the wildness and being devoured by it. Writing this blog increases my yearning!
Visit www.instagram.com/susan.m.haire to see my work since 2015. I have joined Instagram and uploaded this work to coincide with the launch of this blog. My work prior to that can be viewed at www.susanhaire.com.
12th May 2020