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Beauty from broken bits

By Susan Whelihan

In high school, though I had typically enjoyed math, I was struggling with trigonometry early in my senior year and made the happy decision to switch to art class. I loved it and remember receiving honorable mention in a poster contest and being commissioned to do a drawing for an acquaintance for $8 (a sale is more about validation than it is about the dollar amount).

I entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst undecided regarding a major but took a wonderful art history course that left a strong impression on me. I had a desire to be creative, but not to be a starving artist, so I decided to pursue graphic design and applied to the art program back in my home state at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). All creative majors had to begin in the same first-year Art Foundation program, where we learned basic concepts and techniques for various forms of fine art (drawing with graphite pencil, charcoal, and colored pencils; painting; and sculpture). After that, I was accepted into the Communication Arts and Design program of VCU (which included various computer art programs, photography, illustration, video, and almost every form of animation that exists, as animation was my focus in the end)--and fine art became more of a leisure-time activity.

When I was a teenager, I liked to use found objects like wood scraps and cardboard, glue them together, and paint on them--inspired by a film about Julian Schnabel that I saw at the Smithsonian's Hirschorn Museum--which likely had an influence on my future interest in pique assiette, or "broken-plate," mosaics. I like using things that are just around and don't have much use or appeal on their own, the way some cooks like the challenge of being creative with whatever's in the fridge--in both cases, minimizing wastefulness.

I became interested in the mosaic format when I was living in the East Village/Alphabet City area of New York City, which has a lot of creative energy and also a ton of dirt and noise. I found myself needing to focus on spots of beauty to help overcome the stress the city can bring on. For example, I had never cared much about plants, but I became obsessed with them after a couple years in the city (I worked at the Union Square farmer's market and took classes at the Bronx Botanical Garden before ultimately fleeing the city and my graphic design career to become a fulltime landscaper in Nantucket). In my neighborhood, there were these chunky pieces of broken pottery attached to a bunch of the municipal posts, and I gawked at them whenever I was near--they made me happy, it was inspiring, and I decided I wanted to make mosaics one day.

On Nantucket, I landscaped with a woman who had just taken up decorating pots with mosaics. She taught me her technique, and I took it from there, eventually establishing my own style of creating wall art that serves more like a painting than anything else, with the pieces of broken pottery used like dabs of paint. I like the medium because it involves taking something that would otherwise be useless trash and making it into something appealing (reduce, reuse, and recycle!).

In a similar vein, my proudest artistic achievement was a 2006 "Wetlands to the Wall" fundraising exhibit. I was awarded a grant and recruited 17 artists to volunteer to make art from beach trash. The project, which was funded by the Nantucket Arts Council and the Nantucket Land Council, raised $2,000 for conservation land preservation in a silent auction event that I also organized.

I appreciate the fact that I get to do a lot of creative graphics work in my job with the Friends of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, in particular for the Prouty. I get to explore concepts with a freedom that I really enjoy, such as in art directing the 2011 Prouty t-shirt; 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of the Prouty, so I combined elements of many past Prouty t-shirts in a very whimsical way. In general, however, I like to keep my fine art and work art separate--for me, it's very important to have time when I'm just being myself and not representing an organization. It allows me the respite I need to then be able to represent the Friends and its very important cause, which I do believe in strongly, with the focus and determination that it deserves.

My favorite artist is Hundertwasser. I love his two-dimensional images, and especially his architecture, which is focused on making manmade structures and natural landscapes more integrated--kind of a feng shui-like concept. Plus, like the municipal posts I saw in New York, he added tiles and other decorations to preexisting, ugly factories to create beauty where it was previously lacking, for the good of the people.

So life is not always pretty, but the things you chose to look at and surround yourself with can be. I like creating a new or exaggerated perspective that helps me (and hopefully other viewers) to see something a bit more interesting or different, that helps brighten our surroundings, or that offers a sense of escape or distance from the complexities and doldrums often present in reality.

Current Exhibitions

Robert Foster Fine Art, Nantucket, Mass., 2011
Joyce and Seward Johnson Gallery, Nantucket, Mass., 2004-present
Leslie Linsley, Nantucket and Boston, Mass., 2004-present
Foods For Here and There, Nantucket, Mass., 2006-present

Past Exhibitions

ArtisTree Gallery, Mud Season Exhibit, Woodstock, Vt., 2011
Justin Morrill Homestead, Cycles of Life Exhibit, Strafford, Vt., 2010
The Gilded Edge, Hanover, N.H., 2008-2010
Joyce and Seward Johnson Gallery, Nantucket, Mass., 2004-present
Nantucket Memorial Airport, Nantucket, Mass., 2005-2009
Justin Morrill Homestead, featured artist, open studio weekend, Strafford, Vt., 2008
Strafford Artworks, group craft show, Barett Hall, South Strafford, Vt., 2007
Curator, "From the Wetlands to the Wall," Joyce and Seward Johnson Gallery, Nantucket, Mass., 2006
"Art Show: Bedford," honorable mention in annual juried exhibit, Bedford, N.Y., November 2006
"For the Love of the Land," juried exhibit, Brigham Galleries, September 2006
Field of Dreams Gallery, solo exhibition, Old South Wharf, Nantucket, Mass., 2006
"Made on Nantucket," group shows, Nantucket, Mass., 2004-2005
Curator, "Black and White Show," AAN Gallery, Nantucket, Mass., 2006
"Nantucket In SoHo," featured artist, Studio Dimocida, New York, N.Y., 2004
"Turn of the Century Fine Arts," group show, Berkeley, Calif., 2003
Amy's Cafe, solo exhibition, Richmond, Va., 1995
Anderson Gallery, annual juried show, Richmond, Va., 1995

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