We had the good fortune of connecting with Susan Arena and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Susan, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
There is no such thing as work/life balance. Anyone who tells you there is is either independently wealthy or out to lunch! I constantly feel pulled between my work as an artist and my other full-time jobs of educator, mother, wife, daughter, friend, homeowner, folder of laundry. I try to remember how incredibly lucky I am to have such a full life and also hold the knowledge of my many forms of privilege. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t long for stretches of uninterrupted time, and think, wouldn’t it be lovely for a solitary retreat! But when I’m away from them for too long, I start missing my family and the cycle starts again. I constantly feel pulled away from my studio practice by the demands of making a living and caring for people in my life. However, I suppose I wouldn’t want it any other way. Messy and deep emotional entanglements are what gives me the content for my best artwork. Being a mother has given me an understanding of deep reservoirs of both pain and joy, and having children makes me better understand all of humanity in a way that I never imagined before I did. I spent my 20’s having exciting adventures: living in Egypt, hanging out with Sufi mystics, riding an old British motorcycle in the Western desert, then living in downtown New York City and going to art school. These experiences all feed my art, but becoming the mother of two children and having the most wonderful husband in the world makes me actually understand what the history of art, music, literature, and religion are all about. But no, there is no life/work balance- there is only EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I make paintings, drawings, and ceramic sculptures that are imaginary representations of people who inspire me. My work is intensely personal and also universal. I refer to art and artists who lived thousands of years ago. I marvel at a broken sculpture of an Egyptian queen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who lived thousands of years ago. She is perfect and yet flawed, dead but electrically alive. In my work, I try to capture some of the fleeting beauty that is all around us, yet constantly clouded by the mundanity of anxiety, fear, desire, and piles of laundry that need to be folded. The trick is to be open to the present moment. In painting that might mean being open to what’s happening in front of me- when something good happens, I respond to it and go with it. But in order to be present, there has to be a plan to get there, even if that plan gets changed in mid-paint. My current work continues my investigations of portraits of people, both dead and alive. For example, I just finished a painting about the poet Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson was a visionary artist, but spent her whole life in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, writing poems in her childhood house. Her poems are about big important life issues like love, death, life’s fragility, and living in the moment. I started the painting with lots of the objects that would have surrounded her in her house- a wooden sleigh bed, small writing table, pink flowered wallpaper. But as I worked on the painting the image got painted over and the painting got focused on Emily and her bare chest. There’s a famous photograph of her, wearing a black, heavy, high- necked Victorian dress, and I thought, what would it be like to see under that dress to her naked breast. Her writing is so exposed, electric, and alive; I find it fascinating that someone with such a seemingly austere outward appearance was such a passionate and deeply unconventional artist on the inside. I’m also endlessly interested and questioning what it means to be female and be an artist and how women never seem to get away from their biological destiny of being judged and considered on their sexuality and outward appearances. I try in my pictures of all people to ever-so-slightly subvert what we think we know about a person and how every person is a mix of contradictions, strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness.
I have a sign in my kitchen that says Accept the Good. I try to do this in my painting and in my life. Because if we’re lucky enough to get to a certain point in life, we experience loss. Death of a friend, a parent’s mind lost to dementia, mental illness in the family. Mostly loss of the illusions that life owes us something good. Life owes us nothing and it’s ungrateful not to appreciate the privilege of getting up every morning, taking a breath, and drinking a cup of coffee. Painting sits on the knife‘s edge of pain, sadness, desperation, and joy. At any moment, something miraculous can happen and be preserved in patterns of color, texture, and line.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Perfect pre- pandemic day in LA (with a focus on my neighborhood Arlington Heights/ West Adams)
Favorite Breakfast/coffee: Highly Likely Surfas
Favorite lunch/dinner: Post and Beam Gus’s Fried Chicken The Grain Cafe Johnny’s Pastrami Mizlala BCD Tofu House, Koreatown Cafe Gratitude, Larchmont
Cocktails: Mandrake, Culver City The Roger Room, West Hollywood Musso and Frank’s, Hollywood
Favorite Museums: The Underground Museum LACMA The Craft Museum The Getty Villa
Favorite weekend Hikes and walks: Kenneth Hahn State Park Beachwood Canyon Fern Dell in Griffith Park The Huntington Gardens
Favorite Stores: Lost and Found in Hollywood Chevalier’s Books on Larchmont The Last Bookstore, Downtown OK on 3rd Tortoise General Store, West LA
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’ve already mentioned the importance of my family in everything I do. There are so many other people- friends, teachers, mentors- who have influenced me and made me who I am, but I would say that what really sustains me and keeps me company on my metaphorical journey are the artist, the writers, the poets I love most. During the pandemic, when I have felt lonely or down, I always find inspiration in looking at an art book, reading a poem, or immersing myself in a novel. An exhaustive list is impossible, but I am indebted to Manet for his late flower paintings, Cezanne for his apples, Goya for his prints, the ancient Romans for their Fayum portraits, Louise Bourgeois for her felt people, Mary Oliver’s poems for their love of nature, J.D. Salinger for “The Catcher In the Rye,” Kiki Smith for her delicate drawings, Betye Saar for her magical boxes and Yayoi Kusama for her dots. These, and countless other artists, living and dead, keep me motivated and hopeful. For even when art is about dark or sad situations, the– sometimes seemingly impossible– act of creation itself is reason for hope and optimism.