It may not be obvious what a garter, a spool of thread, yellow lace, old keys, feathers, antique sheet music and cowry shells all have in common, but once inside Suesan Stovall’s garage-converted art studio, it becomes clear.
Crossing the threshold of the unassuming Oak Bluffs garage, known as the Groovy Sue Gallery, one steps into a space that both transports and transforms. The studio’s décor alone, comprised of antique furniture, old suitcases, a paint-chipped barn door, and a 1980s boom box covered in stickers, is an indicator of what one will find in her artwork.
“This is really an aesthetic of what I would decorate with,” she said. “These are things I would love to look at in my own house.”
Each piece is thoughtful and packed with meaning (hers and yours). “I found myself digging through the past. It was an aesthetic I was drawn to. I wanted those things in my own house, on my walls, in my own space. So now they started finding their way into my pieces. But I felt like they were telling a story, too.”
Ms. Stovall’s current show, The Art and Soul of Suesan Stovall, runs through Columbus Day, Oct. 14, at the Groovy Sue Gallery, located at 9 Spruce street in Oak Bluffs.
A common theme of her work is remembrance. She often documents the past, from an old building being torn down to African American slavery to Native American land displacement.
“I do a lot of work with African American ancestral stuff, photographs and whatever,” she said. “I was aware of what black people went through in this country, and these images started coming to me, and I just felt passionate about them and I wanted to show them. The beauty of who these people were, against the backdrop of the struggle, too.”
One piece called Behold, A Sacred Voice Is Calling is made up of an historical photograph of a Native American man looking pensively at two teepees amidst a broad landscape. The photograph was obtained from old encyclopedias.
“Every Columbus Day I put out a piece to remind people who was here first.”
Although Ms. Stovall began her artistic journey as an offshoot of how she liked to decorate, it was also born of a practical need to pay the bills while she was pursuing an acting and singing career in Los Angeles, and trying to make ends meet with temp jobs. She would design magnets and little pin box collages that she carried around in a wooden box.
“I would just open it up and sell a five dollar magnet. It became a thing. I noticed that people really reacted to what was going on in these little boxes. The idea of clocking in every day made me sick, so I would just open my box. I wasn’t thinking of it as art. It was a way to not have a job.”
Inspired by the Haitian altar art that was displayed in the gallery where she was working, as well as by a bad break-up that sent her on a therapy art binge, she created a number of pieces which a friend encouraged her to show. She was eventually given a show at her employer’s gallery, and subsequently sold out, which allowed her to quit her job.
“I have my own way of getting into my spirit and my own truth, but there’s a common thread, because everyone’s breathing at the same time,” Ms. Stovall said. “I happen to connect to the source of that breathing because through that quietness or that connection I hear all kinds of things that lead me to the images that show up. I feel like I’m an advocate for the invisible — to make the invisible visible. But the invisible is very loud.”
She describes the process of putting together found objects representing the past and present as very therapeutic.
“I didn’t study this stuff, I just let it out. When I’m going through whatever I’m going though, I can glue stuff, I can cut stuff. The process is therapeutic for me to just do it. It’s getting what’s in my brain out, and then letting it go. I’ve worked in a closet before, or wherever’s available, as long as I have some scissors, some Mod Podge and a couple of tubes of paint. I have a callous on my finger from years of scissors!”
Ms. Stovall hopes to take this work into prisons at some point for the therapeutic element it holds. “I’m not sure if scissors will be allowed, though,” she said. The materials she uses seem to make their way to her at just the right time, she said. Old photographs, of course, as well as silk flowers, block letters and anything she can think of as she peruses flea markets, estate sales and even garbage bins. “I was always drawn to photographs. I started wearing vintage clothes when I was 12, and started going to flea markets where I saw old photos. I wasn’t running around looking for these photographs, I was just attracted to them. Then I started being attracted to dumpsters!”
Some of the pieces at the current show include Angel Gabriel, comprised of an old photo of a man in blackface holding a big red heart with the words “Help is on the way.” The photograph is set against sheet music of the song with the same title. Another piece is entitled Sunday Morning, and is comprised of a large pink picture frame with a vintage photo of an African American woman surrounded by pasted flowers and painted butterflies. Another is Reverie, which is an old photo of a Caucasian woman, surrounded by a French quote, buttons and lace, all set on a bamboo tray.
“I’m a mixed race person, and I’m opposed to the word mulatto,” Ms. Stovall said. “Every show I do, I have a piece called ‘I Am Not A Mule,’” This current piece involves a zebra standing next to this text.
Ms. Stovall said she may take a hiatus from her art in the near future as she resurrects her interest in singing soul music, as well as a potential one-woman show involving comic storytelling. She’s been researching both, and is excited to see where this next chapter takes her.
The Art and Soul of Suesan Stovall is open through Columbus Day, Oct. 14 at 9 Spruce street in Oak Bluffs. The gallery is open daily between 2 and 6 p.m. or by appointment. Call 323-842-1076.