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Sharpie Queen

Suzanne Conway’s art starts with a strong line

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway<br/>The Big E in Springfield is one of Suzanne Conway’s favorite places to draw.

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
    The Big E in Springfield is one of Suzanne Conway’s favorite places to draw.

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

    Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway

  • Suzanne Conway in her Colrain home.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Suzanne Conway in her Colrain home. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway<br/>The Big E in Springfield is one of Suzanne Conway’s favorite places to draw.
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Image courtesy of Suzanne Conway
  • Suzanne Conway in her Colrain home.  Recorder/Paul Franz

F or Degas it was pastel. For Rodin, it was stone. But for Suzanne Conway of Colrain, the humble Sharpie is the tool of choice: A simple, felt marker yielding up a bright swoosh of color, in whatever thickness you could want.

In Conway’s experienced hands, those markers can whip up a crowded sidewalk cafe, the Big E midway, depict famous works of art in comic book format, or create children’s book characters — such as “Crowing Poodle on Fence.”

Movement, expression, surprise and humor characterize Conway’s work, but once you see her sketches and paintings, the biggest surprise is that she isn’t more famous.

“My goal now is to be seen,” she says. “The body of work is not a problem.”

Take Conway’s “Court House characters.” These are sketches of people waiting on the benches of the old Franklin County courthouse — some bored, some with heads buried in books or newspapers. A rumpled couple, sitting on a bench, curve in toward each other, deep in intimate conversation.

Conway was sketching while passing the time as she waited for a traffic ticket hearing. The people who saw her drawing probably thought she was just doodling.

“Art is about responding,” says Conway. “I like to just draw and respond, as I look at people and their movement.”

Conway’s work is on display in McCusker’s Market through May. An artist’s reception at McCusker’s is set for Saturday, April 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. She will also be at McCuskers for a “Meet the Artist” event during the Shelburne Falls Art Walk on Saturday, May 3, from 4 to 7 p.m.

Looking at one of Conway’s “crowd scenes” is about as close to people-watching as you can get: Whether the drawing is a night scene from New Orlean’s French Quarter or a hair salon inspired by a visit to the Franklin County Technical School’s cosmetology department. What you see are subsets of people entrenched in their own little dramas, apart from the scene as a whole.

A constant sketcher, Conway’s work is reminiscent of the Mort Drucker style of drawings in Mad Magazine during its heyday.

Many of the images “begin as quick scribbles in which I am out and about somewhere with a Sharpie marker and lots of paper on hand,” she says on her website, suzanneconway.com. “When I see a character or a scene filled with characters that inspires me, I draw as much information in as many sketches as possible at that time.”

Conway has illustrated a children’s picture book, called “The Crowing Poodle,” and created a line of greeting cards, from her “Fine Art” series of drawings modeled after famous artworks. She has also designed restaurant menus and CD cover art for a children’s album, “Fun Songs for Healthy Kids,” and has displayed her drawings in several places, including Mocha Maya’s in Shelburne Falls, Green Fields Market and Simon Stamps in Greenfield. She has also participated in the annual “Crafts of Colrain” tours and produced “Snorkel Lesson,” a mural commissioned by the Community YMCA of Greenfield.

Conway grew up in Agawam, in a family of 11 children. She now lives in Colrain with her husband, Paul Lagreze, and their son, Oliver.

“When I was a kid, comic books were not allowed,” said Conway. “But my big brother, Dennis, did have this big stack of Mad Magazines. What I really liked the most were those scenes with crowds. Those guys were just brilliant. So fun.

“Dad was a lawyer and I think he saw me as a lawyer, too.” Four of Conway’s brothers, in fact, became lawyers.

But Conway says her father was also “a weekend artist” — an artist whose career choice upset his own mother. “Grandmother was disappointed he became a lawyer,” she said.

“Dad taught me how to oil paint when I was 5,” says Conway. She said her father gave her a scrap of wood to paint on. She painted ballerinas on it and still has that painting today.

“My dad, who was an attorney, spent hours with me in our cellar among newspapers and turpentine, as he taught me how to mix oil colors and paint on plywood or masonite. Sometimes he’d share his artistic humor with me by whipping up line drawings from the ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket onto some nearby scraps of paper. He could quickly doodle creatures such as birds wearing over-sized sneakers, or little old men chewing on corn cob pipes. But like many ‘weekend artists’ of his generation, he seemed to regard painting as the more ‘serious’ art form, one that was worthy of his time and self-discipline, while on the other hand, dismissing his own richly humorous cartoons like so many of the jokes or verbal banter he shared with his children,” Conway says.

“My dad loved my stuff,” she added.

Years later, Conway rediscovered her love for drawing when she transferred to Mount Holyoke College to earn a degree in International Relations — not art. But she discovered the college’s art building and began spending a lot of time there, sketching and painting. Art professor Bonnie Miller saw Conway painting, in the middle of the night, looked at her work and said: “You’re not going to be able to get away from this. This is who you are.”

After Mount Holyoke, Conway moved to Boston, where she took night classes at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and worked days as a legal secretary, amusing one of the law partners with her tiny drawings on the edges of Post-it Notes.

“We all, as artists, have different media we work with that fits the form. Pencil has never been enough for me. I feel deprived with a pencil. The Sharpie line is strong, the medium Sharpie.”

“I keep my Sharpie drawings in a little box and turn them into pen-and-ink,” she said.

“Usually, I create a ‘finished’ piece from these marker drawings by tracing them on a light table onto Bristol paper in black pen and ink and then I apply color to them with watercolor, gouche or colored inks,” she said. “My husband prefers my original Sharpie drafts over the pen-and-ink or paints. It’s my most instantaneous response.

“I draw every day. I don’t even like to use cameras. I like to just draw and respond as I look at people and their movement,” Conway said.

One of her favorite subjects is The Big E in Springfield. “At the Big E, there are food stands and people stop to get their fried dough. So I have a few moments (to draw them). I get larger movements, with poses. If they’ve moved on, it will come out of my head,” she said.

“That’s why I enjoy going to the Big E so often — because there’s a whole panorama of humans.”

When asked if all her characters are drawn true-to-life, she replied: “Some of it is them, but some of it is me. I’ll finish them in my head. If something is very engaging for me to look at, my lines do have more energy — because I’m very interested.”

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at The Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes west county. She can be reached at: dbronc@recorder.com or: 413-772-0261, ext. 277.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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