Aritst Susan Valentine fills big works with tiny details
Image courtesy of Susan Valentine
“Peony Drenched,” oil on canvas, 71 inches by 30 inches.
Image courtesy of Susan Valentine
“Queen’s Greens,” oil on canvas, 46.5 inches by 33 inches.
Leverett artist Susan Valentine reaches for a brush in her new studio in the Leverett Crafts and Arts Center. Her painting "Hadley Wedding on the Connecticut" can be seen behind her. Recorder/Trish Crapo
Light streams through the windows of Susan Valentine’s new studio in the Leverett Crafts and Arts Center on a recent afternoon early in June, though the day is hot, the sky steamy and nondescript. Ranged on a long table are tubes of acrylic paint, a tin of solvent and jar after jar of brushes.
Valentine moved into her new studio in April and has been busy getting ready for her first exhibit in the LCAC’s gallery space, which opened June 19 and runs through July 3. She’ll also be holding open studio hours and a raffle to coincide.
Valentine and her daughter painted the walls of the front room a color whose name makes Valentine smile as she says it: “Mushroom Risotto.” That room will serve as a small gallery with paintings hung salon style in rows on the walls. A larger room beyond has built-in racks to store paintings, some of them quite large, and a large open area for her easel and worktable.
Readers who find that Valentine’s work looks familiar may have seen some of her paintings recently at the Hope & Olive, where a solo show was on exhibit for 12 weeks this spring. Most dramatic was a three-paneled painting of hosta flowers, which, at 9.75 feet long by 5 feet tall, took up most of the restaurant’s back wall.
“The larger size moves people because you feel like you’re in the middle of it,” Valentine says.
“I was kind of on a campaign to have people stop cutting their hosta flowers,” Valentine says of the painting’s subject matter, adding that most people assume, at first, that the flower in the triptych is a lily.
“People grow hostas for their foliage and they think that the flowers are trash but if you get in there, that’s what they look like,” she says.
“Getting in there” is what Valentine likes to do. The perspective of some of her paintings gets so close that, while her subjects are still recognizable as flowers, the composition becomes abstract.
“When you’re painting, it’s all abstract,” Valentine said. “Well, when I’m painting, because I am into the minutiae of it. You don’t paint the image, really, you paint the little things that make up an image.”
Valentine learned to paint by taking classes through Greenfield Community College’s art program, beginning in 2010.
“There are times I think, ‘Why didn’t I start this earlier?’” Valentine, about to turn 60 at the end of the month, says, gesturing at the paintings on the walls. “Then I think, ‘You did start earlier, you just didn’t have a paintbrush in your hand.’”
Valentine began her creative journey behind a camera; she has been photographing since her early twenties. When Photoshop came along, she experimented with altering her photos using the design program’s paintbrush and smudge tools.
“It didn’t occur to me for the longest time to actually paint,” she said.
Much of Valentine’s compositional work still happens first through the camera’s lens. Throughout the year, she is always photographing images that draw her in. To begin a painting, she’ll project an image onto canvas and map it out in graphite.
“I’ll do an under-painting that, for the most part, will map out the darks and the lights. So those are fun, big strokes,” Valentine says. “But pretty soon it gets into smaller details. It doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.”
It can take weeks for Valentine to complete a large painting.
Valentine, a resident of Leverett, teaches yoga at The Hadley Yoga Studio on Russell Street in Hadley and offers graphic design services in addition to concentrating on her painting. Until recently, she was still cutting hair, which she’s done since she was 19. Yet, even with everything else going on, Valentine says she paints five days a week, taking two off to give herself a chance to recharge.
The canvas up on her easel, “Hadley Wedding on the Connecticut,” a large 48-inch-by-30-inch landscape that shows two women talking in the white folding chairs left out after a wedding, departs from Valentine’s usual process in that it is based on a photograph by Greenfield photographer Matthew Cavanaugh. Valentine had been drawn to the image when one of her yoga students showed her photographs of a wedding, she said. Valentine has been posting images of the canvas at the end of each painting session, giving viewers a rare look at her process. The easiest way to access the slideshow is through her fine art website: susanvalentineart.com. Then, look for the “Works in Progress” link.
Lately, Valentine says she’s been concentrating on the dark river beyond the sunnier foregrounded scene where the two women are seated.
“I’m trying to get some definition in what’s going on on the bank and what’s going on in the back foliage, and what’s going on in the reflection and then wash it back with something transparent to really push it into the background,” Valentine says.
It’s clear she’s eager to get to work. She’s already setting out paints, picking up brushes, ready to begin.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.