I’ll admit I was already intrigued by the fanciful enchantments of Susan Jamison’s work after seeing it shared by several friends on social medial over the last few years. My fascination with the artist bloomed wildly after peeking at her website’s bio, describing her lush, luminous imagery:
Susan Jamison’s feminine iconography spans several media, including painting, drawing, textile based sculpture, and installation, all steeped in ritualistic and mythological associations. She is best known for her intricate egg tempera paintings, which present a mystery cult of florid women who foray into the wild and commune with animal spirit guides or familiars.
But in the end, what endeared this artist and human to me was her warm, generous personality, her gentle humor. Her heartfelt and sometimes funny mentions of her mother on Facebook! Seriously, I’d love to spend an afternoon with both of these women. It was our connection that deepened my appreciation of her work, I think, and deepened my awareness of the beauty and power in her paintings, each time I gaze upon them, anew.
Susan was the very first artist to grant permission for me to include her artwork in The Art of the Occult! And as you can imagine, that binds both the artist and the selected work even more closely to my heart, resulting in an even more rare and special connection.
Naturally then, I am quite pleased that Susan agreed to an interview with me for Unquiet Things! This will kick off a series of interviews with a handful of the contemporary artists featured in The Art of the Occult, so you can look forward to more insight and commentary from these visionary creatives over the next few months. For now then, let’s chat about connections, creativity, and crystals with Susan Jamison.
What do you see as the creative mission of your work?
Connection, connection, connection! Ultimately, I hope viewers see themselves in my paintings and identify with a shared story. I want people to feel our sacred connection with animals and the natural world through my images. The animals create tangible entry points to my work, even for children. I’ve seen little ones walk up to my paintings, point and say “bear.” To me that’s enough, for them to indicate they relate to and delight in that animal. Adults might associate more complex stories or myths, both personal and cultural with that same bear adding another layer of meaning and association. A man was looking at my painting, “Power Bear” which is an image of a woman curled up in fetal position inside a goofy bear. He told me he saw the bear as himself and the woman was his feminine side hidden within. I love that interpretation. Perhaps folks will somehow be activated or at least made curious when viewing images of sacred geometry like in my painting “Under the Rose” that you included in your book The Art of the Occult. This painting depicts the flower of life along with roses and stones being artfully and intentionally arranged by a woman’s hand in a crystal grid. Sacred geometry reveals the reoccurring patterns in nature, in life, it is the geometry of connective energy.
Upon seeing my paintings of Divine Feminine figures I hope viewers can imagine, for example, being showered with love and rose petals. Maybe imagining this feeling can help us open up to these feminine energies within ourselves. People always want to hear my stories about my work but I also love hearing theirs. It’s all about honoring our connections.
Can you recall some of your earliest memories of when you began to identify as an artist?
I was born knowing I am a visual artist. I draw, I paint, I make things. I learned the words for it later but I always knew. My mother still has a little book I made when I was in the first grade, “A Book About Me.” In it I drew myself painting on the page pre-labeled “How I grow” and I wrote about being an artist. I’ve often thought I came into the world knowing I’m an artist because this is such a challenging path to follow. I might not have pursued it if I wasn’t so sure I was supposed to. I know this is part of my sacred contract.
My first introduction to your work was with your Spiderweb series, with messages/directives revealed in the lacy webwork, such as “see me,” “touch me,” and “note to self”. Can you share what inspired these beautiful pieces with their stylistic missives? And as part of that, if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to hear more about your relationship to nature’s mythic little weaver.
The spiderweb paintings were inspired by my favorite childhood book Charlotte’s Web. I loved the manner in which the animals are anthropomorphized in order for us to relate to and spy into their world. Wilber the pig bonds with Charlotte the spider after being rejected by the other animals. She weaves messages into her webs that save Wilber from being sent to slaughter. Although Wilber is spared, Charlotte, having a short natural lifespan, does not escape death, but she leaves behind her egg sack showing us that the cycle of life continues. The spiderwebs are a veil between the world of the living and the afterlife although I’m sure I didn’t see this as a child.
My spiderweb paintings are imaginings of what the spider Charlotte might want to message to an adult Fern, or to you and me really. My favorite of this series repeats the pleading words “Believe in me, please believe in me,” in a bit of a twist, the title of that painting is “Note to Self.” I have long used lace as a motif in my work as an homage to needlecraft or “women’s work” so I continued that in this series.
Garden spiders, specifically the yellow and black orb weaver, Argiope aurantia also appear in many of my works. I see these spiders as symbolic of feminine creation as they weave their delicate lacy webs. My love of garden spiders goes back to my childhood when I would take nature walks with my mother. We would search for wildflowers, plants, animals, birds, insects, and crawling things, and identify them in nature guides. We would discuss the mythical significance or symbolism of their appearance in our path. I remember coming across huge orb webs soaked and heavy with morning dew. They looked so magical. Surely this must be a sign of something special. I learned from a young age to respect nature and associate the viewing of it with deeper sacred and allegorical meaning. The influence of those nature walks, the guidebooks, and nature illustration is quite evident in my paintings.
Your art appears deeply rooted in the sacred feminine, the divine mother/s. Can you trace back to a source for your fascination with imagery of the feminine divine?
As a child I spent an enormous time in nature. I was born in Connecticut on the night of a blackout on the northeast coast. My family moved to Indiana where I lived until age 11. My father purchased 40 acres of heavily wooded land in the southern part of Indiana where we would go and live without electricity or running water like crazy wilderness people over weekends and summers. The woods, banks of moss, streams, and a small lake were my playground. I grew up feeling very connected to nature. I understood myself as a part of it really.
Being Catholic, my mother would always make sure we went to church on Sunday and I felt uncomfortable and confined in an orderly church space. The newer church buildings where we attended mass in didn’t have any of the cool, often grotesque statues, paintings, or stained glass windows that older Catholic churches have. There was nothing I could relate to or look at so I would just go inside myself. My connection to source was in the in the forest among the trees, animals, and wildflowers. Here I found my entry into a spirituality rooted in female power. Even children know the Earth is a mother. My artwork has long had this subject at its foundation, over the years I’ve painted so many naked ladies alongside animals, pointing to our sacred union with Mother Nature, the Earth.
How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
My spiritual life and my creative life are intricately woven together. I’ll tell you a secret, my images come to me in visions. I see a very clear picture in my head and then I paint what I see in egg tempera, a kind of paint I make from egg yolk and dry pigment. I’ve had these clear visions for about 15 years. It seems like the visions are both from me and from outside of me at the same time even though that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Do they come from my higher self, a spirit guide, source, is all that the same thing? I have committed to just accept them as a gift and do the work. Someone with an academic background like mine feels uncomfortable discussing these things. People with fancy degrees like to feel like we are all scholarly and in control. I had to give that up. Very often I do not know what a painting is really telling me until it’s finished and I look at it or maybe even until time passes.
In 2017 I saw images of the crystal grids and the sacred geometry. This seemed odd at the time because I didn’t really know much about crystals but I did some research and I made the paintings anyway. While I was working on that series at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a residency center, I went into town with another artist and we stopped a a liquor store. The lady on duty looked at the necklace I was wearing, a silver hand on a chain and she said in a distinctly Southern but someone cryptic way “Honey, you need to go to Stones N’ Bones…STONES N’ BONES!” I told her I certainly would. When we got back I looked it up on the webs. It’s a rock and crystal shop. I had been painting the crystals from photos but the next day I went over and I bought some, maybe even a lot of…Stones N’ Bones, well the shiny stones anyway. A few days later the curator of a big corporate collection came to visit the residency center. I told her I was working on some weird crystal grid paintings and I started trying to explain them. She knew exactly what the grids were and later purchased two of them for a meditation room she was putting together for her workplace. None of this is earth shaking, it’s just a little string of odd synchronicities.
In 2018 I started actually hearing a message, “Depict the Divine Feminine. It’s time for her return.” Um, what? I had to do some searches online to see what this might mean. Who exactly was returning? As I mentioned, I was raised in the Catholic church and although this religious practice is not for me I looked for her there anyway. Of course, the Goddess is hidden for safe keeping as The mother Mary, as Mary Magdalene the partner and most beloved follower, and within the symbolism and structure of the rosary. The patriarchy can try to eradicate her but her people never let go of her even if she is diminished, hidden or has purposefully laid dormant. Ultimately we must have balance between masculine and feminine energies. Coming soon to a heart near you, it’s the Divine Feminine.
I had visions of two horses in 2019. The first was of a black horse running at night with red roses around its neck. I titled this painting “Fearless She Is.” This was closely followed by a white horse on a white background with a garland of pink roses running under a rainbow. This horse’s feet are tied with red strings that she is breaking loose from. The second painting is titled “I Will Always Love You” and it’s hanging above my couch helping me get through the pandemic. I think these paintings are about moving through this time of radical change and restructuring. Oddly enough, the white horse painting is the only piece of art my cat Sophie has ever really spent time looking at. She looks at it quite a lot. I wonder if she knows what a horse is?
Honestly, life is much weirder than I thought it would be.
Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to create? Any rituals or practices?
I have to clean first.
I have to be in a positive, peaceful mindset to work because I believe that my energy transfers to the physical object I am making. This can mean meditation, walks in the woods, diffusing essential oils, burning frankincense, or a combination of those things.
I always listen to music when I work.
The physical process of making my paintings is for the most part, a very controlled ritual. I start by making what is called a cartoon, a full size drawing of the image on tracing paper, then I transfer the drawing to a pristine white panel. I make my own egg tempera paint. Cracking the egg and separating the yolk from the white always feels solemn as I’m handling the stuff that life can be made from. I use free range chicken eggs, not for the darker yolks as these are less desirable for my purpose, but for the greater chance of decent life for the chicken. I mix the yolk with water and a small amount of dry pigment to make the egg tempera. It seems like an almost alchemical process. The first layers of paint that I put down are fairly loose. I look at this stage of the painting and I’m pretty convinced that it’s complete crap and I have no idea what I’m doing. After that first layer cures for a day or so, I use mostly small brushes and tiny hatching strokes to refine the painting, layering and layering. The painting starts to match my vision and I become reassured that somehow I’ve remembered how to create an image. It’s like a mini miracle every time I make a new painting and realize I can do it again. The action of laying down all these tiny brushstrokes is very meditative so that in itself is part of the energy infusing ritual.
There is much in the way of visions of an enchanted world in your art, inspired in part, I believe by the fauna and flora native to your region in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d love to hear more about some of your favorite local places and spaces in that vein, and how aspects of those spots find their way on to your canvas.
This is the place where most of the chapters of my hero’s journey have taken place so far. I first moved to southwest Virginia after finishing my MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. I had no plan other than staying with my parents at their lake house for a while to regroup. I felt really lonely and depressed. Late one night I heard a scratching noise at the screen door. In homage to all horror movies, I went to the door to see what it was. A gorgeous Luna Moth had come to visit me. This was the first one I had ever seen in person. It’s a symbol of renewal. The next morning I looked outside and saw a huge prehistoric bird on the dock. It was a Great Blue Heron, symbolic of self-reliance. It was time to get out of the basement and start my life up again. In fact my father did say something like get a job and move the hell out of here. So I did that.
In another chapter of my life here I was married and we owned a home on the side of the little mountain here in my city. The house was on three city lots. I had a huge garden, beehives, and all kinds of wild animals visited me there. At one point I said I felt like Snow White surrounded by all those animals. On other fronts I felt alienated and I was literally beaten down. Even after that chapter ended the joyful feeling of being in the company of my faithful animal friends remained and that started to fuel my artwork. It took me a very long time to feel at home in this region, a place where not many people come or go and locals stick with each other and are suspicious of outsiders. Aside from all that it was difficult to make a strategy to be a serious artist in a non-art center. Again, nature was my entry point to creating a feeling of belonging for myself. The Blue Ridge Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world, estimated to be around one billion years old. The energy of these mountains is very grounding for me. It’s almost like they whisper to me “You are safe here. No matter what happens, we will guard you.” I believe them.
The Appalachian Trail, affectionally known at the AT runs very close to the city I live in. I often hike on sections of it. My very favorite spot to hike however is about an hour away. It’s a trail that leads to a waterfall simply called The Cascades. It runs just to the side of a river and I’ve been there in all seasons and all kinds of weather including rain and snow. This energy of this place feels intensely magical to me. If fairies and hobbits live anywhere, it is here. I think what transfers to my work about this place is less the specific images of it, and more the spirit of it. When I’m there, I feel giddy like a little child, or maybe even like the double rainbow guy (may he rest in rainbow power.)
The place I walk most frequently lately is a woodsy trail in my neighborhood close to my apartment. It’s not particularly long or strenuous, it’s just a close by place to touch a lot of trees or maybe sit on a big rock. I’ve been working on a commission for someone who wanted a large painting with a woman, a tree, and a white deer. It took me quite a while to receive a vision for this request. I was walking on this trail and I ventured off to check out a stream bed. I looked up and I saw an old tree that had a huge opening in the trunk that looked very much like a vulva. The vision for my painting was right there, the woman was stepping out of the vulva tree and laying her hands on the head of a white deer.
Of course no accounting of local places would be complete without mentioning the switchback trail that transverses our own Mill Mountain which I can see right out my back windows. This trail leads up to an 88.5 foot tall neon star near the top of the mountain. I have walked up this trail to the star countless times. There is an observation deck of sorts in front of the star with a photo identifying all the mountain peaks surrounding our valley which you can see from that spot. The other thing up on the mountain is our local zoo, home to three red wolves that are in a conservation program for critically endangered animals. I will probably never paint the star but I have painted the wolves.
I’m delighted to see that you create in other mediums as well! Aside from painting and illustration, you have a series of 3D installations/mixed media pieces incorporating various textiles, bone china cups, leather gloves, etc. Among my favorites are “crying collar” and “tea with mother.” What can you share about these works?
… and I’m curious as to where, among the mediums that you work within, do you find your true heart?
I’ve always enjoyed making weird little things and I seem to have the dexterity to do it well enough. When I was a kid I would draw and paint, but I would also sew doll clothing, build dollhouse furniture, and make odd miniature dioramas. For me the playful making of weird things never stopped but I didn’t really think about these objects as artworks.
In 2012 while I was preparing for a solo exhibition of paintings, I received a rare studio visit from a Parisienne artist, Anne Ferrer, who noticed the three dimensional objects around my space. With her petite frame and playful French accent, Anne excitedly moved through my studio picking things up and declaring “This is a piece, this is a piece!” She affirmed for me that the object making I had been engaging in was valid and it had potential to develop into a rich and complex body of work than could complement my paintings. Her encouraging words made me realize that in my desire to build a cohesive body of work, I had put myself in a box labeled “painter” and had become too specific in my focus not allowing myself to fully reach my potential. Because of her encouragement I began making sculptural work and creating installation projects using crafting techniques such as sewing and embroidery. As in my paintings, women’s bodies, references to the body, and our connection to nature are prominent themes. This sculptural work feeds my painting practice in positive and unexpected ways and I have been able to exhibit this work alongside my paintings. I now consider myself to be a multidisciplinary artist, with my feminine iconography spanning work in painting, drawing, textile based sculpture, and installation, all steeped in ritualistic and mythological associations.
I have a couple paintings to finish but after that, I am going to get back to a sculptural project that I’ve been working on titled “The Mother.” There are some images of her in progress on my Instagram. She is a life scale figure made of wool felt. Her belly is hollow and lined in red velvet. There will be cords coming out of the opening with various plants and animals attached. This project strongly weaves the thematic threads of my two and three-dimensional work together. She is a Mother Earth figure birthing all kinds of life. I’m hoping “The Mother” will be finished in early 2021. I kind of need her here. Although I’m more known for my paintings, if you ask my true heart, it is called to make whatever my visions present, however I am able. I hope these things I make form connections between us and move us to love and connect with our Mother Earth.