My artist friend Jim Leatham has, for the past two years, had an oil painting class at his studio in Sister Bay. I visit with Jim sometimes painting in his studio and am always interested in seeing the work of his students. Susan Reynolds-Smith, one of his students, has work that essentially has shown a different vision and a consistently interesting view of her subjects. Several weeks ago I had a chance to see some of her completed paintings and I thought our readers would enjoy seeing her work and learning how she, with her family, came back to Door County. Her email address is [email protected] and you can see her work this summer at the Ephraim Clayworks gallery.
Randy Rasmussen (RR): Where were you born and raised?
Susan Reynolds-Smith (SRS): I grew up in Fox Point, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee.
RR: I know we talked about the current importance to you of fine arts. What do you remember about your first exposure to the arts?
SRS: From my earliest recollection I remember being exposed to classical music, opera, ballet and art museums. Growing up we attended the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center when it first opened and I clearly remember how important the PAC was to my parents.
RR: Did your family nurture your interest in the fine arts?
SRS: I attended parochial schools growing up, none of which emphasized art. My parents, knowing my keen interest in art, enrolled me in an art class at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. I still remember the first class where it was all theory and I simply wanted to go and create.
RR: What do you remember about coming to Door County as a child?
SRS: Actually I don’t remember ever not coming to Door County. We spent summers and holidays here beginning in the late ‘60s. I learned to sail and cross-country ski and to appreciate the unmatched beauty of the area. I continued the tradition with my family and we were fortunate to retire here. We are now full-time residents of Door County living in Ephraim.
RR: I know one of your jobs was minding the gallery for Pam Berns on the Anderson Dock in Ephraim.
SRS: That was one of my first jobs. With that experience I became familiar with the names and work of many well-known Door County artists. It was on-the-job art education as I learned to recognize different techniques and mediums. I think that job helped me develop a lifelong appreciation of art.
RR: I know in your home you have some pieces done by some of Door County’s most well known artists. What was it like sitting for Phil Austin?
SRS: In 1977 Phyllis Ingwersen asked me to sit for her husband James Ingwersen and his group of artists. Phil Austin was in that group along with American artist Leo Neufeld (now living and painting in New Mexico). I am thrilled to have both those portraits. The portrait done by James was lost in his barn fire. At that age I felt like a celebrity.
RR: I was impressed learning how you started purchasing original art at an early age.
SRS: My gallery experience taught me that is what you do. In addition to looking at art, you purchase art. At the time I started purchasing art it was surprisingly affordable. I also enjoyed the work of lesser-known artists whose work I felt was collectible and I began purchasing signed prints.
RR: When we discussed painting you mentioned an ongoing need to create and your love of color. Can you tell our readers some of the jobs you had that allowed you to express yourself?
SRS: I have always been attracted to color in any medium, especially textiles (I have never met a plaid I didn’t like!) After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a BS in business management I became an apparel buyer for May Company department stores and Sears. The direct involvement in product development and design in women’s and juniors’ apparel, choosing colors for a season, and working on site with Asian textile mills fueled the need I had to create. From there I left the workforce to raise my three children and wear the various “crafting” hats of a parent volunteer. I have also been able to keep a hand in my chosen profession by designing and developing merchandise locally for the Ephraim Yacht Club.
RR: Who inspired you to begin painting?
SRS: I was inspired to paint after a European art and architecture tour, first to Florence and with subsequent trips to Vienna, Prague, Paris and Barcelona. With encouragement from my mom, my traveling companion and accomplished artist, I began to paint from favorite photos of our trips. Paris flower markets, the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona and other locations needed to be painted.
RR: When did you start painting with Jim?
SRS: I began painting with local landscape painter Jim Leathem in the fall of 2014. I immediately fell in love with the feel of oil on canvas. As a mentor and art coach, Jim introduced me to painting in the great outdoors. I must admit, it is a struggle to paint outdoors. It is a challenge to handle the almost overwhelming amount of information but I am getting better at getting into the “zone.” We have a small but dedicated group that, weather permitting, goes out to face the challenge on a weekly basis.
RR: Can you tell our readers your current palette and your method of putting color on the canvas?
SRS: My palette tends to be organic. A scene as I see it will motivate me to grab two or three tubes of paint and from there, the canvas (and the palette) takes on a life of its own. I don’t think I could get back to where I began color wise and I almost never try. That, for me, is the greatest joy in painting. There is no such thing as outcome management. I have no idea what the end result will be until I get there. Do we stop too soon and go too far?
RR: What are the components of a successful painting?
SRS: If there is a definite answer to that question I don’t have it. Being open and available to change my mind is important to the art critic within me. I went to Europe prepared to see the Impressionists and it was the Post-Impressionists that created excitement.
RR: What do you want to achieve with your painting?
SRS: I am now on a quest to continue my independent study, absorbing all that I can painting side by side with other artists, reading books, studying the works of famous artists, and taking an occasional class. I do not feel that I have arrived at my art too late. My work has been formed by my life’s experiences and I hope the learning curve ahead is high. The discovery process is, for me, its own achievement.