Trek Lexington in conversation with Sue Bryan

  1.  Tell us a bit about yourself, both as a person and as an artist. Where did you grow up, and how did you come to choose art as a career?  

I was born and raised in Ireland, and lived there until I moved to New York City in the early 90’s.  I worked in the Irish Consulate for a few years until I had my two children. I have an abiding memory of my own mother always being there for me when I was a child, so I feel very fortunate that I was able to stay at home with my two when they came along. My mother was raised on a farm in the midlands of Ireland and I grew up listening to very evocative stories of her childhood. From an early age, she instilled an understanding in me of her father’s deep connection to the land, which has stayed with me. My love of drawing is something that has always run alongside everything else in my life. I have no formal training to speak of. I took classes at night for a year or so in the School of Visual Arts, but I find that I work better independently. I enjoy working things out for myself, more error than trial a lot of the time, but that’s what I love about the process. I worked in pen and ink and watercolor for many years, but I think that the turning point for me, in terms of how seriously I took my art, or how all-consuming it became, was when I started to work exclusively with charcoal about seven years ago. Most of the landscape drawings I did initially were of places that had a deep personal association for me. A lot of them were drawings of my mother’s birthplace – an attempt to reconnect with my roots, I think. Since that time, the work has evolved into something less defined; less about the place itself, and more about how the landscape can make you feel, how it might trigger an emotion or a memory, or evoke an actual physical sensation. In an over-developed world, it’s easy to forget the muted influence of these dark and quiet places.

  2.  Your charcoal drawings of trees are absolutely incredible- they transcend acute observation and get at the essence of each tree, it’s personality.  Can you talk about your creative process, from the inception of a piece to it’s completion?  

Above anything else, being in the landscape and being inspired by the landscape is what it’s all about for me, both here and in Ireland.  I work from home in a very small, dirty little corner – at this point, everything I possess is covered in a fine layer of silt, including my husband. One of the great things about living in New York City is that you don’t have to travel far for inspiration. Two hours away, the Hudson Valley is somewhere near and dear to me with landscapes and vistas to break your heart. On my trips home to Ireland, I always take photographs of whatever catches my eye, more often than not a strange clump of overlooked foliage or an odd-looking tree. Back in the studio I work from photos, sketches or memory, usually a fine blend of all three. The work tends to move in its own intuitive direction these days, and always refers back to previous experience of looking and observing. I tend to get lost when I draw. When I look up and realize that hours have passed in the blink of an eye, I know that something good has happened.

  3.  You are one of the few artists working exclusively in charcoal. What drew you to this medium, and what are some of it’s challenges?

In hindsight, the switch from pen and ink to charcoal was something of a conceptual necessity for me. I don’t think though that I could have imagined how much I would fall in love the medium – everything about it, the hands on approach, the raw, gritty, earthiness of it, even the smell of it. You can really dive in and connect with it. When I first started using it I found it extremely challenging, but you have to constantly push the boundaries, go beyond what’s comfortable and easy. I often go through periods where I can’t make it do what I want it to. When it works though, there’s nothing like it for achieving atmosphere and depth, even detail. In the end, I think there’s something very fitting, almost cyclical, about rendering landscapes and trees with the char of organic matter.

  4.  Is art your full-time career, or do you have a day job? If the latter, how do you balance the two to leave time for your art?

 I’m fortunate enough to be able to work on my art full-time now.  It’s not something I ever take for granted.  I know how tough it is to make a living doing what I do. I have friends who get by on the clippings of tin, as they say in Ireland, but they never make compromises with their work, which is so admirable.

  5.  Is there any advice or information you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out as an artist?  

When Patti Smith was young and struggling to make ends meet, William Burroughs told her to just be concerned with making good work, to build a good name, and not to make compromises. Make good work and don’t compromise – easier said than done, but great advice.

Sue Bryan’s website

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