First timers do the same little dance when they spot a Susan Carlson portrait in a gallery or craft fair. It goes like this: walk, pause, double-take, turn, approach, approach and stare. The dance is instinctual and seems unaffected by age, race, sex, or textile orientation.
Susan Carlson "paints" in fabric, but that isn't immediately apparent. Her work is so realistic that it passes, at first glance, for oil on canvas. That is where the double-take comes in. The viewer gets disoriented. The viewer approaches, tugged toward the picture in kindly way. The fabric is warm and colorful, revealing itself, dissolving from human features into shapes, patterns and textures as the viewer closes in.
"My mother made quilts," Susan says. Raised among folksy fabrics, she too made little quilts, but ended up an illustrator at art school. She tries her hand at graphic design, then painted faces on fabric. Eventually the quilting won out, turning photo-realistic as her skill evolved.
Susan is in from her Berwick studio, shopping today at Portsmouth Fabric where she worked until her muse demanded full attention. She passes bolt after bolt of dazzling cloth. Where one fabric artist might see geometry, Susan sees human eyes, lips, hands. "This could be a nice cheek," she says, lifting a flap of material that looks nothing like a cheek at all. "And here are the highlights, the shadows. Do you see?"
The writer does not see, but nods. Having cut her own path and defined her own style, Susan is virtually alone in her chosen field. Her new art medium is hard to describe because its pallet is infinitely varied. Imagine a huge Polaroid camera that spits our medieval tapestries. Imagine Michelangelo stitching the Sistine ceiling.
Recently Susan Carlson sewed the Seacoast Farmer's Market. She fell in love with the people there, the seasonal changes of shape and color. The result was a four-piece series, Jerry from Rochester selling apples, "Cricket" the woman with the spring rolls among vegetables, Charlie with his noisome roosters, Laura hidden in sunflowers.
In a gallery the fabric farmer portraits hang more joyously than the oils or water colors nearby. It's art all right, but it makes you feel good somehow. The next row of first-timers move toward the pictures in unison like a Texas-two step class. There is a powerful need to touch the work. Quilts want to be touched. while paint recoils. Then the dancers retire to regain the distant perspective. The music rises and you can hear the fiddle player now. The country caller guides the dancers: bow to the painting, step back left, step back right. spin your partner through the night.
By J. Dennis Robinson
SUSAN CARLSON RESUME
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