Artist Spotlight: Between Folk and Fine

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Suzan Buckner, along with her ‘nature boy’ husband Chuck, pushes creative boundaries with a soulful blend of whimsical and introspective styles.

by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN

MEETING SUZAN BUCKNER, WATCHING HER EYES dance as she talks about painting and her hands shape the air as if they hold a brush, it is hard to believe that until a few years ago, this woman had no clear path as an artist. Today she celebrates the process by which she created a new “artful” life – a life expressed by a vibrant and growing group of paintings that a friend has called “better than ‘folk art,’ but not quite fine art.”[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Suzan is the rare artist who not only sells many works from her website – suzanbuckner.com – but also displays them in galleries such as Kamama in Mentone, Ala., and travels the Southeast’s art show circuit.

Suzan well remembers herself as a child who wanted nothing more than to make art. In high school art classes, she created paintings that earned her a scholarship to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. Like most budding artists, she was convinced by those who loved her that she needed to choose a more practical career, and in the face of such advice, she embarked upon a 40-year detour. During those years, she worked at a dizzying array of mostly minimum-wage jobs, from waitressing to running a roofing crew and even stamping sheet metal, deferring her dream of art, but storing up experiences and faces that would later infuse themselves into her painting.

In her late 30s, the stars aligned when she married Chuck Buckner and a creative partnership was born. His retirement allowed them the leisure to pursue the art that each had dreamed of separately. At first they established an antiques and collectibles business.

One day, as Suzan remembers it, she announced, “Chuck, I am ready to be an artist.” All that remained was for each of them to explore various media to find the one most suited to their tastes. Suzan began with collage. For a year she did nothing but collage, and till this day many of her paintings retain elements of collage – texts, numbers and textures that inform the painted image. As she became frustrated with the limitations of collage, she returned to her first love, painting.

Suzan admits that when she sits at the bare wood plank Chuck has sanded and primed with a base coat, she has no idea what she will paint. She does not paint on canvas, preferring the sturdiness of wood. In the heat of inspiration and creation, she attacks the surface aggressively with a thick layer of paint. From there, she might scrape off bits of paint with a kitchen fork in order to get a texture she has in mind. She quips: “maybe that’s why we have no flatware to eat with. I have ruined it all.”

Suzan’s first reverential act is to inscribe the Lord’s Prayer onto the surface. She says this helps her reach the inner, spiritual place that she credits with inspiring her vision and guiding her hand. From that point, the image comes quickly – so quickly that she might begin another painting as she is still roughing out the focus of the first. This creative exuberance is completely spontaneous. “Whatever it comes out to be, that is what it is!” she explains. Four decades of no-longercontainable
passion pours forth, and has resulted in a tremendously productive first five years. Suzan estimates she has produced more than 1,500 works of art during this period. She says she has sold or given away all but perhaps 20 pieces.

The themes of her paintings vary, but most are portraits – of animals, women and figures that defy identification.
Suzan thinks of them as “character studies.”

“If I had my choice,” she insists, “I would paint nothing but faces.” Even the flowers in her floral pieces, when examined closely, resemble tiny facial portraits.

In her figures there is, as in Suzan herself, a soulfulness,a questing and a wistfulness. The eyes look
beyond the viewer into an indeterminate past and an uncertain future. The artist creates visual tension in the contrast between the happy, energetic colors of her palette and her figures’ intense, penetrating gazes, which invite introspection.

Alongside these serious pieces are whimsical, humorous images. Surely an elephant in a red and white polka dot dress would tease a grin from the dourest viewer. Her titles reveal the artist’s wit and insight into the conflicts and contexts in which she thrusts her subjects. One image of a young girl with a carrot-like nose and a dunce cap is called “Her Mamma Told Her.” Incorporated into the background is the exhortation, “Her momma told her that her nose would grow if she told lies.” The little girl looks miserably aware of her dilemma. The portrait manages to be both poignant and humorous at the same time.

In addition to painting, Suzan assists Chuck as he constructs figures of people and angels using recycled wood and metal and other found objects. Chuck assembles these “art people,” and Suzan paints the faces. Together they create larger pieces as well. In fact, almost all of their projects are collaborative at some stage of production. Perhaps the rich exchange of ideas they share and talents they bring to their projects are the energizing forces that help maintain momentum to meet the ambitious goals they have set for themselves.

Chuck, or “nature boy” as Suzan playfully calls him, loves to wander the woods behind their home and photograph the flowers, birds and wildlife he observes. This is the one place Suzan does not accompany him since she prefers urban scenes and  energy to woodlands. She is happy to leave her country-boy husband to the meadows, ponds and forests to record the beauty of his Southern Appalachia homeland.

Suzan and Chuck see themselves moving into new creative media and styles. Suzan is taking time off after her furious output of the past five years. She has embarked upon a journey of inner exploration to reflect upon her next project. As she chooses from among many options for her prodigious talents, she knows only that the paintings will be larger than her previous ones and will
probe more deeply into complex regions of the artist’s psyche.

In the meantime, she has illustrated a children’s book, “The Grinnin’ Possum,” written by Ray Padgett of Mentone, Ala. The book will contain 30 original sketches by Suzan. Due out this fall, it will be for sale on Suzan’s website and at Kamama, which is owned by Padgett and his wife, Sandra.

She also dreams of designing a line of clothes for women who lose weight over time and are constantly having to discard one size and buy the next. She is convinced that with some imaginative tailoring, one garment can be repurposed as sizes change.

However this dynamic artist chooses to redefine her work, she will continue to fascinate her admirers. She will, no doubt, reinvent her art by exploring new ideas, new techniques and new colors. I plan to hide and watch.

Suzan Buckner’s Artist Statement

My creative voice speaks in exploratory language, seeking to lure to consciousness the
dream-like elements of spiritualistic visualization.
(I PAINT INSTINCTIVELY.)
The structure may be both varied in context and strict in presentation.
(WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET.)
My sense of creatively visualizing the next step in fulfilling, artistically, the work in front of
me is most acute when heightened by intense dramatization of the reality of the moment.
(I PAINT WHILE WATCHING TELEVISION.)
Artists of past times have ingrained spoken words firmly in my inner soul that transfer easily
to canvas.
(I HEAR STRANGE VOICES AS I WORK.)
I feel the colors as they bring life-giving force to visualized elements.
(I PAINT WITH MY FINGERS.)

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