Susan Groce’s environmental awareness
To say Susan Groce is down to earth is an understatement.
Her work–as artist, art professor and chair of the University of Maine Department of Art–is firmly grounded in the natural world. Nearly a decade ago, she championed UMaine’s pioneering move toward safer printmaking processes. Today–as always–her subject matter reflects themes of sustainability and the impact of human behavior on the environment.
One series of drawings from her travels Down Under incorporates Australian soil, rubbed into the paper to achieve a burnt-orange hue. An upcoming, large-scale print installation, Invasive Species, juxtaposes macro images of hurricanes and military airfields with electron microscope images of leaves and seedpods. On a smaller scale, Groce’s meticulously detailed travel journals are a meditation on pattern and rhythm, where words become graphic elements and images speak volumes.
Though each of her series has a distinct aesthetic, everything is interrelated; every piece informs the larger body of work. In March, selections from that body of work will be on display as part of the 4 in Maine exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, showcasing four of the state’s contemporary artists.
This is the latest in a long line of exclusive shows for Groce. Her prints and drawings have been in more than 170 solo, invitational and juried exhibitions. In addition, she has served as a guest lecturer and visiting researcher–with a focus on safer print practices–at more than 40 art schools worldwide. In 2001, she was awarded a University of Maine Trustee Professorship.
We caught up with Groce in her immaculate, sun-drenched studio in Martinsville, a “suburb” of Port Clyde and Tenants Harbor, to find out what inspires her and how her work has evolved–and endured.
Describe how the natural environment and issues surrounding land use have influenced you as an artist and an educator.
The fragility of the environment, whether natural, constructed, external or internal, has been a consistent and rather elusive subject in my work in the past 25 years. Many of my pieces allude to invented places that exist, out of contextual time, in isolation or within zones of instability between pressures of urbanization and the fragility of the environment.
Often, my work explores the provisional nature of matter–how through environmental time, elemental forces such as wind, water, fire, as well as human activity, can dramatically alter our surroundings. What I find really fascinating is how these monumental changes seem to occur on the very edge of visibility and presence, affecting what we perceive as permanent.
In my work, I try to make visible the processes and forces that underpin these changes, forces that are so micro- or macroscopic that we fail to notice them on a daily basis.
Awareness of our changing environment, due to our own activity, is still a progression, and awareness and action can be isolated events. Converting to more environmentally responsible practices in making and teaching art is just one piece of a very complex puzzle.
How has your work changed over time?
Over the years, I have incorporated new techniques, materials and processes, yet my work is still built on the same foundations. Safer printmaking is not the focus of my work, but it certainly is a more responsible way of working. The biggest change is that I now have the ability to align safer processes with work that is about the environment. One of the driving forces for this change was the incompatibility I had felt between my subjects and my materials. Invasive Species, a large-scale print installation that I am currently printing, brings together environmentally safer methods of production with a direct environmental theme.
How has the safer printmaking program at UMaine evolved?
In the mid ’90s, we were in transition from traditional to safer print materials and processes, including digital technologies. Now it’s a question of refinement and adaptation as materials and their sources keep changing. We have made the transition to a complete system for handwork and photo-polymer etching, as well as polyester litho plates. Still, there is constant innovation and experimentation. As always, we aim for a balance between the conceptual content of the work and the media or process. Printmaking has a long history of incorporating changing technologies.
Tell us about your creative process.
My process is fairly simple. I take small notebooks with me everywhere. In them I gather source material–text and visual references filtered through travel experiences, itineraries, maps, observations, impressions, conversations and readings. Each entry is built on words and images that remind or evoke.
Next is a more in-depth exploration of these quick notebook references and observations through small-scale drawings, much like a rough draft with lots of edits. In this stage, text and images are integrated, layered and pushed to form new meanings, interpretations, orientations and perspectives. From piles of these small drawings, I distill and recombine text, images and ideas into large-scale mixed-media drawings and prints. The result is a mixture of fact, observation altered by memory, and imagination.
What landscapes are most intriguing to you?
I am drawn to desert environments. Deserts are harsh, fragile, subtle, monumental and stark–full of contrasts. For me, desert locations are so streamlined that they provide both solitude and a clarity of vision. In a desert, it is so much easier to see how precarious and fragile an ecosystem can be.
How have your world travels shaped your perspective?
Travel involves a change in perspective, perception and sense of time. Removing myself from my own routines and experiencing different viewpoints are essential to seeing things in different ways. In fact, reorientation of perspective is a major factor in my work.
Vantage points in my perspectives are often angled, aerial and skewed to create unexpected shifts that “unfix” an assumed viewpoint. I use the rationality of maps and a wide variety of diagrammatical and measurement systems to try to logically or scientifically explain the references I make to a landscape or place that is, in the end, filtered through experience.
Sometimes it’s as simple as re-creating surfaces, textures and purely visual elements, or using on-site materials such as pigmented dirt. When traveling, I take tons of photos to use later back in the studio. I also try to record areas from every possible viewpoint, often hitching rides in small planes for aerial views.
What is the allure of working in such a large scale?
My larger pieces range from 51⁄2 feet to 21 feet long, and in one installation, more than 10 feet high. Large-scale work involves real expanses of space, time and movement–an important reference for my work.
On space: I’m interested in navigating a somewhat difficult terrain between physicality and immateriality. Often in large-scale works I will angle and alter the ground plane to avoid the safe and grounded viewpoints that we normally take for granted. I have fun breaking the rules of common physical and spatial sense by creating illusionary forms that seem solid yet defy the laws of gravity, contain nonsensical angles and occupy unexpected spatial positions on a two-dimensional plane.
On time: I reference elements of time in my work by pulling together illusions of form and mass in the process of change: evolving, expanding, contracting or dissolving. I like to create ambiguity, to question whether the time referenced in a piece is an instant or an eternity, and whether time, through its presence, has the ability to transform.
In some of my work, architectonic forms are appropriated and lifted out of context to undo what is time-bound and place-specific. I like to create a sense of timelessness.
On movement: In my work, illusions of three-dimensional forms often rotate and shift in multiple perspectives. The movement in the large-scale works–particularly of what would seem stable architectural forms–questions permanence, and how one can navigate through a changing landscape. Pace is important. Movement can be glacial (environmental time) or very rapid.
A good question; a tough question. My best work seems to come when I’m open to integrating new things within the context of ongoing work. That newness by definition means that what comes next will be something unanticipated. For now, I have an extensive series of large-scale mixed media drawings in the works based on my Australian journal, as well another photo-polymer print installation planned based on aerial landscapes of compromised terrain. Also, practically speaking, when my chair term is over, I plan to spend a very long, uninterrupted period of time in my studio.
Originally published in UMaine Today magazine, January/February 2009
Image Description: Susan Groce