Susan Beallor-Snyder is a formidable artist who creates exquisite sculptures made of rope. Yes, rope www.susanbeallorsnyder.com. Her work is rich, deep and profound and I simply love it. However, working with rope is no easy trick. Susan says it can be physically and emotionally painful, but what a result! Here’s our cool chat…
“… When I am creating a piece, which is usually motivated by a time of my life, I immerse myself in those emotions and sometimes they are sad or frustrated or angry or joyful feelings, but when I am creating the rope, because I love creating my art, even if I am in a dark place, I am also content and happy to be doing the work ...”
MICHAEL: Susan, when I first looked at your website, I thought, "Yes!" Where has she been? Rope Sculpture. Who knew? How on earth did you get involved with such a thing?
SUSAN: Hi Michael, I'm excited that you're excited. I've been around a long time making art, but I wasn't doing rope sculpture. I began this body of work in 2011 after several years of soul searching. It was a time in my life when I felt overloaded with family obligations that made it difficult for me to make my art a priority. It was important for me to be able to merge my emotions with the work in a way that I had not done before. A professor at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta where I took some classes for professional development introduced me to the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz and I was drawn to her large scale woven pieces she called Abakans. I had originally wanted to use willow and this piece was going to be a sphere of willow with a barbie doll trapped inside that represented how I felt at the time. My first piece, called “Inner Struggle” was the final result using natural manila rope.
MICHAEL: Wow. Natural Manila rope? Why that kind of rope? What's so special about it? Do you actually get it from the Philippines?
SUSAN: People ask me all the time why natural manila rope and I explain that it comes from the fiber of the Abaca plant and is native to the Philippines. I buy it from a distributor in the United States in bulk and usually order 1000 feet or more at a time of each gauge.
I love that natural manila rope is a plant material from the earth and that it has been used for thousands of years. As a classical goldsmith, I am also drawn to pure gold because it comes from the earth and was used for thousands of years. When I work with natural materials that were used in ancient times, it makes me feel closer to a time long ago that maybe I had experienced in past lives. I feel that the rough texture exhibits deep emotion in a way that another material would not. I have experimented with other types of rope and was not happy with the results.
MICHAEL: As a material, rope has so many metaphors and natural narratives attached to it. Is this part of your attraction in using it as art?
SUSAN: You are correct and yet when I began I didn't see it. In the beginning, I was focused solely on the rope and the emotion. After creating the first piece, I thought that I would not do another. That first piece really spoke to me yet even so, on the surface, I told myself it was not something I wanted to pursue. The rope was rough and the shards stuck into my fingers. It wasn't an easy, comfortable process to create these pieces. It was after a period of months when a friend wanted to show the work as a featured artist that I had to dig way down to explore what it was that made me discount the work so quickly. What I discovered was that the pain in creating the work was equal to the pain that I was trying to express visually.
Over time, I have found many metaphors and narratives for these pieces; some shaped like a woman's uterus, purely coincidental or subconscious? Hanging oneself with rope? Titles like, “Tied Up In Knots?” Weaving rope or any thread is “Women's Work,” another title. This body of work has been a reflection of the inner struggle I have had balancing work and family.
Holding onto my identity as a woman and an artist amidst all the expectations has been a challenge for me and this body of work allowed me to create the work and express the feelings all at the same time.
MICHAEL: I'm trying to figure out how to view your works. Are they sculptures or installations or both?
SUSAN: Very perceptive again, Michael. As a matter of fact, they are sculptures wanting to be installations. What I mean by that is they are individual sculptures, but all have a story and the series started out wanting to be an installation, but time and space didn't allow for it. I have a large scale installation in my head and I am just starting work on the maquette. Instead of just looking at works of art, the sculptures become an installation which becomes an event.
MICHAEL: I would imagine that your rope is much more malleable than paint. No? I understand that they're sculptural, but could you also be painting with rope? I love the photos on your site that show these works hanging adjacent to paintings.
SUSAN: I'm having some trouble with this concept. Malleable in the sense that it can be held in your hand and moved around, but it is not really that malleable in general especially the thicker it gets. Paint is much more fluid and can go places and be manipulated in a way that the rope cannot.
I sometimes feel restricted with the rope because there are times that I want one strand to stay in a shape and unless I add something to harden it, it cannot stay unless it is supported in some way. I have been experimenting with materials to harden the rope so that I can create very simplistic forms without all the foundation – a deconstruction of the rope. I think of Matisse's line drawings or Picasso's Deconstructed Bull or even Alexander Calder's work in wire.
This concept of painting with rope reminds me that when I began, my very large piece entitled Crossroads which is about 17 feet wide, I started that piece in a different way than I had the previous pieces and as I worked I recall saying out loud that I feel like Jackson Pollock with rope. I was freer with the way I worked the rope. I allowed the foundation to be more like a drawing and then went in after to secure those shapes so they would hold together instead of using the informal warp and weft that I had previously started with.
The rope is a line and the line is like drawing or painting. With regard to the rope sculptures shot in a setting of other art and furniture, I enjoy seeing the work in an installed setting. It is pleasing to my eye to see the composition of the rope sculpture with a painting or other art and furniture. I like to see how the different colors and textures and forms in the photograph work together. It becomes an interior design vignette.
MICHAEL: With rope sculpture in mind, what's the difference for you between art and design?
SUSAN: Specifically with rope sculpture in mind the difference between art and design is probably the same as it is without specifically talking about my rope sculptures. However, I need to play this out a bit. I looked up the definition of art and design in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, something I don't think I have ever done before and it was a surprise to me that both were defined it in a way that I agree with.
I'm paraphrasing, but basically Art is something created with imagination and skill that is beautiful or that expresses important idea or feelings. The definition of Design is to plan and make decisions about something being built for a specific purpose or something such as a plan.
After reading these definitions, I think that my rope sculptures fit into both categories. When I think about a piece I want to create, I think about it from several angles; What do I feel? What do I want to express? What do I want it to look like? How will I make it and that includes any technical issues I need to consider. So, in fact, I am designing a piece of art. The difference for me is that the art of the rope sculpture is about the feelings, emotions and the craftsmanship; the design is about the way the piece will look.
MICHAEL: Rope is so interesting because people can either die by it or be rescued by it. It's very dark or very light. I mean, the history of rope alone! Rope can trap things or sustain them. I would imagine you could have a great or not so great day depending on what you're creating. No?
SUSAN: Everything you are saying is true about rope and in my work I do think of all those things, but mostly because others have said them or shown them. My husband likes to joke around by making believe he is hanging himself with the rope and others have suggested to me ways in which they would like to see me create rope pieces with paint or inserting other types of materials into the sculptures. People send me images of rope lighting and rope decorations. In terms of your last question about my having a good or bad day depending upon the rope, my response would be this … When I am creating a piece, which is usually motivated by a time of my life, I immerse myself in those emotions and sometimes they are sad or frustrated or angry or joyful feelings, but when I am creating the rope, because I love creating my art, even if I am in a dark place, I am also content and happy to be doing the work.
MICHAEL: I understand. Who buys your work? It's tough enough getting people to buy paintings, but I would think it's even harder to get people to consider buying your work - unless they're quite sophisticated.
SUSAN: My collectors are men and women who have been drawn to the work for different reasons and appreciate the texture, its complexity, the thought and story behind each piece and the overall aesthetic. The admirers of my work are quite varied. Many young people have told me that they hope one day to be able to afford one of my rope sculptures. I have found that those who are more knowledgeable about art and its history enjoy my work, but in addition many who are not art aficionados find it reminiscent of a time in their lives from their past. The most common are those who are connected to sailing or the water.
MICHAEL: Finally Susan, Does your work have a message? What do you want people to take away after seeing it? And what’s the point of art anyway?
SUSAN: I create these rope sculptures with the desire to express the emotions that I feel in a visual way. My hope is that others will have an experience looking at them and I don't want to limit their experience by telling them what each piece is about, but I find that viewers want to know what a piece represents so I tell them. I find that it allows the viewer who may not have thought past the surface aesthetic of the piece to realize that they are free to think about the piece in a more complex way whether to relate to my own emotions or create new stories of their own.
Interacting with the viewer and admirer of my work is one of the most enjoyable parts of creating this work. The conversation between me as the artist and the viewer has challenged me to think deeper into the meaning of the work and I have learned a lot about these pieces that I hadn't thought of consciously.
MICHAEL: Excellent Susan. This has been a lovely chat and I love your work.
SUSAN: Thank you Michael for this wonderful opportunity to talk with you about my work.
Check out Susan Beallor-Snyder at www.susanbeallorsnyder.com.