Susan Calza on art, Nepal, and heaven’s buffet

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Susan Calza on art, Nepal, and heaven’s buffet

Professor of Fine Arts Susan Calza

Professor of Fine Arts Susan Calza

Kayla Friedrich

Professor of Fine Arts Susan Calza

Kayla Friedrich

Kayla Friedrich

Professor of Fine Arts Susan Calza

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A Johnson State College professor for of 21 years, Susan Calza, talks about her art, life, and her future.  At the end of the spring semester she will be retiring to focus on her personal art and travel. She has a studio in Barre that she describes as “twelve hundred square feet of drawings and things hanging from the ceiling.”

Q:Why sculpture?

A: Why not? We live in three dimensions. For me it’s not just sculpture, it’s also work in [two dimensions]. The truth is I understand why people paint and draw but I don’t understand why they don’t also make things that articulate space. We live and we walk through dimensions. We use our hands to control our environment.

I don’t define myself as a sculptor, just an artist in general. I’m here to communicate and I believe that, whether society knows it or not, artists really have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the community, the country, or the world… We’re channels in that way… I kind of feel that’s my mission, that’s my first language.

Q: As a sculptor what is your favorite part of the human body?

A: Faces are amazing, and hands. Certainly faces… you connect with the face. But hands are fabulous. You know, they’re just scarred and we see them all the time. I’m kind of fascinated by their scars and how they age. Now I’ve got carpal tunnel in both hands and trigger finger…but they’re still fabulous. If I had to choose one, hands.

Q:In terms of art, what is the strangest sculpture you’ve ever made?

A: There have been many strange ones. The work in my installation right now I think some people might find challenging because I am using a lot of what you might call “junk,” a lot of debris. I’ve relinquished skill for a reason. Sometimes skill gets in the way, you can get hung up on making it just so and wanting it to be just so, and you lose the thread of what the piece itself needs to be. Because they’re like children, any creative work, they have their own way to go…

I listened to the news for about a year… when I moved into the studio many intense things happened in the world like Benghazi and Sandy Hook, and the election and Syria, and Trayvon Martin. I kept the radio on, which was challenging, and the work I made subconsciously referred to a lot of those issues. There was some human trafficking here in Vermont and so I ended up doing a little drawing that honestly felt too vulnerable for me to show. [In the art] I was referring to that, but I’m going to show it.

I was really digging into the subconscious because I’ve spent a lot of time in Nepal and in a lot of the Asian countries they’re more accepting about difficult characteristics in humanity. So you will see a demon right next to something that’s really pure. Here, in this country, we think of people as good or bad; that’s not the case in a lot of other countries. I’ve realized my work was really influenced by that.

Q: Do you feel that teaching enhanced or hindered your creativity?

A: Both. The thing about teaching is that I love it, and art is my first language. I love to talk to somebody and see things happen – that’s really exciting. But that’s not me and my work, you know? That’s me assisting someone while they do their work, so it’s different. When I came back from my sabbatical two and a half years ago I realized I did a huge amount of work… and I realized this is because I’m keeping that energy, all that energy I usually give out. I’ve been noticing that when I go into an exhibition of an artist, I can tell instantly that person’s just been in the studio. It’s an amazing thing. Teaching is really generous and wonderful and I love it, but I’m sixty and my mother’s ninety-five and I want to spend the rest of my time just focused on my work. I want to go as deep as I can with my own creativity.

Q:What three artists, living or dead, would you have for dinner?

A: James Turrell. He’s pretty incredible – his work. You know, artists and people are two different things, right? Skill doesn’t necessarily equate wisdom. You’ll read about Picasso being a jerk. Good artist, but an asshole; outrageously horrible to women. Certainly James Turrell… I think he’s the kind of artist who doesn’t need the limelight… and his work is a deeply spiritual thing. There’s a German artist, she’s been gone for a long time, Käthe Kollwitz, turn of the century – beautiful, beautiful work. She was a printmaker and a sculptor and lost a child to World War I and did some incredibly poignant, beautiful work from there. And Michelangelo would be a hoot, too, though a bit loony. Those three.

Q: In your travels, what has been your favorite place?

A: I would have to say Nepal. Kathmandu is just a really chaotic, excruciatingly poignant place that’s difficult  … It was a medieval city and the city still has a medieval heart, but then millions and millions of people have moved in and so the city keeps expanding and they are really challenged to keep up with it. You don’t have electricity all the time, they do something called load shedding. Many hours every day there’s no electricity and there’s no central heat. Life there is pretty raw, but there’s just this incredible acceptance of all the parts of life. I’ve never known such loving, though sometimes difficult, people. I’m not saying there isn’t poverty, but it’s gracious. Kathmandu is so visually busy and you’ve got 27 different languages, and many different ethnic groups, including an influx of Tibetans. Every corner you walk down there’s a shrine that’s ancient, or a new one. I get lost all the time – I’m terrified all the time because I’m never quite sure where I am- and maps don’t work! You can walk down the street and see these little medieval doorways. They’re really low, because they’re small people, and on the ground in front of the doorway you’ll see a puja, which is an offering of rice and saffron and flowers to the gods. Right next to it you’ll see a dead rat and both are equally holy… I really love it there.

Q: Do you ever wish you were living in another time?

A: I don’t really think so. I think sometimes a different place. I’m kind of restless. I love cities; I love New York, big cities. I feel energized and exhausted there and I like that. I think I used to have a romantic vision of what Paris was like in the ‘20s with Gertrude Stein and Picasso and all of that. I think about periods in art because art is never separate from what’s going on intellectually… So I would like to visit those periods because we read about them in books and it seems so sexy. We tend to discount what’s happening for us now. But I guess part of the reason I’m retiring is because even though I love teaching, the academic world is an ivory tower and I want to jump in more, being more involved with the muck. You listen to the news and it’s difficult, but it’s difficult all the time. So I’m here, I want to be more a part of it, involved in it, and I want feel that, not intellectualize that.

Q: If you could travel in time, who would you take as your lover?

A: That’s an amazing question – I think I would go with one of the really early philosophers. Lucretius? Yeah, I would want to go way back. Or, oh God, no let’s go to India. Let’s pick out someone from India. The Buddha well before he was self-actualized, right? Just someone I could really talk to. You need to be able to talk to your lover. Lucretius would be pretty interesting because he was on the edge, before the real rigidity of Christianity came in. He was really all about the universe that provides for us to be healthy and good… so can I have two?

Q: If heaven is a buffet where you could eat anything with no ill effects, what would you have?

A: Pomegranates and shrimp and gold.  Like you go into a sushi bar and wonder why they put gold on the sushi? They do, they put pure gold on sushi. So pomegranates, artichokes, and really excellent roasted chicken – I do eat meat. Really good fruit and some good crusty bread. Really good chocolate cake. Excellent Scotch, single malt. Some wine…. Not so much rice. Grapes that are freshly picked. In Katmandu the venders serve lychees and they are so fresh, and the bananas are these little sweet bananas. Things that are really fresh and juicy.

When my son was eleven we went to Guatemala for three months to work with some kids who worked in the Guatemala city dump… my son wrote a story about seeing an old woman in a park and she was all bent over. She just looked like a question mark. She pulled out of her apron an orange and bit into it. The look on her face was like she had just seen some heavenly creature. That’s the way I’d like to feel about the food.

Q: What is the worst thing that was ever said about you?

A: I hear “pushy” a lot. Tough, I hear tough. I’m not sure if that’s bad, I always kind of scratch my head… I tend not to mince words and you’re gonna know what I think. I’m not going to bull shit you. Sometimes I bull shit myself, but I tend to be a direct shooter. That’s the way I want to deal with the world.

I bet my son has said a couple of things to me… Recently I saw him and he was talking about a difficult period for both of us when his dad and I split up. He looked at me and said, “Well, you weren’t there, either.”  I was there in body, but I guess in spirit he felt abandoned. I think that’s probably the worst thing, as a mom. God, if I could take that back. I’ll take the “tough” thing anytime…

Q: What is on your bucket list?

A: I’d love to take a road trip. I haven’t driven across country for a long time, and bring a tent and a dog… I would love to go back to India. India I found to be really challenging and I would like to go with my son or maybe a fearless traveler. I travel a lot, but I’m not a fearless traveler.

I also want to exhibit more. In the past 20 years my exhibition record has really dwindled and if I have exhibited it’s been locally. I’d like to get my work out there. I keep making it and I’ve got so much of it. It’s the best thing I do. I really want to be fearless about that, too.

I’d really like to just become fearless. Is that possible? I don’t want to sleep through life. I don’t want to get hurt or hurt people. Mostly I just want to move into the most authentic me I can be, wherever that takes me. It’s not about stuff. Traveling helps you knock off preconceived notions and leaves you more vulnerable. I’d like to be more vulnerable to the world.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: I guess I’m feeling like [retirement] is just the beginning. The cool thing about life is that it’s full of so many beginnings and this is just one more… I’m really excited and a little freaked. It’s mine, you know, as all of our lives are. They’re ours to do what we want to. Johnson’s been a great home for me. I was a single mom for a decade so I was able to raise a great kid. It feels like a good time to go because I still like it. 

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