In the Studio: Q&A With Susanna Bluhm
This month in the back gallery at Prole Drift, Susanna Bluhm is showing her latest installment in an ongoing series of works based on passages from The Bible’s nightmare-and-sex-heavy Song of Solomon. You may remember her lush paintings of islands (not part of the biblical series) reviewed alongside work by Cable Griffith at SOIL Gallery last September. This new work at Prole Drift cites the darker passages of the Song of Solomon and comprises fifteen prints pulled from a single plate that’s been etched with images of an infant’s incubator, breathing tubes, little foxes, twigs, creeping ivy and bottles of milk. The prints themselves are wildly different, having been inked or wiped with varying degrees of thickness, then collaged or painted over.
On a work table in Bluhm’s studio is a small children’s Bible bound in red leather that she says she picked up at a local Goodwill. It’s spread open to a chapter in The Song of Solomon and has been heavily annotated with red ink and underlined in pencil, outlining plans for paintings. - Amanda Manitach, Seattle Contributor
Amanda Manitach: This series is about using The Song of Solomon as a way to narrate stages of your life?
Susanna Bluhm: The poem [Song of Solomon] is a narrative story about the love of two people. It starts with a frenzied falling in love, a crush, which is reflected in the first paintings I did for the series. Those paintings are based on photos I took on a romantic trip to Italy: bright and colorful scenes from the coast. There are different stages in the poem and in the relationship: the female narrator has a nightmare that she's lost her love and for me that's represented by my son Asher's birth. I'm using The Song of Solomon to make my own love song to my wife and son, Anna and Asher.
Susanna Bluhm | Until the day breathes and the shadows flee (no.2), 2012, soft ground etching, colored pencil, gouache, ink, collage on paper, 9 x 12 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
Susanna Bluhm | There is no flaw in you, 2012, soft ground etching, colored pencil, gouache, ink, collage on paper, 9 x 12 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
AM: What was it about the birth of your son?
SB: It was a traumatic birth; we both almost died from a complication. It was scary time. He was born three months early.
AM: You have a Catholic background?
SB: I was raised loosely Catholic. But my mom was a nun for a while...clearly not Catholic enough!
Susanna Bluhm | Your eyes are doves behind your veil, 2012, soft ground etching, colored pencil, gouache, ink, collage on paper, 9 x 12 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
AM: Did you grow up reading The Bible?
SB: Yes, but I had never read The Song of Songs till I was an adult. I'd heard it referenced in pop culture and quoted as a beautiful poem. That's how I came to know it, as more of a poem. The paintings correlate to The Song of Songs in a really abstract way.
AM: The recent paintings feel somewhat hallucinatory, visionary.
SB: The experience that the paintings reference for me (the birth) certainly felt like a hallucinatory experience. I guess there are many meaningful symbols in the paintings for me which would be hard to translate literally. When I was in the hospital I had a monitor hooked up to me to hear Asher's heartbeat and it was really fast. It sounded like an Indian on horseback. I had a recurring vision of a strong, storybook Indian on horseback. It was fantastical, with colorful feathers. It was an important image for me to cling to and the feathers show up in the paintings.
Susanna Bluhm | What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke?, 2012, soft ground etching, colored pencil, gouache, acrylic, ink, collage on paper, 9 x 12 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
AM: The work that's being shown in Prole Drift are prints?
SB: The work consists of single plate soft ground etchings that have been painted or collaged onto. The image of the print is Asher's incubator in the hospital. I was looking at old illuminated manuscripts, particularly The Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours. There was a curtain dividing spaces in the hospital room and it had this pattern on it that I've reproduced as a decorative border in the prints.
AM: This is your first time working with prints?
SB: Yes, it’s my first time etching. I am working with a single image and a single plate. With the each of the prints I removed ink in a different way, sometimes evenly, sometimes leaving a lot of ink on the plate when printing. I treated the ink removal as a painting process.
Susanna Bluhm | The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city, 2012, acrylic and oil on panel, 25 x 25 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
AM: What's the next stage in the series/poem?
SB: The next stage of the works will reflect the period when my son comes home, when he's safe and healthy. And these will be big paintings, which I'm really excited about making. I like working with the prints, but I really want to get back to painting again.
Susanna Bluhm | I sought him whom my soul loves, 2012, acrylic, oil, pencil, colored pencil on panel, 25 x 25 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
AM: What excites you as a painter?
SB: Painting weather systems. Portrayals of weather that double as imaginary symbols. Chunky paint that looks like snow. Marks that look like fire, or thick frosting-like snow that looks edible. I love this about painting. I’m interested in abstract mark making and marks that play off each other and have a mutual narrative effect.
I was obsessed with volcanoes while I was pregnant. I couldn't stop thinking about them. I don't know if it was a subconscious awareness that I was going to erupt, but that's where this repeating, conical volcano shape comes from.
AM: A lot of your work correlates landscape with the body.
SB: Yes, that's a good way of putting it. And often I'll base my paintings on landscape photographs of places I've been. With these pieces I didn't, so in a way they're totally different.
Susanna Bluhm | Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, 2012, acrylic and oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.
look at the crown with which his mother crowned him is on view at Prole Drift through July 14, 2012.
Susanna Bluhm is an artist living in Seattle. She earned her MFA in Painting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has been an Artist-in-Residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and at the Karl Hofer Gesellschaft in Berlin. She is a member of SOIL artist-run gallery in Seattle, and is affiliated with Prole Drift gallery in Seattle. Her work has been shown internationally.
Amanda Manitach is a writer and artist based in Seattle.