We had the good fortune of connecting with Susan McLaughlin and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Susan, what’s the end goal, career-wise?
I would like to be in the mainstream of the contemporary art world and be remembered as an historically significant artist. Until then I hope I can bring some beauty into a world that sorely needs it during these perilous times.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am a painter of Magic Realism. I work from studios in Lauderdale By The Sea, Florida and Newtown, Connecticut. I am an explorer, uncovering, recording and rearranging the beauty of the natural world, as well as the beauty of human beings. A romantic at heart and surrealist of hand, I combine elements of reality and fantasy in ways that shed a new light on the interrelationships between humans and the natural world. Sometimes the division is clear; on other occasions the two worlds melt into one. This symbiosis makes the finished work even more compelling than either of its constituents alone.
Although I depict fantastical worlds that exist only in my mind. I paint these surreal scenes with great accuracy and detail. The inherent challenge in painting something that lives only in your head is that you can’t actually see it before you create it. As a result, you don’t know what the perspective should be, where the light and shadows should fall or how many eyes, if any, an inhabitant might have.
Before I became a serious painter, I worked for five years as a bylined editorial illustrator for The New York Law Journal, a daily newspaper directed to the legal community. My assignments frequently had extremely short turnaround times-sometimes as short as the same day. This left me no time to find visual references for what I was asked to illustrate. I therefore had to conjure up the elements of the illustration in my mind and draw solely from the imagined image. Drawing something you cannot see is very risky. But taking those risks enabled me to be a working illustrator.
During the time I worked as an illustrator I learned how to “memorize” everything that I saw and store all this visual information for retrieval as needed. As a result of this process, I had so many images floating in my mind that it was busier up there than a New York subway in rush hour. These images tumbled around, engaging and disengaging in a multitude of patterns. I considered this process akin to a mental kaleidoscope, which I thought of as my “kaleidomind.”
The artistic road that has taken me from commercial illustration in New York City to painting in South Florida is long and loopy, with many detours. Along the way I earned a BFA degree from Parsons School of Design and an MA in Studio Art from New York University, but most of what I’ve learned about painting has come from actually painting, not from the academic, theoretical approach taught in art schools. When I first became confident enough in my painting to want to show my work, galleries would tell me that my paintings were unlike anything they had seen before. Sometimes this worked in my favor because a gallery wanted a fresh look. Usually, though, it worked against me because most galleries didn’t want to take a chance on an unknown artist with idiosyncratic work. A prominent art dealer in New York wrote to me that my work was “wonderfully obsessive, subversive and beautifully made.” However, he still declined to show my work in his gallery. Some curators suggested that I paint what other contemporary artists were painting-the large abstract works that look good in great rooms. I love abstract painting but I stuck to my surrealist brushes, treating painting as a fulltime job, working seven hours a day, seven days a week, and showing the work to anyone who would look at it. After a multitude of “noes,” a few “yeses” began to come. And with the “yeses” came comparisons of my work-at least in style and approach, if not in quality- to historically significant painters such as Magritte, Arcimboldo, Alice Neel, Frida Kahlo, and believe it or not, Grandma Moses.
Getting my work shown, especially in this time of Covid when many galleries have either closed or are operating only online, continues to be a challenge. I have, however, been fortunate enough to have my work exhibited in several museums and in galleries in New York, Florida and along the East Coast. People who are impressed by the degree of detail in my paintings tell me that they can’t even draw a straight line. My response to them is that sometimes I can’t either, but I keep trying until I can. I think that’s a good lesson for anyone in any field, not just for artists.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Lets face it, the prime reason people come to South Florida in the winter is for the weather. The first thing my guest for the week wants to do is shed her sweater and puffy jacket, don her sandals and swimsuit, bask in the sun, and when that arctic chill finally leaves her, go for a swim in the Atlantic. That’s easy because my home and studio are in a building that is located on the ocean, in the sand.
After that’s out of our system, my guest realizes that she looks too “grey” and wants to go shopping for some colorful, comfortable Florida-style clothes so she can feel like she really belongs here. There are plenty of gift and clothing stores right on the beach, but instead we go to Neiman Marcus in Bocca Raton (“Boca” to us locals) because after shopping, we can have a glass of bubbly and eat a delicious lunch in Mariposa, Neiman’s intimate in-house restaurant serving wholesome sandwiches and salads. They start you off with popovers and hot chicken broth and biscuits, all gratis.
Now that my guest is dressed appropriately in what I call CCC-Colorful Competitive Casual-attire, we satisfy our mutual addiction for viewing art by visiting as many of the great art museums in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and their environs as we can. My limit is one museum a day; otherwise I go into artistic shock because trying to absorb too much art is actually very draining. There is no shortage of venues. We hit my favorite first: NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, then the Perez Art Museum on Biscayne Bay and The Institute of Contemporary Art, which has its own sculpture garden. We wrap things up with two museums that let us know what Old Florida was like because they were once private homes: the Vizcaya Museum in Miami and the Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale (where my art has actually been exhibited).
After these full days of swimming, shopping and art, of course we need to get our hair done. So we head to Sunflower Hair Studio in North Miami Beach for a wash, styling and blowouts, followed by manicures. Now we are ready to go out for dinner. One of the great things about living in South Florida is that you can go to a different restaurant every day and not run out of new places to try. Sadly, the pandemic has caused many restaurants to close, either temporarily or permanently, or to reduce their capacity or offerings. In better times, two of my favorites are Thasos and Greek Islands Taverna, both Greek places in Fort Lauderdale. Although some food snobs might look down on it because it’s a chain, I love every dish I’ve tried at PF Chang’s. I’d also bring my guest to two legendary restaurants in Miami: Joe’s Stone Crab for (not surprisingly) stone crab claws; and Versailles, which despite its French name is the epitome of Cuban cuisine on Calle Ocho in Little Havana.
I’m confident that my guest will love her stay in South Florida so much that before she leaves she will be looking for a beachside rental for next winter. She’ll probably start renting for a week or two, then a month, then for the season. And then she’ll be looking for a South Florida home of her own. There’s lots of real estate offices in Florida too! Good thing, because eventually everybody wants to live here.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
David J. Rosen
Photos: McLaughlin painting in studio: Gary James Alice’s Aviary, Masquerade Detail: Laura Decelles Confection, Invitation to the Ball, Leaving Home, The Merry Widow, Moon’s Day Off, Late for the Regatta, Masquerade Detail: Charlie Fernandes Garden Party: Tom Schmucke That Look: Susan McLaughlin