The Imagined Landscapes of Susan Savory

Bringing life’s flotsam and jetsam together in a richly textured art form.

susan savory

Old newspapers, books, labels, packaging, photographs – Susan Savory saves it all. Then she turns it into collage art.

“I’m a paper junkie,” she says. “I save every little scrap of paper. What other people would throw away, I keep.” Textures, layers, images, and patterns in paper products catch her eye, and the second-floor studio in her Chilmark home – it doubles as the bedroom – is full of baskets, boxes, shelves, and piles of the paper she has collected over the years. Despite the apparent clutter, a visitor quickly recognizes the underlying order that marks the room as an artist’s territory.

In Susan’s hands, the art of collage soars. It becomes a sophisticated practice that slips into the postmodern, as she reinvents meaning in found materials. Take a recent piece called Alice…Adrift. In this collage, a small sailboat floats in a misty blue confection of fog, atop a structured rectangle composed of vintage book elements and cut paper. This collage works on both the concrete and abstract levels, redolent with sensation and association.

“All my work has a strong sense of narrative,” Susan says. “But I like to leave room for the person looking at it to expand on the story.” To ask the artist about Alice…Adrift is to uncover an emotional backstory from which the collage has been distilled. While there is no human figure in the collage and her name has been changed, “Alice” is a real person, a friend of the artist.

“I was thinking about her when I made the collage,” Susan says. Her friend, a sailor, was struggling with cancer at the time.

The collage also derives its narrative in part from the paper products Susan chooses, which serve as cultural artifacts. Almost every element in Alice…Adrift is made from a different kind of paper or cloth – more than a dozen – Japanese washi paper; printed paper embellished with color pencils; other papers painted with gouache; coarse banana-leaf paper; an old book covered with ink stains that the artist suspects was a schoolchild’s primer; an address book; and a book called To Your Cottage, which the artist associated with her friend’s metaphorical journey.

Susan’s own words (from her website, further explain the importance of gathering and manipulating the materials. “There is something remarkably satisfying about the time spent collecting, sorting, and examining the various bits and pieces that will eventually become illustrations,” she explains.

autumn tiny house hill
Autumn on Tiny House Hill, mixed-media collage, 9 by 13 inches, 2012.

As a painter mixes colors, changes brushes, and daubs over portions of a work in progress, and as a potter molds clay, Susan enjoys handling the parts of her creations. “The process of building each piece involves hours of arranging and rearranging…delicious trial and error…until the right combination/composition appears and the work finds its own voice,” she says.

Nor does this creative process limit itself to assembly. When doing book illustrations – a genre of art that Susan has always been interested in – she makes a drawing first, usually on tracing paper, mapping out her plan. Before the completed collages go to the publisher, she constructs a dummy book.

While she works most often with found papers, Susan frequently adds her own touch to them. In an illustration of the fairy tale Billy Goats Gruff, Susan painted tattoos on the ogre in her collage. In another case, she scrunched up crepe paper, and then tie-dyed it to create tree trunks. In these ways, the collagist appropriates the “found” aspect of the material she is working with.

Many of Susan’s creations find common ground in the imagery of a small house on a hillside. Tiny House Hill is a collage series she’s been exploring for the past four years.

“The house is a giant metaphor,” she says. “It’s about finding your home in the landscape. The landscape is everything here. I feel tiny in it, and that feels right.” The artist, who grew up in Binghamton, New York, and summered in East Orleans at the elbow of Nauset Beach on Cape Cod, lives in her own version of the tiny house. It’s a two-room Chilmark cottage that sits on a hill in the woods. “The light is perfect, since my studio has a northern exposure,” she says. “I have bunnies and birds, and they somehow find their way into the work.”

Susan’s collages are not just two-dimensional. She incorporates some of the dimensionality of sculpture as she layers one piece of paper over another. In two of her recent works from the collection Tiny House HillGhost Moment and Sky Ghost – moths appear to fly through a landscape background. Susan confesses she is deathly afraid of moths and challenged herself to overcome her fear through the collages. The fear remains, but the artist has transformed it, capturing the moths’ vitality. The moths loom larger than life, suspended in the foreground of the landscapes. To reinforce this effect, Susan mounted each moth onto a small piece of foam board, which elevates them off the collage and allows them to cast shadows.

The possibilities for word association in paper collage readily fit this artist’s sensibility. She has turned her Tiny House Hill collage series into a children’s book. Four Seasons on Tiny House Hill is making the rounds of publishers, as is another book that Susan illustrated, Outside My House, written by New York poet and artist Douglas Florian.

“I always wanted to do children’s books,” she says. She has never strayed far from that desire, even though she has not yet published a book. Susan’s favorite collage artists are Leo Lionni, Eric Carle, and Ezra Jack Keats, all makers of award-winning children’s books. In 1998 she opened Shoofly Pie, a children’s bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and ran it for five years. When she set foot on Martha’s Vineyard for the first time in 2010, it was to interview for the position of children’s book buyer for Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. The subsequent job offer prompted her move to the Vineyard.

“I loved the job, I loved the Island,” she says. “I found the perfect year-round rental in the perfect place. The landscape is my landscape; the palette is my palette.” Last May, Susan broke her hip in a fall at New York’s annual BookExpo America, and had to give up her job with Bunch of Grapes because while she was healing, she could not sit for more than a half-hour at a time or drive a car. She had to take a short break from art, too, but she continued to work as a children’s book consultant to independent bookstores.

Not surprisingly, Susan does not confine the collecting instincts that underpin her collages to paper. During her thirty years in Portsmouth, she lived at the edge of a tidal millpond. At low tide she would rake through the muck, uncovering a treasure store of doll parts, old clay pipes, pottery shards, antique glass bottles, and old metal keys.

alice adrift
Alice...Adrift, mixed-media collage, 14 by 20 inches, 2011.

“I have found the most marvelous stuff,” she says. “It’s like shopping, but it doesn’t cost anything.” A true environmentalist, Susan shrinks human surfeit via her art. These found objects from other lives and times have become the raw material for a series of assemblages. They help articulate another aspect of the acute sense she has of her place in the world.

“I am the oldest living member of my family and have been for fifteen years,” Susan says. “My mother was not a collector. So I appropriate other people’s relatives. They become my artwork.”

Created while she was visiting Chatham on vacation, The Hauntings series combines portraits of would-be ancestors with natural elements, such as seedpods from the Chinese money plant growing outside her door, buttons, paint samples, fabric, and other found objects. Pieces of burnt paper from a Fourth of July firecracker that landed in the yard found their way into one of the works. So did lint from a rag rug in the cottage where she was staying. These bits and pieces help convey the feelings she has about the Cape, a place enjoyed by four generations of her family.

In her latest assemblages, Susan has begun to create a family tree, bringing some of her own deceased relatives to imaginative life. Uncle Philip memorializes her father’s brother, who died in infancy; this piece includes a small porcelain doll encased in a jewelry box. The face of her late grandmother, Nana Marie, is framed by a locket that rests atop another photograph backed by a book cover. The remains of an old locket also frame the face of her other late grandmother in the piece Nana Toni.

“I have very few old photographs of family members,” Susan says. So she has tied her relatives together symbolically with red thread in her assemblages. “There is a Chinese legend called the red thread of destiny,” she explains. “According to the legend, the gods have connected people fated to meet and help each other with a red thread.” Revitalized as art, these relatives join the existing members of her family: her son, daughter, and two grandchildren.

They’re all part of her own legacy. This talented artist brings together disparate elements – legend and family, old and new, the found and the fabricated – in her collages and assemblages. The happy result is a newfound beauty and order.