Thursday, August 5, 2010


A few weeks ago during lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Cowan, Tennessee, Isabel Anders and I passed around copies of the cover of CHANT OF DEATH, a mystery that she and I co-authored. CHANT, which is to be published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, will be on the market this month, and I hope that all of you supporters will buy your copy from Pinyon. We think that the cover alone will sell the book!

Susan E. Elliott, who created the painting for the cover, is a highly original artist who has a background in biology and excels in art and music as well. When she began painting the picture for CHANT, she spent time listening to plainchant, composed her own version of it, played it on the piano, then transferred the composition to the cover. The result is highly impressive. Visiting musician, Freddie Begun, who is a retired tympani player with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., was really taken with Susan’s concept for the painting and the finished work. The reception to this art work was an “ooh” and “ah” moment that provided entertainment for the group of old friends gathered to honor Washington visitors.

Susan, who has formidable credentials as a scientist, cuts a big swath in the field of art also. She has a B.S. in Botany, a B.A. in French from Humboldt State University, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Dartmouth College, but now works as designer for Pinyon Publishing, for which Gary Entsminger, is editor. She studied ecology, evolution, and conservation of plant-pollinator mutualisms and was interested in “how mutualisms influence coupled ecological and evolutionary processes across the landscape.” That is a direct quote because I’m not literate enough in science to explain the scientific jargon. Susan asks questions such as: If you mowed down half the wildflower meadows in a town, would the pollinators be out of luck? Or maybe the pollinators have surplus flowers and are more limited by nest sites? If we humans shift the balance, how will organisms that depend on each other respond? How much wiggle room do we have? The bumblebee picture above conveys her interest in the interdependence between a long-tongued bumble bee and a perennial wildflower; it appears as a painting in the book of poetry, OPEN THE GATES, by Dabney Stuart and published by Pinyon, in which forty of Susan’s paintings appear.

Susan was born and raised in Mariposa, California (small town near Yosemite). She also lived in southern France, Georgia, and New Hampshire. She moved to Colorado for pollination research at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte (the official Wildflower Capitol of Colorado). Susan represents that rare combination of scientist and artist, and with my friend Victoria Sullivan, who is also a botanist, is working on a book entitled WHY WATER PLANTS DON’T DROWN. This young adult book features text by Vickie and paintings/drawings/illustrations by Susan. In preparation for painting a picture of one of the water plants last week, Susan donned goggles, pink crocs, and blue bathing suit, spraying herself with water to emulate the life of a water plant. I’ve always heard that the way to produce the perfect work of art (writing, painting, etc.) is to use all the senses, so I guess Susan was right on target with her get-up and water immersion!

This talented woman has also co-written a novel entitled OPHELIA’S GHOST with Gary. It’s a story that “explores the Anasazi, ancient cultures, the art of memory, Shakespeare, UFO’s, and the Moon.” In her spare time, Susan romps with Garcia, her black lab, mountain climbs, and hikes with Gary several times a week. They live in a cabin on a huge pinyon-juniper plateau in the Rocky Mountains.

Below is an interview with Susan that reflects the bright, original mind of this gifted scientist/artist:

DIANE: What kind of art training prepared you for the work of designing, painting, and illustrating books?

SUSAN: Until 2009, art was a pastime and a tool to remember flower species while I studied botany. I’ve always loved color. For my sixteenth birthday, my girlfriends and I made paper; the image of multicolored, drying sheets in front of our house is imprinted in my mind. From high school days I remember a series of very colorful, finger-painted Spanish women dancing (I was a dancer throughout high school). I’ve gone through periods of wearing pink pants! I love motion and movement. For several years, Gary encouraged me to paint first thing in the morning. It was a better way to start the day than an anxiety-prone, dissertation-related task. So painting was a meditation in that sense.

In 2009, Dabney Stuart asked me to illustrate his book of children’s poems. For the next six months, I began rigorous self-training in watercolor. I studied several books – general techniques with Jack Reid; Chinese and hybrid Chinese-western techniques with Lian Quan Zhen, and drawing techniques with Kimon Nicolaides. Dabney Stuart is also a painter and offered excellent hard criticism and encouragement. The style I slid into is impressionistic without being abstract. I focus on subjects versus scenes.

My paintings begin with excitement and confidence. I quickly slide into hopelessness and lack of vision. Gary is essential in all stages, but especially this one. We take long walks, and he lets me blather on about the challenges. I try to see each part of the subject's body in my mind and devise how a particular style would suit it. In each painting, I try to combine areas of fine detail with areas of free color and movement.

DIANE: I understand the painting of the cover for CHANT OF DEATH involved a complicated process. Would you describe it in detail?

SUSAN: This is probably more information than you want, but since it’s the book you and Isabel wrote, you might like to have this information. I looked at pictures of old plainchant manuscripts online to get a feel for the subject. I started trying to learn some basic Gothic calligraphy. Then I decided I’d bite the bullet and create lettering in Photoshop. This would allow me more freedom and chances to revise small sections if necessary. So I experimented with the process of dying papers. I knew I could “age” paper in Photoshop, but this didn’t move me. So I tried hibiscus tea, espresso, and other teas, with a number of variations in drying time, amount of liquid, crumpling, tea and espresso grind/leaves, etc. I liked the espresso paper the best for the interesting patterns and brown/gold colors. So then I did a series of espresso tests. I came up with a half dozen dyed sheets that I liked. I scanned those in, adjusted the paper brightness, “burned” the edges, etc. in Photoshop. Now I needed a plainchant. I experimented with drawing lines and notes in Photoshop to insure I could make them look realistic (by twisting and bending, that sort of thing). I also made sure I could “age” the text and music using certain techniques in Photoshop. Okay, so I knew I could “paint on the music,” so now I needed the music. I found a line from CHANT that I felt was appropriate for the cover: Libera me, Domine, de morte aetema, in die illa tremenda. This, when translated, means: “Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that fearful day.” Another line I liked a lot was: “We are the music while the music lasts.” But the first was in Latin and had a good spooky feel. So then I composed a plainchant. I’ve been a musician all my life (piano, banjo) and have a little music theory training, so this wasn’t too ominous. I tried to make the notes match the sentiment of the words, rising majestically for “Domine” and falling darkly for “morte.” Then I read online sources describing 11th century musical notation. I translated my modern notation and also revised the melody a bit. I painted on the notes in Photoshop. Once the digital manuscript was complete, I aged the writing to match the espresso patterns. I brought the manuscript into my cover file and “warped” it to give it dimension.

DIANE: Have you had exhibitions of your work?

SUSAN: I’d like to post a gallery of my work online, but right now our book projects are taking the lead. I’ve done a commissioned piece and have a request for prints to hang, but again, exhibiting my art is lower on the priority list right now. Most of my work is for books (sumi-e bamboo in Gary Hotham’s SPILLED MILK: HAIKU DESTINIES, black and white watercolor representations of parables for our book, REMEMBERING THE PARABLES, upcoming color paintings for the water plants book with Victoria Sullivan, drawings inside our book, OPHELIA’S GHOST, and, of course, paintings for Dabney Stuart’s OPEN THE GATES, a book of children’s poems. The books get priority, but when I need to loosen up, sometimes I paint pictures of my nephews (ages two and five, who live in California).

DIANE: How does science influence your art?

SUSAN: We love combining science and art – and art and literature! Field botany has been a passion of mine since high school. I love the drawings in field guides, and I like the artistic process of mounting a plant. Now I enjoy digital photography so I don’t always have to collect plants. You learn a lot about a plant from drawing it. In college Plant Taxonomy, I kept a notebook of drawings, one to represent each family or genus we were learning. The process of drawing/painting/coloring imprints the subject in your mind so the “memorization” work is done for you.

In my current painting projects, I don’t chain myself to scientific accuracy. I want a sand fiddler crab to look like a fiddler crab, not some other crab. I want a water strider to look like a water strider, not a water spider or a mosquito hawk. I want a bladderwort to look like a bladderwort, not just some ambiguous water plant. But, after that, I want the viewer to see “life” in the subject. Animals have eyes; their expression is largely in the eyes. Plants interact with water, insects, air, and people. They move in the water currents and the wind. I am very excited about starting this new water plant project after an intense year of animals. I think my plants will have more life because of the previous animal focus.

DIANE: Tell me about your habitat in Colorado.

SUSAN: We live on the Uncompaghre Plateau at 7,000 feet, adjacent to the San Juans (many 13K and 14K peaks, southern Rocky Mountains). Pinyon-juniper with open sage patches dot the landscape. Our log cabin is small and fully open, except for the bathroom. We’re surrounded by the Bureau of Land Management on three sides. We work, side by side, at the computer. When I paint, the dining room table is overtaken by art supplies. The cabin is strategically placed so that the big East-facing windows bring us light and heat in the winter, but are out of the way of the intense summer sun. My view when working at the computer, painting, or playing music, is through those windows, across the plateau to the nearby Buckhorn Mountain, or further south to the Cimmarons and the San Juans. When we gaze mindlessly out those windows, we usually notice wildlife: occasional bobcat and mountain lion, deer, turkey, bunnies, hummingbirds, numerous small birds, chipmunk, squirrel, lizard, eagle, ravens…

DIANE: I know that Gary listens to music when he works. Do you include music in your painting process?

SUSAN: We listen to music almost non-stop. We like many styles (bluegrass, jazz, rock, old-time, classical/concert), but recently, we’ve taken concert music courses from the Teaching Company. We happened to be studying plainchant when we received the CHANT OF DEATH manuscript. (We also don’t believe in most cases of coincidence). Diane, Isabel, and the course turned us on to some particular artists. So, yes, we were listening to plainchant while I worked on the CHANT cover. While painting, one of my favorite CDs is Joni Mitchell’s BLUE. I submerge myself in her artistic sensibility, and my California roots reach out and find water to keep me alive.

DIANE: What prompted you to “get in the water” for your first painting for WHY WATER PLANTS DON’T DROWN?

SUSAN: Painting is always a challenge! I first thought: “Oh yes! Easy, right?” Plant proportions are more free than animals. If a horse’s head is too small, it doesn’t look right. But if a leaf is small, that’s normal. Plants are variable. But it wasn’t so easy from the start. And I’m only at the start. My first attempts of applying other styles just didn’t work. The plants were either too flat or too straight. Then I put on my swimsuit and blue-tinted goggles,sprayed myself (we live in high desert, but I LOVE the water and swimming…). I took a large block of newsprint outside and broke out the pastels. I squinted my eyes and wouldn’t let myself look at the piece without goggles until I deemed it finished. I was surprised to find that water plants could have as much life and character as a rhinoceros or iguana. I used this sentiment to motivate the watercolor piece I did next. Working big (22”x30”) helped; I got my whole body into it. Thanks to Vickie, this girl who loves the water gets to be there in her mind for the next few months! I know each painting will go through the frustration stage, but so far everything seems to work out…

1 comment:

Sara said...

Diane is a very unique and intelligent person. i enjoyed this interview very much.very informative. i have enjoyed all her works.of course the southern flair interests me. you could read any ofher works and be impressed. sara d. louiaiana