This month Jenny Sonenberg, Programs Coordinator, sits down with Sue Ferguson Gussow, a valued member and instructor at The Art Barge, to talk with her about her evolution as an artist and educator. Gussow is a figurative painter working in a wide range of drawing and painting media. She is Professor Emerita of The Cooper Union School of Architecture where she continues to conduct the Advanced Drawing Seminar. Gussow teaches Studio Painting and Drawing at The Art Barge.
Please enjoy our interview with her below!
JS: What brought you to art, were you doing it from a young age?
SFG: I can’t remember not doing it. Earliest memory is from age three. My mom was really encouraging. We had a hand laundry; my mom could sew splendidly.
JS: Where was this?
SFG: I was born in Brooklyn but this was in Chicago. We had shirt cardboards that kept shirts stiff. My mother would tack cardboards on the wall for me to draw. I thought every wall in the world was mine. One day I proceeded out from our apartment to decorate the corridor. My poor mom was given hell by the super. I was so mortified: she was on her knees scrubbing the wall. That was the beginning of it.
JS: Do you remember what those drawings were?
SFG: Always people. Often figures of women; then I could color their pretty skirts.
JS: And did that lead into your schooling? Did you study art from a young age?
SFG: Yes, we were still in Chicago and The Art Institute had children’s classes. I was maybe five or six when I was taken to Saturday classes. You weren’t really taught much; it wasn’t like Victor and Mabel. My dim memory is being given pots of paints and an easel and told you what colors you could mix with others; that’s all I recall learning. But fine, good enough for a child. The Chicago school system, when I hit seventh or eighth grade, had a program in collaboration with The Art Institute. The wonderful thing was it was in the Art Institute. So you entered in the front of the museum and made your way all the way back to the school. You could take whatever path to get there. It gave me the oddest views of art history -armor together with impressionist paintings. But such great works, a superb museum.
JS: So your parents were always supportive. Were either of them in the arts?
SFG: My dad had studied architecture; he could draw. My mother had to go to work very young. She was a sample maker in the garment industry. She was very gifted and could do anything with her hands. She told me in later years her wish was to have been a sculptor.
JS: How did you decide to go to Cooper?
SFG: I always wanted to go to Cooper but I went to Pratt for a year first. Cooper didn’t give a bachelor’s degree, only a diploma; it was a three year accredited college but you would have to finish a degree elsewhere. My father did not like that. I got a scholarship to Pratt in the department of art education. I liked Pratt, I liked the campus, but art education had all these boring education classes.
JS: Did that ever manifest itself in your own teaching style?
SFG: No, not from there. I yearned to go to Cooper. I turned 18 that summer and got married. Then I could do what I damn well pleased. My husband was a nature illustrator and was supportive. I took the test and got into Cooper. It was a struggle. I was a figurative artist and Cooper was primarily abstract expressionist. I had one wonderful drawing teacher, Stefano Cusumano, who meant the world to me. There are in your life those one or two definitive people It wasn’t until my third year but he was definitive, he taught me so much about drawing. And he was figurative.
JS: Were you always working in portraiture?
SFG: Always the figure, I had to fight for it then, but it was always the figure.
JS: Did you work in series or did you see them in separates?
SFG: I do work in series if something intrigues me. You might notice these dresses. I didn’t think of them as series initially. I often paint women and as a spin off I became interested in drawing and painting their clothing.
JS: Does that tie back to your mother?
SFG: It does, of course. I didn’t think of it consciously but it does, absolutely.
JS: They are beautiful. I love that there is no body present, yet the clothing is still figurative.
SFG: I have a show opening in April with a lot of these dresses. The first one stemmed from a series of portraits. When you talk of series, I had become interested in doing a series of portraits of women of a certain age. I would ask particular women I thought were great to look at. No longer young but because of what they had done or who they were (not famous, mind you), in the sense that they had done something with their lives. I was at this party and I saw a woman who looked like she must be a dancer, her posture was so elegant. It turned out she was one of Balanchine’s principal dancers.
And she just came all the way from Southampton bringing presents. She brought this dress, the only dress she had from her glory days as principal dancer. She left the dress with me thinking it might be a good subject for me. She left it and it hung on a hanger, and it just hung there and it looked wonderful, and finally I thought I’d better draw the dress and that triggered these newer drawings. The first drawing is just a dress on a hanger and then I started posing the dress. That is just one of the poses and it was exciting because it held the memory of her dance. The dresses I‘ve been drawing all hold memories.
JS: What is your process?
SFG: I do under-drawings but very freely; traces of lines where the elbow is, where the hand is; I just pick up a brush and start. Certain painters influence me, if you think of Manet portraits where the background is very dark and it falls way. It is really about the person. I like an indication of some architectural detail to set space so that the figure is not floating on a flat plane. I had the great luck to visit Russia in 1992. I had known of the painter’s there, one being Repin. He made fabulous solitary portraits. There is a whole world we know very little about.
JS: Especially now when there are so many more artists.
SFG: Oh now…well the good news is everyone makes art and the bad news is there is no school of thought, there’s a lack of community. It is anything, everything and nothing. I suppose the way you deal with it is you just make your own art. But what I don’t want to do is make portraits from the shoulders up. Body language means a lot. Facial expression is significant but the way a person sits, moves, reveals the way a being is and occupies space, which is a great part of a person’s identity.
JS: When were you introduced to teaching?
SFG: I come from a family with a number of teachers on both sides. Particularly on my mother’s side were teachers I loved. My uncle was an English teacher at my high school; I revered him, he was a true intellectual. What was a wonderful thing for me. Actually, he told me don’t teach, if you teach you will never paint.
JS: Do you think that is true? Obviously it is not.
SFG: Well, in some ways. If I had stayed in public school, I don’t know. It was a grind. Teaching at Cooper takes a lot of creative energy. You feel you have done something, working with the students and they are wonderful. They do great things and you’re not the one who’s done it. They have! And then you come home exhausted.
JS: I bet, when were you working in elementary school?
SFG: After graduating from Cooper, I went to Columbia to TC [Teacher’s College] and I got a degree to teach K-12. I was teaching in the New York public schools. I was teaching fifth grade but every project had a lot of art in it. My first marriage had ended. I was still very young, twenty five. I was teaching and married a second time. My husband was offered a really good gig doing research in New Orleans. So that was that. It was 1960 and we went to New Orleans. There I was, with my Teachers College degree, still painting. I did not have a very strong idea of myself professionally. It was a different era for women. The women’s movement had barely started. Civil Rights was cooking. I was not going to teach in a segregated school system so I decided to get an MFA at Tulane where I would be given a studio.
JS: What brought you back to Cooper and what is your teaching style?
SFG: I had come back to New York in 1970. I spent a decade in New Orleans and before I was thirty I got to be a well-known artist there. I thought that would translate. It did not translate. I came back to New York. I was now thirty-four. My parents were aging. Also, mentors advised me to return to New York to take my career to the next level. I needed a job, of course.I brought my portfolio to a painter I much admired who was teaching at Pratt. He looked at my work and liked it and said, “I’ll tell you the truth: there are no jobs in New York. It is impossible to get an art teaching job in New York”. Then he said that’s not entirely true, but your being a woman makes it impossible. I then took my portfolio to Steve Cusumano and he told me to go see Charlie Side at Cooper. I was very hesitant and he said you go and tell Charlie I sent you. Charlie looked at my work and said a group of militant students were angry because in painting and drawing there were no women faculty and never had been. They were demanding both a female and figurative faculty member- two things non-existent at Cooper. Here I was, he could kill two birds with one stone. He told me he didn’t know if he had a job for me now. A few days later I got a phone call from him. That was 1970.
JS: Leading back into your teaching style, were you comfortable teaching right away?
SFG: Not immediately. I was graduate assistant at Tulane and I also taught children. Teaching children helped because it taught me not to teach from above – to understand the level your students were at. You start from where they are. I also think teaching is something you dig or you don’t. I had no idea that I would love it but I loved teaching the kids, too. I just loved it.
JS: And so how was it transitioning to university level?
SFG: I was scared when I started at Cooper. I remembered my own student days and the other students. We were pretty sharp and we could give teachers a bad time. We were very full of ourselves. I was scared of these kids but they were great. They liked having a young teacher. I was filling the bill that a number of them had demanded. They had said “women”, they had said “figurative”. There I was!
JS: Has your approach to classes changed?
SFG: Sure, but that’s hard to describe. It’s an evolution. Earlier on I was more certain of what I should teach, more strict about the syllabus. I had definite ideas pedagogically. I did feel, and still do, that if you can’t draw with line you can’t draw. You can use tone to obfuscate, but tone can also be used structurally. I learned that for some students it is such a loss, so painful. So why do that to them. Let them have it; then work with them. I am much less of a rules girl now.
JS: I have noticed that shift in academia where graduate school has become about landing gallery opportunities.
SFG: Absolutely. Networking, that is why they go to graduate school. It is awful. Nobody made it that fast back then and money has now infected it.
JS: How did you start teaching at The Art Barge?
SFG: Bill Nagle. Bill has been a friend for some years, I like his art; he likes my art. He said why don’t you teach at The Art Barge? At this point I had retired from full-time teaching and I thought, yes! So I started-I don’t know-perhaps six years ago.
JS: How does it differ from your other experiences in education?
SFG: Much more relaxed. There is wide spectrum of background, desire, and commitment people bring to their work. But they all come yearning to make art. I have met such delightful people at the Barge. I think it attracts people who just love to be in this magical setting. That is true for me. I love it because I am scheduled to go there one week a summer and every morning that week I get up and drive there and think ah! I am here! I just love the place and Chris truly is the keeper of the D’Amico flame. There is no place like it. It is a paradise.