FINDING ART AND SOUL IN MICHIGAN
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 9, 2012
Painter Susan Van Sant is a long way from her birthplace, but definitely feels like she’s found “home.” Born and raised on a corn and soybean farm in Iowa, Van Sant has put down roots and is thriving in the urban core of Grand Rapids.
She describes her childhood living in a small community, going to Christian schools and living thirteen miles from the nearest city, Pella (population 9,832). Her three older brothers were all out of the house by the time she was in grade school. “I spent a lot of time alone.” Her house was situated on a dead-end street. She remembers making the long walk from her house to the end of the road where there was a bridge. “I spent hours sitting on it, just tossing stones into the river. A lot of my drawing comes from that experience of aloneness.”
It was a pre-school teacher who encouraged Van Sant’s mother to nurture her daughter’s art skills. But what that teacher recognized as raw talent with pencils and crayons would not blossom until that little girl arrived, years later, in the Great Lakes State.
In 1993, after graduating in a class of only 70 students (60 of whom she had been in school with since kindergarten), her parents gave her a choice –go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids or Dordt College in Northeast Iowa. Van Sant decided to head to Michigan.
And her first thoughts when she landed here? “The snow scared me! I had never seen so much snow. But I was so amazed by the beaches. In Iowa, they have to ship sand in to make a beach. When some friends first took me to Grand Haven, I just assumed they had shipped all the sand in.”
At Calvin, Van Sant tried graphic design, but working with type felt tedious. She took an art drawing class, but was turned off by the “very technical” teaching. She finally landed on printmaking for a major. Picking up her first paint brush was still several years off.
“When I graduated from college the idea of art and career still didn’t go hand-in-hand for me.” She worked various retail jobs. “Some of my best friends are the people I met when I worked at Frames Unlimited.”
Then Van Sant started doing ‘pet portraiture.’ “I ultimately did pretty well and even got a commission from a Shiba Inu dog group to paint one of the breeds for the Japanese government.” The pet portraiture became a jumping off point for Van Sant’s journey in art.
“When I first started painting I was doing some pretty dark work” said Van Sant. “Aunia Kahn became my mentor.” Kahn, who was born in Michigan and now lives in St. Louis, was very supportive of Van Sant’s art. “I pretty much followed in her footsteps.”
“I don’t really know where I’m going when I start a painting,” said Van Sant. “I’m just the vehicle. My paintings look at things that shouldn’t go together, but yet they do. Like a butterfly next to a skull. A lot of my work looks at good and evil, light and dark and the blur between the two.” Her work has been featured in several local and national shows in Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis and ArtPrize 2011 in Grand Rapids.
Van Sant also brings her art to other venues. She has done all the artwork for the first two albums of Grand Rapids-based Holloway, a progressive metal band. In fact, she was in the recording studio when she gave this interview, listening to the lyrics of Holloway’s soon-to-be released album. “This album tells a story. Listening to it helps me get the feel for the artwork.”
She is also marketing a line of perfumes called Entity. “Scents are like colors to me. It’s like painting with my nose.”
“I’m at the beginning stages of flourishing,” said Van Sant. “Grand Rapids has only recently begun to expand its arts. ArtPrize is helping to put Grand Rapids on the map. We’re getting lots more galleries. I feel like I’m at the beginning of something great. It’s like I’m waiting to see where the city takes me.”
“My heart belongs in Michigan. The lakes, the skies, the change of seasons, it feeds me and it feeds my art. Being in Michigan means there are a lot more opportunities to come.”