It was a sensual delight and a writer’s demise, a step into a clichéd “different world.” Hypnotic trance reggae beats were clearly amplified from a Macintosh laptop computer. The transition was complete with a climate change, from the cool breeze off of Oak Bluffs’ Sunset Lake to the protected cove of Suesan Stovall’s garage. But this is not merely a garage, and this is not, in fact, a different world. It is a familiar and proximate one, only a few minutes from the main drag and harbor in Oak Bluffs. No, this is no new world, just a far groovier one.
The garage is the gallery of Ms. Stovall, who might be called a mixed media artist in the broadest sense of the terminology. Her artwork’s beginnings, the utmost humble, she describes as having been a “practical hobby.” Also an actress and singer, Ms. Stovall suggests that her art career may have been somewhat consequential: “I loved my friends, but as a struggling actress, I couldn’t afford gifts. I started dragging stuff off the street to make gifts and decorate my home.”
Asked why she didn’t use more conventional artistic media to give to her friends, Ms. Stovall truthfully quips, “I can’t draw.” Sensing disbelief she continues, “No, seriously. I had to do this project in third grade where we outlined our bodies on newsprint ...” She trails off recounting the failure and the painful memory: it is clear she has found her niche in found objects.
“I started making refrigerator magnets, and three-dimensional items in cigar boxes,” she says. Her nascent signature style soon lead to a career in mixed media artwork. “One day a friend of mine said, ‘Suesan, you’re really good at this, this is something you should consider doing as a living.’ At that time I just happened to be working at a Haitian art gallery and I invited some of the people over for dinner. They offered me a show, and the first show sold out and I quit my job.” And so the found object artist had found her career.
Ms. Stovall uses and even pursues found objects ranging from a curiously titled Jamaican soup mix to what might be considered the annals of black cultural history, an immense collection of minstrel memorabilia. Her gallery, infused with such artifacts, then becomes not only an artistic space, but also a historical and educational one. The artistry comes in combining these pieces, which are intricately mounted adjacent, atop, and around one another, pasted, and cropped, and glazed, finished with paints, memorable photocopies, and even enlarged fortunes from cookies, all to create one artwork.
Should Ms. Stovall have decided to be a curator of a small museum, the space needed for all of the artifacts and found objects she has acquired would easily exceed the space that her gallery allows.
She also uses her own photography in her work. Notably, Ms. Stovall has incorporated a series of photos of South African graffiti artworks into her work. However what is remarkable about her pieces is that the juxtaposition of objects found amongst several generations and several international locations creates a new meaning, proposes new ideas, and indeed, new politics.
These works have startling results: one piece depicts a stereoscope (antecedent to the Viewfinder children’s toy) image of a Jamaican schoolhouse, in which Ms. Stovall has placed a sphinx. Across the gallery, a similarly moving image depicts a minstrel advertisement, a minstrel boy’s brass band, and a diagram of a slave ship.
Ms. Stovall, unafraid to make these suggestions in her boisterous and brazen way, says that she has experienced backlash in the community. “I was playing with my band at the Oyster Bar [Grill] and I had my artwork up as well.” (Talk about mixed media!) “Between sets, a guy came up to me, and said ‘You know, I’m looking at this piece and I’m thinking, why don’t you get over it? My family were immigrants from Italy and we had it hard, too!’” The piece in question was a piece close to the artist’s heart: a series of pieces on the word “mulatto” (Ms. Stovall is of mixed race) and how its origins are derogatory and offensive. “The word ‘mulatto’ derives from the word ‘mule,’” she says. “He was looking at a piece which had the word ‘colored’ and said ‘I am not a mule’.”
Ms. Stovall says she had to take time to piece herself together before the next set, but then again, piecing together is what she does best.
What Suesan Stovall has learned from that experience, and through her experience creating art from her soul, is that truth and discussion are paramount. She says her friends have often told her, “You’re one of the only people who speaks their mind.” The artist’s ability to do this is imperative. Ms. Stovall’s Diaspora is Baudelaire’s artistic ideal: a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.”
Suesan Stovall’s 9 Spruce Lane gallery (which for the time being is open by appointment or by good fortune) appears to be a set in a play. One of those spaces you have to see rather than hear about, the gallery is in transition now, being readied for Stovall’s August 24 show, Windows of My Soul, an aptly titled mixed media project which uses antique windows as canvases. At a time where such a quality might be America’s saving grace, our most honest artists are indeed our strongest: Suesan Stovall is among and above the qualification.