At a craftsman style house in Santa Ana, a light breeze is filled with the scent of burning pine, as a faint buzzing sound hums in the background. Outside, the nearby freeways provide a faint wooshing of cars and traffic, paired with the gentle cluck-cluck of hens grazing nearby. Inside, with whimsical and emotive artwork on every surface, artist Suzanne Walsh is at work, carefully burning images into wood.
With graphic qualities, emotionally inspired content, and clean burnt lines on wood, Walsh makes artwork that reflects her inner longings, reflections, fascinations, and intellectual and emotional stimulation. Her work often revolves around animals, textile patterns, and relationships. With a background in illustration, her representations are crisp and clean, with a light-hearted edge that is unmistakably her own.
Born and raised in Orange County, Walsh has creativity pumping through her veins and an eye for aesthetics. She comes from a family of artists and writers. She values the painterly and personal approach, even in her pristine pyrography and illustration. It's not surprising that she ended up in a multitude of mediums, with a mother who is a well known art critic in Orange County, and a father who worked as a spec writer for Jet Propulsion Laboratory while Walsh was growing up. "My dad would take me and my sister out to look at the stars, and teach us about the planets and constellations, regularly," she said. "I think it taught me to dream and investigate the things I could not see or touch easily." Now, Walsh is a gallerist by day, and an artist, a writer, a website developer, a curator and a designer by night. Director of saltfineart and RAWsalt in Laguna Beach, her own artwork often comes second or third in her duties, but looking at her work you can see the time and care she pours into each piece. "It's very hard to find the time to create work when you're working in the arts, which feels like a 'Catch-22' I'm probably not alone in," she says. "A lot of people that are in arts administration are also artists themselves. So, my primary challenge is carving out enough time to produce artwork."
Having started as a textile designer and graphic editorial artist with education from Savannah College of Art and Design, shortly after college, Walsh knew she would have to find a way to translate her love for line work into a fine art material, and slowly moved away from her first love, pen and ink on paper. "It's great for printing. I've done albums covers, posters, advertisements. But I wanted to transition more into fine art. Ink fades, it's not really seen in galleries all that often, it's not archival," she said. She quickly realized she could transition into mark-making directly and permanently into a surface by burning her lines into wood. "There's something fascinating about putting something permanent on a surface, altering the material. All of a sudden, I fell in love with that burn; that scent; that permanently perfect line."
Her aesthetic circles animal life, and the parallels between humans and animals. Often utilizing pyrography -- a rare and fascinating technique of burning her lines into wood panels or live edge wood slices -- Walsh also utilizes paint, ink, chalk, graphite and photography in her process. With her extensive background in design, both graphic and textile, she finds peace in burning her lines into her surfaces; she compares it to tattoos and scarification, adding a greater sense of permanence and value to her evocative works. When she does include humans, Walsh also incorporates animals into the composition, finding the connections between species, between souls, and between lives. "I love taking predator animals or animals that have been given a bad rap, and putting them in environments where they're relatable to human emotions and experiences. I think in a nutshell, my work is about that," she says. Without making any direct correlation between these animals and humans, Walsh creates an internal dialogue within the viewer, whether you're "...watching a hawk go after a bunny, or watching a wolf walk with splattered blood on its mouth, in the snow; more than anything, I'm using animals to convey human emotion," she says.
Occasionally her honest and poignant writer-side emerges through her artwork, with small phrases or poetic notions etched into her composition, adding intrigue, whimsy, and romanticism to her work. "My favorite kind of humor is observational mixed with absurdism," she says. "So, that being said, a phrase will often pop into my head or I'll hear one and almost immediately there is a visual." Her play with negative space is inviting and mystical, subtly bringing in color and change of texture, to help guide the viewer around the compositions on wood. The incorporation of the wood evokes a kind of haunting hypnosis, wondering what's real and what's imagined, as you're reminded of nature, of life, and the relationship we have to both. "If you can look at the world honestly and without fear, do something about it and still allow yourself to find the silly. I guess that is what my work is about," she says. "Ghost mice riding the owl that ate them, predators praying for forgiveness, tiny hearts intertwined, ego, love, internet memes... all those things."
It is rare to see illustration in the contemporary galleries of Southern California, but Walsh shows it at galleries in O.C. and L.A. regularly, nearly selling out every time. Her most recent obsession has been an in-depth look at portraiture, utilizing traditional techniques while exploring new styles to create her own view of the world around her. Fascinated by the human drive to create the self portrait, as well as the phenomenon of the "selfie," and the emotional investment inherent in the portrait, Walsh feels that the interest in portraiture is growing more recently. "My fascination with the self portrait has definitely evolved over the years, with the core idea still remaining the same, which is, I take a self portrait because I want to get back in touch with myself. And, I think that's really what everyone is doing," she explains. "It's a touchstone, it's me, in one real moment; it's a way of grounding ourselves. A lot of people see it as narcissism. I don't necessarily see it that way. I see it as keeping in touch with yourself."
Taking self portraits from loved ones, friends, family members and translating those images into unique and interesting compositions on wood or plastic, has been preoccupying her practice, as of late. While inspired by the anthropological aspect of the selfie, Walsh also finds portraits to be endearing and intimate. "Painting a portrait was a way of honoring people. The portraits I make are all usually of people I know and care about. My fascination with portraiture is in a way expressing myself artistically while at the same time, I'm showing a person that I honor them, and I want to immortalize them on some level, however minor."
Her work is imbued with a sense of wonder and curiosity. She is dissecting the subject with her pen, or wood burner. She is fascinated by figuring out some sort of puzzle that makes up the entirety of the subject, finding a way to tell their narrative, whether fictitious or not.
Walsh recently exhibited work at Coastline Community College Art Gallery, Jamie Brooks Fine Art, Red Pipe Gallery, Artists Republic 4 Tomorrow, F Plus Gallery, Logan Creative, and Mutual Aid. Walsh curates monthly exhibits at saltfineart and RAWsalt, where she occasionally shows her own work, and has been curating exhibits at independent galleries all over Southern California for nearly 10 years. In July, Walsh is also curating "New Moon: A Group Show" at The Yurt in San Clemente, featuring work by Yevgeniya Mikhailik, Diana Barbancho, Chantal deFelice, Ray Vargas, Yumi Sakugawa, Rob Brown, Sarah Walsh, Nancy Chiu, Diana Markessinis and Lindsay Buchman. She is also planning on releasing a novella, tentatively titled "The Abandoned Children of Aerospace Engineers" next year with Black Hill Press. Though she is involved in a multitude of avenues in the Orange County art scene, Walsh's artwork finds the quiet spots in between sentences and movements, to curl up inside your heart and make you yearn for more.