Sunday, October 18, 2020

A Visit with Artist Susanna Gaunt on Her New Show at the DAI: Integument

The Armory Annex has been a beehive of creative energy over the years. The former Perkins Restaurant became the property of the Historic Armory Board in order to have an office with proximity to the Armory during its two decades of renovation and resurrection. A local forging community took up resident there and a number of artist studio spaces were created. 

One of these spaces belongs to Susanna Gaunt whose new show Inegument will go on display this week at the Duluth Art Institute this fall in the George Morrison Gallery. I myself have been busy with a mural project at the Armory, frequently going in and out of the Annex this summer and fall. throughout this time I have watch Ms. Gaunt's dedication to this array of new three-dimensional work. After a number of visits, I felt a desire to learn more and share here.

EN: When did you become serious about making art? Was there a trigger moment or just a gradual dawning?

Susanna Gaunt: I have been making art in some form all my life. Even when distracted by other life events, such as having kids or moving from one city to another, I found I naturally came back to making. Perhaps when I realized this – that I just have to make art – I became more serious. There have been pauses, again due to life events, but also because of shifts in confidence and fears. Being serious was affirmed most recently during my time as a BFA student at UMD. The experience opened my eyes to not only new techniques but also ways of thinking about art, and an art career. Since then (2017), I’ve allowed art to be my career: applying for grants, having a studio space and continuing to put myself out there.

EN: Your work is a departure from traditional drawing and painting. How did this form of expression evolve?

Though I drew a lot as a kid and through my first undergraduate degree, my primary medium for over twenty years was photography. I dabbled in commercial photography as a means to pay the bills, but turned to teaching as a back up to exhibiting photographic projects. As the projects evolved, I began to want more than just a 2-dimensional photograph on the wall. I started to push the presentation of my series, taking the photo out of the frame and suspending it in multiples, or turning it into an object hidden in a faux book. This was about when our family landed in Duluth and I decided to go back to UMD for a studio art degree. I wanted to learn as many new mediums as possible. In my final years, which included a mixed-media class and the senior exhibit, I found myself transitioning to installation work – a new way to present my art.

EN: What’s the most gratifying aspect of your work?

SG: I love the sense of accomplishment when I push through creative challenges to new discoveries, whether it is with the layout of an individual piece of work, or the hanging of an entire exhibit in a new space. There are a lot of logistics to figure out with installation art: How will the work live in the space aesthetically? Or what kind of walls does the gallery have and will they hold my 20lb drawer? This can often be daunting, but when all the parts come together and the presentation materials become part of the work - that is quite satisfying.

EN: You’ve not only been in juried shows here, but in shows around the country. There are so many components in your displays. Seems complicated having shows in other places. Care to comment on this?

This is definitely one of the more problematic aspects of installation art – not only does the work tend to be larger, it also requires a complicated install process that often includes adapting and re-adapting the work on site. Since I’ve only been truly doing installation art since 2017, I’ve limited my geography with this style of work. The art that I’ve exhibited beyond Minnesota (and Superior, WI) has been my traditional photographs or prints, or at least been smaller in size and therefore easier to send. I have not yet solved the equation of sending my current work or traveling to be present for the installation process on site. Down the road, options may include traveling farther to a site or providing detailed instructions with shipped work. At this point, I am still nervous about the pieces getting damaged in shipping or handling.

EN: The title of your upcoming show is Integument, which is defined as “a tough outer protective layer, especially that of an animal or plant.” How does integument relate to this show?

For me, integument is a great way to tie in both the idea of layers and my interest in biology. I have used layers as an aesthetic tool for the past several years because it provides multiple avenues into the artwork. Layers of meaning. Layers of content. Layers of design. 

In this work, most of the pieces allude to skin, as a covering or the thin layer between two sides (inside and outside, for instance). With biology, I think a lot about processes that occur in nature and integument can be a physical sign of these transitions when you think about skin shed, or hair lost. One of my favorite things to find is the exoskeleton of an insect on a tree or beside a river. There is so much present in that moment of discovery – proof of the existence of a being that was once encased in this layer. It is a proof of time passing, of aging - something all organisms experience, for better or worse. For me, it is also proof of the wonder of nature that something can look both so delicate and transparent while maintaining the perfect shape of the subject that discarded it.

EN: In the DAI description of your upcoming show you are quoted as saying you work “is often enhanced with the use of layers that conceal enough to raise questions and reveal enough to suggest answers.” What are some of the questions you are alluding to here?

My first undergraduate degree was in philosophy so I am cursed with asking questions without answers. What is the meaning of life!? Over the years, curiosity and wonder have become important components in my explorations in and outside of the studio. The curiosity encourages those questions while the wonder offers some answers or at least provides some comfort in not knowing. I find it's important to allow for multiple meanings in the art I make because there is plenty of complexity in the world and in life, This is why I gravitate towards using layers. For example, a translucent layer that only partially conceals what’s beneath it can spark the viewer’s curiosity and pull them in closer. Then, a more intimate view can reveal clues to the details within the work or even the idea behind the work.

I read a lot of natural history books as part of my research. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a favorite. She observes and shares everyday moments that happen in her small geographical area. Her skill at writing evokes wonder in me and I strive to offer that with my artwork when I can. In the end, it's about finding meaning and I steer towards discovering the wonder in the small details and moments by simply asking “what will I observe today?” It forces me to consider my relationship with the natural world and the artmaking transfers that reflection into action.

Show details:
Susanna Gaunt
Duluth Art Institute
Morrison Gallery
506 W Michigan St in Duluth
October 20 – December 31, 2020
In person: Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 3pm

Smartify app for iPhone and Android

Artist talk: November 18, 6pm on @duluthart on IGTV
Livestream: At noon on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of each month (October, November and December); Susanna will answer questions and work on her growing piece, “Disperse.” Subscribe to DAI’s YouTube channel to attend.

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