If you don’t know Susan Lyon, then you should. She received The Donald Teague Memorial Award at the 2016 Prix de West Show for Juanita With Red Ribbons (below). It is a quintessentially Lyon portrait.
Exquisite draftsmanship, sensitive edgework and an intimate connection to her painting subject have been hallmarks of Lyon’s work for decades. Yet, elements of mixed media are at play here. And as we look into her larger body of work, we get a better sense of her artistic vision.
How Susan Lyon Forges a New Creative Path
First, at 29 by 21 inches, the scale is larger than the sepia pastel portraits for which she has become so well known. Second, although it’s a work on paper, it’s less of a drawing and more of a painting. It combines the refined sensitivity of her drawings with the experimentation, layering and color of her oil paintings. This is particularly true in the use of the background washes and the introduction of a limited range of color.
“I started out with watercolor washes, and then used pastel pencil and soft pastel over that,” explains Lyon. “It was the first time I had used this paper, and it was different than smooth paper. I had to rub the pastel into the paper more than usual because of the texture.”
This award-winning painting marks a period of intense exploration and experimentation for Lyon that continues into the present. Her studio is now filled with mixed-media pastels in varying stages. She works steadily, patiently, setting aside paintings and working on others in turn.
In submitting Juanita With Red Ribbons to Prix de West, the artist took a calculated risk. In fact, some of her galleries initially resisted showing her newest works on paper, unsure mixed-media pastels would sell. “I had to insist that this is what I’m doing right now,” says Lyon. “I told them that I had to branch out and see where this path would take me.”
To win such a coveted award from such a prestigious show was confirmation that she was on the right path for mixed-media work.
Experimenting With Mixed Media
It was while on a trip to Guatemala that Lyon first became enamored with multimedia. She came across the work of photographer Luis Gonzalez Palma, whose haunting images of the indigenous Mayan and Mestizo people harken back to the photography of Edward S. Curtis and other pioneers of the craft.
“Palma manipulates photos with paint or gold leaf, and even adds 3D elements,” notes Lyon, which results in visual statements that are both timeless and contemporary. “The photos mesmerized me.” They also encouraged her to experiment with multimedia elements, such as gold leaf, collage and 3D effects, in her own work.
Scott Burdick, fellow artist and Lyon’s spouse, has watched his wife’s evolution with wonder and admiration. “The number of experiments Susan discards exhibits a special sort of dedication and bravery,” he says. “She isn’t afraid to fail over and over, until finding just the right mix of watercolor, pastel, glued fabric, paper of every sort, and even gold leaf or thick glitter. I never could have imagined pasting glitter on the eyelashes of a drawing or pastel; and yet, when I see it on some of her drawings, I think, of course, that brings out that model’s personality perfectly. How could it have been any other way?”
Burdick refers to the golden lashes in Luminous, a small touch that sets off an already bold statement. The voluminous hair, golden background and Art Deco-inspired designs aren’t mere decorations; they’re manifestations of the personality of the model and the imagination of the artist. In the gaze of a singularly confident woman, we catch a glimpse of the model’s trust in the artist.
A Lifetime of Innovation
While Lyon and Burdick travel and teach together, and often work in tandem during photo shoots, they have distinctly different styles. What they do share, however, is a profound respect and admiration for each other’s work.
Burdick recalls a recent conversation with a studio visitor. “During an art walk at Susan’s Trade Street Studio in Winston-Salem, I watched a woman wander into the studio for the first time, stop in front of one of Susan’s mixed-media pieces and stare. ‘That’s amazing!’ the woman said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful.’”
Burdick continues, “The woman studied the delicately modeled face, which is the culmination of decades of dedicated practice from thousands of models posing from life and photos. Then she looked at all the layered media that formed the abstract elements of the background. It was a technique I’d watched Susan experiment with over the past year until she eventually found the correct balance of materials.
“Finally, the woman studied the mixture of unexpected textures, cloth and papers that Susan used for the clothing — something she’d struggled to master through countless failed experiments on earlier paintings. The woman asked me, ‘How long did your wife spend on this?’ How does one answer?”
Contemplating the entirety of Lyon’s recent work, Burdick adds, “I’m often asked what I see myself painting 10 years from now. I don’t know, but I doubt it will be as innovative as what Susan is doing right now. Maybe her example will serve as a kick in the pants to many of us to set our fears of failure aside and blaze a trail into the unknown.”