We invited Susan Shie, the artist whose quilt, “Garden of Haiti,” appears on the cover of “Testify: JOT Writers on Creative Resistance: Art as Activism,” to tell us more about “Garden of Haiti” and her artistic process. Join us as we explore the creative, inspiring world of artist Susan Shie.
NWA: Could you choose a couple of symbols that recur in your work to explicate?
Susan: I use a LOT of eyes in my work. Partly because I’m legally blind and could really use better vision, some cool new eyes, so they’re like a good luck thing. But also, in the Hindu religion, eyes are the window to the soul, and the one on the forehead represents our intuition, the crown chakra, etc. So I invented a fourth eye, the one on the chin or neck, at the throat chakra. To me it stands for using our intuition to communicate with others more openly, where the third eye on the forehead is about internal intuition, dreams, etc. This fourth eye is my favorite symbol that I’ve invented.
The long roses I draw are my Peace Roses, there to remind us to give peace and beauty to the world.
The owls are for wisdom, and they also represent the rows of those 1950s patio owl lights, which we have on our patio and which we turn on every night of the year.
The apple in the Haiti piece is sort of a symbol of knowledge that’s been withheld, as in how the world’s and the U.S.’s abuse of Haiti has been kept a pretty good secret from mainstream history classes. The truth will set you free, the saying goes, and in my stories in this piece, I tell a lot of the history of Haiti’s place in the world, which I don’t remember being taught as a child or even as a college student.
NWA: Tell us about your Buddah Boy bead, Buddah Girl bead, Peace Cozy appliqué.
The Green Temple Buddha Boy bead is one of about 300 that I have, and I put one on each piece now. Earlier in my career, I did a LOT of beading on all of my works, along with a lot of hand sewing. Now I use one buddha boy, and am about at the end of my pink buddha girl beads, which are very lovely glass, handmade. I only had about 20 of these. The green boys are only plastic, but man, if you got one of those in a Cracker Jack box, you’d be so amazed! Both buddhas are for spiritual energy, whatever you see that as.
The Peace Cozy is a long story, but suffice it to say the first one was made to cover something else. I made 29 of them, to find one that would just fit, so no one would notice that it was a patch. Then I decided to use them all up. So each time I finish a piece, I have to figure out where that Peace Cozy goes. What do I want to give more peace to in that piece? When I ran out of the 29, I made a new batch of about 65 more, but this time, they have a green background, not yellow. Each quilt’s got a number in this Peace Cozy line. I know, I’m pretty nuts.
NWA: Your quilts are filled with stories handwritten(or airpenned) by you. Can you share one or two of the stories written on the quilt?
Susan: I went into Wikipedia and studied the entire history of the country of Haiti, from when the first native peoples lived there, through when the European conquerors came, up to modern times, and I wrote much of it on this piece, including about the amazing slave rebellion leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, whom Napoleon had kidnapped, and who died in prison in France.
I also told many stories about the earthquake and its aftermath, including GHESKIO’s hospital that normally serves people with AIDS and other contagious diseases, and ended up with over 6,000 people depending on them, camped out. And about Muncheez Pizza, a restaurant in Port au Prince that began feeding anyone for free, after the quake, and kept it up for a long time. They have a Facebook page.
NWA: How do you see your artwork as working towards social justice?
Susan: Well, I can only hope. I think I make my opinions pretty quiet in my work, since you have to actively choose to read the tiny writing to know what I’m thinking about. But if people do read, they can find some things they may not have known about the world. I guess you just do what you can, to try to help, even in some tiny way. I just give news my personal spin and try to be gentle about it. I think artists have a really nice way of having a little soap box to try to help, if they want to use it. Our opinions can be on display, and then people may just soak up something useful. I also try to put some love and peace vibes into the works, so that can just sit there and give off healing, I hope.
NWA: Why or how did you choose your medium of art quilts?
Susan: It was a feminist choice in the late 70s, made when a feminist artist named Miriam Schapiro came to the College of Wooster for a residency, and I got to sit and talk with her in my studio there. Her point was to bring what you do “at home,” as a woman making things, into your studio art, to define it more as women’s work. Plus at that time, I was really restless to be able to move my large paintings around more easily, since I don’t drive and my boyfriend didn’t own a step van to haul my art in. Once the paintings weren’t going onto stretcher bars, then I started to think of sewing this stuff I was holding loose in my hands. I’ve been sewing since I was a little girl, besides painting and drawing since then. And writing, too.
Here’s an excerpt of Susan’s artist statement for “Garden of Haiti”:
This piece is the next in my Kitchen Tarot series, in the Minor cards, chosen by me randomly drawing the Ace of Spoons card for what piece to work on next. But I already knew that the piece’s focus would be Racism, because it was time for me to start my piece for the Obama Quilters’ “Racism: A Dialogue in Art Quilts.”
About this time, the terrible earthquake happened in Haiti, and I decided to honor the people of Haiti by documenting their crisis and delving into the country’s history, to explore racism in the way Haiti was treated by the outside world. I found so much more than I had expected to, I’m sorry to say. Haiti has been a victim of selfish and hurtful people from more powerful countries, from the time Columbus landed on her shores on December 5, 1492.
The Ace of Spoons card is my Kitchen Tarot deck’s name for the Ace of Wands in a regular tarot deck. This card signifies spirit, a new beginning, and basically the gift of creative feistiness. Let us all hope that Haiti will once again rise to the occasion, and become this time a healed and healthy nation, after all her years of enslavement of one type or another. . . .
To read Susan’s full artist statement on the “Garden of Haiti,” and to see more details of the piece, check out her website—Turtle Moon Studios.
Thank you, Susan, for sharing your beautiful creative process with us. And than you to all of the members of the Fiber Artists for Hope, whose work is featured in “Testify.”