Then poet and artist William Blake wrote about seeing the world in a grain of sand, he wasn't exactly referring to still lifes, but the analogy fits. Just ask Susan Jane Walp, who has been painting them for more than 20 years. That may seem like an awfully long time spent arranging objects on tabletops, but the Chelsea artist is still enchanted. "The possibilities are kind of infinite," Walp notes, adding that, ironically, she finds working within the confines of the classic genre "freeing." An admittedly pokey painter -- she turns out just six to 12 small still lifes a year -- Walp also finds the process meditative. "There's something about working from observation that is very grounding," she says. "And there's something about being in Vermont that lends itself to that kind of contemplative work."
Her work has certainly impressed the "outside" world. Walp has been in nearly a show a year since 1974, primarily in New York and California. Through the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan, she steadily sells oil-on-linen works, about 9 by 10 inches, for $7500 apiece. In the "very vibrant contemporary scene of painters doing landscapes and still lifes," says gallery director Eric Brown, "Susan has quite a following among collectors."
This output, and the spectacular quality of her paintings, was enough to win over the judges at the Guggenheim Foundation this spring; Walp was one of 185 individuals in North America -- and the only Vermonter -- to receive its coveted fellowship.
Established in 1925, the Guggenheim annually confers grants "to further the development of scholars and artists." Walp declines to reveal the amount of her award; according to the foundation's website, the average grant was $37,362. She's almost as reluctant to show the two unfinished paintings that represent what her Guggenheim will be used for: they are figurative, and she wants to hire a live model to pose for her in her studio.
It might take a decent wage to coax an artist's model to Walp's home; nestled on a hillside in Chelsea, the place isn't on a direct route to anywhere. It's gorgeous now, surrounded by green, and with a garden coming to life in the front yard. But in the winter, negotiating that narrow, unpaved road must take some gumption -- and good snow tires.
A Pennsylvania native, Walp has lived here full-time since 1985 with her husband Michael Moore, a partner at Steerforth Press in Hanover. They've expanded the house considerably since some "1960s hippies" converted an old sawmill into primitive living quarters, Walp explains. The couple met in Moore's native Colorado, lived in Denver and then New York before moving to Vermont.
Though she and Moore punctuate their quiet existence with traveling, to the city and abroad, Walp seems to thrive on the isolated splendor of rural Vermont. And the attributes she applies to still lifes could very nearly be used to describe her. A petite, attractive woman in her mid-fifties, she makes a gentle first impression: soft-spoken, calm and thoughtful. She chooses her words carefully, and takes a while before confiding her artistic passions.
"Susan is really a fierce person behind all that quiet, ladylike manner," insists longtime friend David Budbill, a poet and musician who lives in Wolcott. He and his wife, painter Lois Eby, have participated with Walp in a salon-style group of artists since the late '80s. "She does what she damn well pleases, in her quiet, modest way," Budbill adds. And her paintings, he suggests, are like the painter: "The more you look at them, the more you see."
Case in point: After an hour and a half of conversation, Walp reveals that her latest "parallel discipline" is Indian drumming -- like painting still lifes, it allows improvisation within a rigid structure. "It's so wonderful to bring that energy of being a beginner into the studio," she notes.
Doing what she pleases means spending days in her second-floor workspace. The view is lovely outside the large windows, and yet Walp's attention is generally focused on one small area just beyond her easel.
There, on a table or sometimes a flat stone, she arranges the items that typically comprise her still lifes. There's almost always a piece of fruit, smack in the middle. "It kind of breaks the rules of composition to place something in the center," Walp concedes, "but I try to paint without something in the center and it just creeps back in."
This mandala-esque approach is just one of the ways her works differ from, say, an opulent still life from the 17th century. It also helps explain why Walp finds the process of creating her paintings both calming and invigorating. If looking -- really looking -- at them requires a "stilling" of the viewer's attention, imagine the Zen-like concentration of the artist who observes and reproduces on canvas her tableaux day after day.
Walp is almost embarrassed by an effusive essay in the catalogue for her 2000 solo show at a San Francisco gallery, but one description in it is apt: "It's as if a door has shut on the flashy commerce and blaring noises of our age, in order that we might step back and learn once again how to see without distraction."
Around her centerpiece Walp may place classic items such as a knife or a piece of fabric, but many of the objects are unusual and decidedly modern: a waxed-paper sandwich bag, a photocopy of previous compositions, a scrunchy hair tie. Spools of thread and wine corks with provenance printing on them are also favorite ingredients.
In one such work, "Three Figs in a Bowl with Knife, Fork and Red Cup" -- her titles "kind of catalogue the items in the paintings," Walp says -- the focus is first on the stems of three black figs poking up, like the beaks of baby birds, from a celadon bowl. Then the viewer moves on to the play of light and shadow on the bowl itself. Finally, the eye travels around the painting to take in the sandwich bag, arranged at odd angles with a photocopy underneath it and a square of wood beneath that; the utensils entering the image from below, along with a bit of purple hair tie and the cup; and the bottom half of a gray-toned figurative study on the wall in the background.
Walp's exacting realism is not photographically true, but is in perfect scale and harmonious in tone. And then there's the light. Walp doesn't go for sharp contrasts; the northern exposure of her studio helps her achieve something more softly luminous. "As the painting becomes more worked on, and I'm trying to figure out the color relationships and the drawing and space, the light inevitably disappears; it becomes a matter of digging deep to create the conditions that can invite it back in again," she explains.
With characteristic deliberation, Walp has invited figurative work back into her life, too. She started making studies five years ago for the two paintings now propped up in her studio, and only began applying paint to canvas in February 2003. "This is the first time I've been able to hang these up with the still lifes and feel like it's the same person painting them," she says, eyeing the works thoughtfully. "I'll come in and stare at the painting, and the painting will tell me where it's wanting to go."
Now, if she can just find a model to hold still.