For the love of sheep, Susan MacQueen is back!
This time she’s in a two-person show with Alice Sims-Gunzenhauser at the Veridian Gallery in Pennington.
“I have explored the image of sheep through sculpture, installation, monoprint and most recently, drawing,” she writes. “This body of work is a departure from my previous expression in that it brought me face to face with the actual animal. Camera in hand, I visited flocks in the area, took pictures and returned to the studio. My immediate concern was to make drawings slightly smaller than the sheep I had seen, so the viewer would be encouraged to consider each one eye to eye. It’s easy to overlook an animal that seems to lack heroism, drama, or obvious beauty. Yet, more closely observed there is beauty, simplicity, fidelity, tenderness, and individuality. This work is an inquiry into sheep but it also probes the question what is drawing to me now.”
You know that Susan MacQueen makes sheep, so as you drive up the Hopewell road looking for her studio, you search the surrounding countryside for the woolly creatures that may have inspired her. No luck.
Then you see the quadruped ruminants through the trees. Pay dirt. Here is the fabricated flock Ms. MacQueen would be exhibiting at the Arts Council of Princeton back in 2007.
“I spent a lot of time with horses as a kid,” says the artist, petting the fleece of a larger-than-life sheep as a lawn service mows its way around the black-faced creatures, doing the work of live sheep.
Fleece, rope, ribbon, string, lace, mop heads and gesso are among the materials used to make the coats. Skyeler, a 10-year-old Cairn terrier, is the one animal in the group who blinks his eyes and perks up his ears.
To see Ms. MacQueen’s flock marching on her lawn, hanging from the wall, stacked in a pyramid or hanging above her workspace is to fall in love with those creatures and their creator. They have been showing up in the artist’s work for five years, although she’s not sure where they come from.
“I use sheep to discuss other things, and I keep turning the wheel to find another spoke to go out and explore,” says Ms. MacQueen, who has taught at Crossroads Nursery School in Princeton for 15 years.
Growing up in Wickliffe, Ohio, her family rented a small Victorian house on a large estate with a dairy farm. “I remember those smells – they permeate your senses in a variety of ways,” she says. “I remember my brother throwing cow pie and sledding in the pasture.”
After her parents’ divorce, she spent weekends on her father’s farm – “My father was a horse guy” – grooming the animals and cleaning the stables. “I would wear the same loafers to school during the week, and other kids would say, ‘It smells like a barn in here.’”
She and her brother were always interested in art, “but we didn’t call it that – it was just what you did in your room, and I always liked drawing. Art gives you a place to center and reflect, and I needed that – we had a lot of difficult things to work through.”
As for her art education, “not everybody loves school, but I always loved the idea of a blank piece of paper in front of me. It belonged to me. I don’t know that I had a fabulous art education, but no one ever said there were right or wrong answers, so it must have been OK.”
At the former Windham College in Putney, Vt., where novelist John Irving once taught, Ms. MacQueen says art “was all I devoted myself to; it was sacred, my church.”
As a painter, Ms. MacQueen’s work was abstract. She would paint many layers, wipe it off, and then build it up with “nests and barnacles of collage.” After college, Ms. MacQueen worked as an art teacher in inner city Charleston, S.C. Meanwhile, her brother, an artist, was living in Soho, N.Y. Craving a change in lifestyle, Ms. MacQueen moved into her brother’s loft in the 1970s, when Soho was still affordable.
By day, she worked in a frame shop and met her husband, Ewan, and the couple moved to New Jersey in 1981. While raising their daughter, Caitlin – a senior at Cooper Union in New York – they lived in a flat-roofed house in Roosevelt, then moved to West Windsor before settling in Hopewell three years ago.
While working in collage, the materials Ms. MacQueen used were glassine, natural fibers and string. “So I have this debris, and it was sitting on the table for a while, and I gathered them up to play with them,” she says, and she realized the materials looked like sheep.
“Sheep appeal to me as a model of cooperation, though not a perfect model,” she says. “But they do a pretty good job. They remain in my thoughts because of the time we live in, and the flock is a model of living together, being different and getting along.”
Most people see sheep as dots on the landscape, says Ms. MacQueen, but she wanted to bring out their rugged individuality. “Instead of the usual pastoral scene on the landscape, I wanted to look at things differently, so I lifted them up,” she says. Using everything from felt, fringe, Caitlin’s old T-shirts, fabric, grass, flowers, lace, paper and chenille robes to the bathroom rug, she weaves these around a frame made from fencing and wooden legs. “It’s put together with human will and glue,” she says.
These are not stuffed animals, all plush squishable, something you’d tuck under the covers with your sleeping child. “Sheep aren’t really fluffy,” she says. “They lie in dirt and stuff gets caught in their coat as a kind of diary of their experiences.”
There’s a black sheep that, upon closer inspection, is a white sheep wearing a black coat. Ms. MacQueen says she wanted to return the favor to all the sheep that have given us garments, and to make a statement about the social concept of the black sheep that is ostracized, shunned, an outsider.
Because of their texture and interesting materials, these sheep beg one to touch, but Ms. MacQueen teaches her nursery school students to appreciate from afar, without putting one’s fingers on.
In addition to three-dimensional work, Ms. MacQueen loves to draw, and there are many intricate drawings of bovids. On a table is a taped-together drawing that looks like it could be a preliminary sketch, but in fact the drawings often come after the sculptural pieces. There are notes describing the flock: “This one wears his/her experience in her fleece.” “This one has a medusa like quality around the face.” “This one heavily gessoed canvas wrapped like Lazarus or home from the war.” “A bit like a puff ball, heavily ruffled, wool strips dipped in tea.”
From the installation of 40 or so hanging sheep, there is at least one that looks as if it’s made from volcanic rock. Modeling paste, gesso and Benjamin Moore bone white paint are sometimes used to enhance the texture. Some have faces made from clay. One looks like a Degas dancer in a lace tutu wearing a wolf mask – and the mask is removable!
“Sometimes I have to put it all away, because there are too many voices in the room,” says Ms. MacQueen. “They tend to be a presence.”
Other times, she takes her sheep to the park and photographs them with elements of the environment, such as a well cap or an arrow painted on asphalt. “I want to play with the images in a light-hearted way,” she says. “There’s dignity and rightness of their being in the pasture, but I wanted to use them in a poetic way to make a statement.”