Art professor’s work addresses nature, direct experience
The first time Susan Crowell exhibited her work in a botanical garden, she decided she never wanted to return to a gallery space.
“When you’re having a show in a gallery, there are no windows and the lights are too strong,” she said. “But then you go to a botanical garden and it’s green and lush, and people are just really excited to be there. There’s a special didactic thing that comes from that kind of setting.”
Crowell’s artistic practice greatly values the importance of nature and direct experience. Her sculptures address themes such as natural beauty, creation and the environment, particularly concerns involving the declining bee population.
A professor of art in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design and the Residential College, LSA, Crowell received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1969, and her Master of Fine Arts from the U-M School of Architecture and Design in 1972.
From an early age, art was a constant presence in Crowell’s life, beginning with the influence of her grandmother’s china painting and continuing with her education at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, an arts-focused boarding school in northern Michigan.
Crowell realized in mid-life that she had a passion for traveling, and her experiences in other countries such as Italy and Japan further evolved her understanding of her craft.
“Traveling expands your awareness of the magnitude and diversity of things,” Crowell said. “And gives us a deep appreciation for it too. You can watch travelogues, but having to land in a totally new place, being there and having to struggle in another language and make my way was really good for me.”
Her time spent in Japan and Italy, namely, taught her the value of art that presents the viewer with a certain “direct experience.”
“I’m really big on real knowledge rather than something that looks like real knowledge,” Crowell said. “And I’m interested in real-time beauty rather than ‘Instagram beauty.’ I like this direct experience, and I got that while I was in Japan.
Crowell’s sculptures are inspired by pollen forms and the process of pollination. She heavily emphasizes her goal to use her art to create a space that facilitates conversation between her and the audience, and understands the role of beauty in that process.
“In traditional art practice, you are very confrontational with your audience,” Crowell said. “But that results in driving the audience away because it repels, rather than attracts. Also, I want to distinguish between meretricious, physical beauty and using beauty as an invitation to the viewer to investigate and discuss things which I find important.”
Crowell’s sculptures are inspired by her interest in bees and the process of pollination, an artistic influence that began when a friend showed her a book of electronic microscopic images of pollen. She was so captivated and intrigued by the images that she decided to center them in her artistic practice.
“I’m puzzled by them. They’re intriguing to me. They’re not easy,” Crowell said, regarding her subject matter. “I was ready to challenge my aesthetic inclinations but also my technical ones, because trying to figure out how to make these sculptures has pushed me into all sorts of technological realms. That was a good challenge for me.”
In the future, Crowell hopes to continue creating engaging art and honoring the relationship between her and her audience.
“I’m interested in getting people to listen,” Crowell said. “And if you give them something preachy, ugly or boring, you’re not going to get an audience.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
No single moment, but I’m generally astounded when my instructions are heard and understood and put to use by my students.
What can’t you live without?
A daily walk, preferably in the woods.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Anywhere in the Arboretum.
What inspires you?
The bees that I keep, and bees in general. They have an inherent order, mysterious and elegant, and an aesthetic that surpasses anything humans can invent.
What are you currently reading?
Two books — Mary Gabriel’s “Ninth Street Women” and Nicholas Christakis’ “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.” The first is a history of women in the Abstract Expressionist Movement in the art world of the mid-20th century. The second is an optimistic investigation of the ways we are evolving, through our social attachments and affinities, toward the good.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My maternal grandmother and my teachers, who have inspired both my artistic practice and my teaching.