Columbia fiber artist Susan Lenz doesn’t subscribe to the stereotype of the life of leisure for an artist. She stresses hard work and constructive criticism and says her work tries to highlight that we are all similar, yet vastly different, in the best ways.
By Becca Brennan
April 26, 2018
An artist will tell people their favorite piece is the one they just finished. But for Columbia fiber artist Susan Lenz, that’s a lot harder with over 50 pieces going on at once, not including the concepts still in her mind.
“How many pieces do I have in progress right now? It’s a loaded question, because some of them are only up here in my mind,” Lenz says, pointing to her head.
Those who know Lenz say she’s interesting and unique, both personally and artistically. In January, Lenz visited the Eastern Shore Art Center in Fairhope, Alabama. The center specializes in coastal-themed art, but Lenz’s visit was a change of pace for the members.
Marketing director Adrienne Clow laughed as she recalled people’s reaction to Lenz and her pieces, because like her work, Lenz was like nothing the members had ever seen.
Lenz has stitched pieces, quilts, and three-dimensional work, and though she identifies as a fiber artist, she works in mixed media.
She specializes in found imagery, using both vintage and recycled photographs in her pieces. Lenz homes in on the concept of memory and time and is proud of her pieces’ ability to stir up nostalgia.
“That’s what’s so cool about her.” Clow said. “People hadn’t seen artwork like hers before, and it opened their minds.”
Lenz says she and her husband, Steve Dingman, were walking through the Ohio State Fair artists’ booths in 1980, and she told him she could do work like that. Dingman challenged her, and since then, Lenz has produced over 2,000 pieces and been featured in over 250 art shows around the country.
Lenz was an Ohio State undergrad and Dingman was a grad student. After they married, Dingman took a job in Columbia as a coastal engineer, but quit after three years to help Lenz with what she calls her “little hobby.”
“I was going to go to auctions and buy old pictures, fix them up, and sell them through antique malls,” Lenz says.
Lenz’s in-house gallery, Mouse House, began in 2001 as just her creative outlet, primarily for frame work. She says she had hoped to prioritize family life and work on projects in her home, but “something went wrong” in that plan.
Now, the gallery, nestled between law offices on Park Street in Elmwood, showcases Lenz’s eclectic artwork..
Though the business was booming, Lenz decided at 42 that she wanted to be a full-time artist and in 2003 got a studio at Gallery 808 in the Vista, now the Stormwater Studio. She says that with hard work and determination, she began to transform her interest in stitching to a career.
“The one thing I know how to do; I work. I know how to work,” she says. “Even if the things I made were pathetic, they informed better work. You know that old adage ‘practice makes perfect’? And I may never get perfect but I’ll have a lot of practice.”
Lenz sat down with Columbia Voice to talk about the life behind the artist and her experience in fiber arts. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. (Listen to the entire interview.)
Last time we spoke you talked a lot about your work ethic, where would you say that comes from?
My father came to this country in 1952 as a bright eyed 17-year-old looking at America as being the land of opportunity. My family is German, the German work ethic is “You work to live and you live to work, what’s the difference?” So, my work ethic came to me by example from my family, my growing up, and the fact that if you accept a job, you do it to the best of your ability. It has nothing whatsoever to do with a payment, or the outcome, but if you say you’re gonna do it, you do it to the best of your ability. It’s always how I’ve worked at anything. So there was no reason not to apply it to making art. …
How do you digest criticism, process it, and react to it, both in your personal life and professionally in your artwork?
Criticism is hard. I think that’s why it falls as a negative word in most dictionaries, even though many people and many experts, and many college professors too, try to put a very good spin on it. They call it constructive criticism, but even constructive criticism is hard. It’s particularly hard if you’re making art. If you’re making art that is speaking to your soul and through which you are trying to communicate ideas that are important to you, even constructive criticism is very difficult to take appropriately, especially upon impact.
When I get criticism, whether constructive or not, I usually cry. It’s my gut reaction to negativity. Cry. And then I have a very brief period of doubt. I doubt myself, I believe all the criticism to be true, and that everything I’ve ever made, and me, well it sucks. I can’t maintain that for long, because I know it’s not true.
So at that point, you’ve got through the tears, you’ve got through the doubts, you have to lay the criticism on the table and evaluate it. Does it have any relevancy?. … The least amount of constructive criticism that you receive is relative to what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do. … It is usually the minority, and it’s worth investigating, and it’s like I ask myself: “Well wait a minute, could I do something different, could I do something better?” And often those words, and that doesn’t mean I didn’t cry about them and it doesn’t mean I didn’t doubt myself, but when you come to that place when you can evaluate those words, you really can take your work to a higher level, a deeper understanding. …
So would you say that in general, that the constructive criticism has helped you as an artist?
Yes, yes, but I will also put as a major caveat, it is the minority amount of criticism that is the helpful type. You just gotta wade through a lot of crap to get to those words that do have meaning and potential to help you grow. And you’ve got to learn not to pick up the negativity that somebody else is heaping on you. …. I guess it’s like finding the pearl in the oyster, you’ve got to crack a lot of shells before you get one.
Where would you say you draw the most inspiration from in your artwork?
For me, I draw a lot of inspiration from architecture. I love buildings, particularly historic buildings. … It’s probably to do with the fact that people live in buildings. I am much more drawn to a human aspect, to not necessarily an urban setting but to a landscape that is peopled. I like touching people through my artwork, by using the reference to other people. And one of the easiest vehicles is the space they live in. Whether it’s comfortable, whether it’s in harmony with nature, whether it’s just the elements and motifs that different cultures put on the buildings in which they live.
Much of my fiber art is indebted to the Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. He made a fixed-income condominium building in Vienna that is a major tourist attraction and has a gift shop. His philosophy was to stress individualism. That if you had to live in a box, and we all do, you had not only the right but the responsibility to make that box your very own. …
A lot of my fiber work is an abstracted view to an imaginary Hundertwasser city, and in each little box, is a unique motif to reflect the people, those individuals who live there. I like that idea that we are all together in this world and yet we are all wonderfully special.