June Artist Spotlight: Visual Storyteller, Susan Armington

* Hey Susan, can you tell us what your art form is?

I have several art forms – painting, mixed media, imaginative maps, and Talking Suitcases™ (a Talking Suitcase is a suitcase filled with handmade objects that tell stories.)  I also lead story circles and do a lot of work with art and story.

* Do you remember how you first became interested in the arts?

I’ve always loved the arts.   As a little kid, I drew pictures that told stories, decorated everything, made miniature furniture and hamster houses.  I made up scenarios and directed my friends to be orphans lost in the woods, on shipwrecks, whatever. My brothers and I made spook houses in the basement. When I was older I made collages, designed clothes, painted and wrote poetry with friends while we listened to music. My high school final project was a slide show on Gertrude Stein.  Looking back, I see I was an incessant maker.  My mom encouraged me by giving me materials and occasional art classes, but she insisted that she herself was not creative and left me pretty much on my own.   That was an incredible gift to me.   It let me develop art in my own voice and my own way, so I have a very strong and immediate connection to the arts as a form of self expression.

* Do you have any advice for aspiring visual artists or artists in general?

I think it’s helpful to find a topic you like and stick to it for a while.  I did this for quite awhile with maps; I even had a rule for myself that everything I did had to have a map in it.  That way I was able to develop a theme and expand it; every new project stretched my repertoire a bit.

Another piece of advice is to make art that is meaningful to you.   No matter whether others like it or not, if it’s meaningful to you it has value.  You can always develop it to look better, speak more powerfully or beautifully, but first it must speak…at least to you.

* How does teaching your craft affect making your own art?

Teaching makes me think about the elements of my craft and what people need to know to use them.  I try to pick out core ideas and present them simply with examples so others can use them in their own way.   Sometimes this leads me down new avenues – like designing a “hanko” – a seal for your name (like the red stamps on Japanese paintings) and gives me ideas for my own work.  Sometimes designing a project to fit with a curriculum also leads me into new territory – working on Mississippi River art, for instance, launched me into a whole branch of River Stories map art – that I’ve been working on for 2 years now!

Also, teaching connects me with the joy of making something that expresses who you are – and the joy of seeing the inner worlds of everyone around me.   It is such a fun way to connect with people.  It reminds me of all the great things art can do in our lives – how it helps us discover and hold onto our stories and what matters to us.  This sense of joy and purpose inspires me to make work about my own life and what matters to me, and lead others to do this too. 

Finally, when I teach a project like Talking Suitcases, we are always trying to invent new ways to make something.  Often the objects are entirely unique – I mean have you ever seen fake eyelashes on the inside of a box?   Well, we have to figure out how to make things out of our materials, and make them work – it’s a lot of trial and error.  It’s so satisfying when it works.   I love this problem-solving part and have built up a huge repertoire of ways to make things that spills over into my own art.   I’m not planning to make giant eyelashes at the moment, but who knows down the road…

* By the end of a residency with you, what are a few things you hope most participants have learned?

I hope that participants discover how much they love creating stuff and feel confident in their abilities to try out something new and stick with it till they succeed.  I hope they see how they can make art about themselves and what they care about – and keep making art the rest of their lives!

When I teach drawing in particular, I hope everyone lets go of the idea that you have to be born good at it.   I personally had to work at drawing to get good at it – it’s not automatic!  But I like to make it fun.  And I hope at the end of the session, everyone can at least draw a person - standing, running, fishing whatever – with hair, a face, and distinctive clothes.  Let’s get over feeling incompetent!

* What are some differences and similarities you have noticed in how older adults and young students respond to your programs?

Young students have little fear of art and are usually eager to make art of any sort. Older adults sometimes prefer a medium that is familiar to them like collage.   But both groups seem to really enjoy making projects about themselves and what they care about – whether it’s family members or a trip to outer space; and both groups have lots of stories to tell through their work. 

* What does being a COMPAS artist mean to you?

Being a COMPAS artist is a great way to work with people of different ages and backgrounds – whether school kids, teenagers, women in a shelter, elders, rural folks or urban folks.   I really enjoy the different settings and range of projects – from a giant map of China, a history of the earth from the Big Bang, Talking Suitcases about family stories, or map boxes about ancient civilizations.  There’s a lot of excitement because it’s usually a special project with enthusiastic support from staff and teachers, and an intensive time period.  There’s good effort and planning put into the projects and they are selected by and meaningful to the community.  

* You have been doing some new programs in shelters. How has that been going? Any surprises or challenges you didn’t anticipate?

I have been leading Talking Suitcases workshops in a women’s shelter in Minneapolis.  This is work is highly rewarding – the women I work with have so many important things to express, and speak different languages so answering questions through art is a way for them to give shape to their stories and share them with each other.   We create art to answer questions like: What is precious to you? What is a favorite childhood memory?  What is a difficult time for you?  What is a dream for your future?  By the end, each woman has created several story objects and shared her life and feelings with the others as well as her hopes and dreams for the future. The project is deeply moving and the creative energy and abilities of the women are amazing.  I have been surprised by how adept at art many of the women are, and at the range and diversity of their stories.  The challenge is to communicate the project and instructions through interpreters, and for the women to tell their stories as well. I have discovered that making art really helps us understand each others’ stories and feelings, and by the end many of the women became confident and able to communicate themselves in their limited English rather than waiting for interpreters.  

* You are also participating in Intersections: Made Here, the downtown Minneapolis window display show. What work did you create for that? Have you enjoyed the experience?

The work in my exhibit for Intersections: Made Here is a set of Talking Suitcases – some made by me and others made by other people – all of them about Journeys toward Home.  I created a Talking Suitcase about my mixed family – my husband is Japanese – and how the two strains of our backgrounds have come together; the Japanese and the American sides.   The back of the suitcase has an image of World War II when our two fathers were part of the war effort against each other.   My husband’s mother had a traumatic experience when her home was bombed and she had to make her way through the fire and the aftermath of the bombing at age 17, trying to find her mother.  It is surprising to think that 40 years later her son married me, an American.

I loved installing the exhibit.  It was a pleasure to work with two skilled installers to hang the suitcases, set up lights, and best of all, install a disco ball motor to rotate the Japanese/American Talking Suitcase overhead. 

The exhibit also includes Talking Suitcases art by Marie Simcox, Niko Kubota, Teja Willis, Nhia Vang and women from the House of Peace women’s shelter.

* Any new projects you’re working on?

Yes – I’m part of the team led by Niko Kubota that won the Minneapolis Creative Citymaking Challenge – to build “mini_polis”  a miniature city of the collective imagination beside the Convention Center.  It will be made of buildings that have people’s dreams for Minneapolis on their roofs, and light up at night.  You can hear people’s stories of the city at a kiosk nearby. Open for visitors by June 13 for Northern Spark – and on view all summer.  Very exciting!