AWT: Your work “I Can Feel” is part of an exhibition and works in conjunction with “Tracing Feminism,” an all-female panel discussion looking back on female representation throughout art history. You’re known for the examination of your own body, aesthetic conventions, and female sensuality. How and why did you connect with these themes first as an artist?
Suzy Kellems Dominik: I am an emotional autobiographer. I am a woman. My existence, therefore, and that of my gender are inextricably linked to my practice. I feel compelled—obligated even—to add my voice to the social narrative on a personal and intimate level. To grab back from the gods of art, literature and the keepers of the archive, to inject the female perspective and to examine and reframe the narrative in my terms.
This persistence is evident in several of my bodies of work. “Beatrice To Hell And Back,” for instance, is based on the moment when Dante meets Beatrice in 1295 and defines her as being beatific—not because of who she is (they only met twice), but how she mirrored how he felt about himself. In this body of work, I reimagined that moment from her perspective, marking her as the protagonist. I poetically objectified myself as Beatrice. Objectification is a very powerful tool, one I intend to hold firmly within my grasp. In this sense, the themes of representation addressed in “Tracing Feminism” serve as reminders that the onus is on women to recast the historical narrative.
What would you describe your life as before becoming an artist?
SKD: Does one become an artist? Or is one—as was the case for me personally—gathering life experience until compelled to assert what I believed to be my calling? To reframe, to choose a path forward and to begin to create, fearlessly exposing that work to the public in the hopes of sparking authentic discourse.
My life before can be described as traditional, remarkable and challenging in many ways. I am the mother of two young women, the heart and soul of my existence. My artistic practice is in no small part an obligation I feel to them, to all of the dear young people in my life. I often characterize it as a love letter to the next generation. I hope my audience shares my experience, my work, with their children and their children’s children and your children’s children long after I am gone. A record left behind of one woman’s fearless pursuit becomes a battle cry to reach for and examine life, to live with courage and self-love, to challenge oneself and those around them.
I have been a wife, a helpmate and a cheerleader for those I love. To reference Dr. Seuss, I am Yertle the Turtle. I hold mine up above the muck. I have been a world-class athlete, an avid traveler and a student of and researcher of the treasures of humanity. I remain throughout my life an amalgam of those experiences.
There was a pivotal moment for you at the age of 50. You decided to change your life and be an artist. What happened in order for this change to take place?
SKD: At the age of 50, I was impelled to reassert the role of protagonist, to become the star in my own life. I often say, “If not now, then when?” I sat my family down and explained that it was time that I hold myself equal to them in the pursuit of my dreams. I asked for their support.
I explained to friends and family my chosen path. The rest, as they say, is history—albeit in the making. It remains a stark reminder to me to know your worth.
Let’s talk about “Invisible” and losing one’s value. You mentioned in another interview that it dawned on you during a trip to Europe that you were “no longer valued for [your] beauty.” Please share more about the conversation you had with Maya Angelou.
SKD: My impromptu meeting with the legendary American poet was in keeping with my life experience—entirely serendipitous and unexpected. It was a chance encounter at a cafe in Paris. I know it sounds fantastic, but in that rarefied moment, she recognized me as a fellow traveler, an explorer of the human condition, and reached out to touch me both literally and figuratively. A remarkable and meaningfully-timed moment at the beginning of my artistic and personal journey of reclamation. Maya Angelou!
It was in a writing exercise that precipitated from this moment—the creation of the “BADASSERY” poem for my work “INVISIBLE”—that I identified a true and authentic moment of circular empathy, an act of love to the next generation. To ascribe “INVISIBLE” simply to “beauty” standards in itself is reductive, it was more the realization of a complete and complex concept of identity, of self-expression, of creative and personal liberty. Societal value is often ascribed, particularly to women, in the role that they assert in society. Mother. Daughter. Artist. There exists a value judgment of sorts in how one is characterized and this value judgment is oftentimes associated with female fertility, maternity and a woman’s role in comparison to those with whom she associates. Through “INVISIBLE,” I argue that it is our responsibility to reassert individual value notwithstanding society’s imposed archetypes.
What are you working on next?
SKD: Beginning in 2019, I’ve begun to explore fusing performance and movement with the spoken word to animate and respond to my ongoing “Badassery” poems. These poems act essentially as my artist statement for each new body of work I undertake. These performances are now adding a layer of time-based media to the constellation of emotions communicated within.
In the spring of 2019, the “Badassery” performances were enacted both alone and in collaboration with an independent dance troupe we assembled in San Francisco. We underwent a robust filming process using various technologies, including drone photography and a high power red camera. What will emerge from this production process is a multi-channel video series that comprises a synchronization of its discrete elements to result in a final video work.
For the past 15 months, I’ve also undertaken a project that imposes a rigorous practice of ritual grief. A time-based land art intervention, the project takes place in my ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Over the course of the past year, I collected 7,368 stones and hand-numbered each individual stone in white Japanese ink before strategically placing them in numerical order in the form of an orderly grid. Following this months-long process, we constructed a rudimentary assemblage of PVC and V-struts to transport the stones across an active estuary to a small spit in the middle of the river. This became the site for primitive tomb I constructed with a ceremonial promenade leading to the pinnacle of the grave.
Exposed to the elements of the seasons and submerged beneath feet of snow, the work withstood for months before resurfacing below the spring run-off. We remain in the midst of locating and identifying the stones that comprised the original formation and will continue to document the process—again using my technique of drone and time-lapse video—for the next seasonal cycle. The footage will become a documentary film.
What has made itself evident throughout this grueling and patient process is the humility that comes with acknowledging grief remains rooted in the psyche as does the weight of stone.
“I Can Feel” by Suzy Kellems Dominik remains on view through October 20. Visit ChaShaMa for more information.