In this Artist Spotlight, Sumner Crenshaw illuminates the secrets of her swirling, curving compositions. She answers a whirl of questions about art and beyond, giving us a glimpse into the empowering potential of her feminine fleurs and sassy swirls. In her paintings, powerfully victorious nymphs metamorphose from her lines into what she calls her “Curly Girls.” They are patronesses of female self-confidence and empowerment, powerfully delicate and elegantly surreal.
How do you begin a piece?
I begin by doing a quick sketch in ink pen in order to outline the basic composition. I like sketching in ink because of the quality of the lines and the character it gives them. It forces me to use lines, rather than blending, to build depth. I find that some of my best ideas happen during this sketching phase. I might add an interesting flourish to a figure, or sketch one composition right over the other and find that the combination of the two is its own interesting take. Once I’m satisfied with the composition I then sketch the image again, this time in pencil and directly on the canvas. By doing this, the final image retains the texture and liveliness of the original sketch.
Describe your style. How has it changed throughout your artistic career?
It’s so funny you should ask that, as I was just thinking about how my work has changed over the years. I would describe my work as an introspective, feminine take on figurative painting. My figures, whether it’s a sassy curly girl or a surreal heroine, are always alone. There is a consistent narrative quality; the girls I create are always in the middle of their story when the viewer and I capture them. There is also a focus, which has grown more intense over the years, on bringing the freedom of the sketched line into my work, and finding a way to reconcile imaginative narratives with simple, swirling lines. I think that at its core, these have always been a few common threads weaving their way through my work.
But looking back on my old work, there was almost an anger, shown in darker outlines, brighter colors and more intense narratives. I was reacting to my world, but in a much more volatile way. I think the more overtly surreal was also at play in my earlier work.
Now, I’m still reacting to the things around me, but in a subtler way. Colors have gotten lighter – almost to the point that I now work with color very infrequently, lines have gotten thinner and even more curvy, and the surreal elements have become more suggestive, rather than overt. It’s almost as if I’m trying to make an elegant surrealism. I’ve come to understand that a simple line can say just as much as gobs of thick paint.
I think that before, I felt like I needed all the bells and whistles, so to speak, and now I’m learning to build narratives in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s just getting older (after all, I hit the big 3-0 in 2014), moving to a sunnier climate, or just a change in outlook, but there is definitely a movement towards less-is-more in my newer work, and an exploration of different subject matter. Ten years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d be painting curvy, abstract female nudes and swirling botanical paintings, but what can I say? The beauty of creativity is that it takes us to places we’d never thought we’d go.
What is your earliest art memory?
Two things: Dali and Disney. I remember being no more than four years old, going through the art books in my family’s living room, and being gobsmacked when I saw Dali’s work in one of the books. I think that was crucial to my artistic development: that intense exaggeration of forms, and the idea of creating one’s own imaginary landscape, were planted into my lexicon very early, and they have informed my work, in one way or another, ever since.
On the same note, Disney animated movies did the same thing for me. I was obsessed with Disney as a kid (must admit, I still kind of am!), and I absorbed those same artistic ideas of exaggeration, squash and stretch, and fantastical places. I can even trace my use of the drawn line and love of imbuing my work with sketch-like qualities to those animated movies.
Have you had any memorable responses to your art?
I think the most interesting response I’ve ever gotten came when I was still an undergrad. It was a new semester and we were just arriving for our first critique when a gal who had seen my work, but never seen me before, told me that she had assumed I was a man based off my work. I thought it was so interesting that she had made an assumption about my gender based solely on my work, and it got me to thinking about how perceptions like that can shape our view of artists and their work. What if we had all labored under the idea that Georgia O’Keefe was a man, or that Picasso was a woman? Would it change our perception of their work, and should it? It also gave me a view of how other people interpreted my work, and gave me clues about the messages they were taking from it.
Another memorable response came recently when I was approached by a coordinator at a domestic violence prevention organization about donating work for their annual fundraiser. She had seen my work at a local gallery and she described it as being utterly feminine and having a sense of empowerment. I always enjoy hearing others’ thoughts on my work as it gives me another perspective on what I do, but in this case, I was just so floored by her kind words and was honored to have been asked to participate in such a great cause. So, that was definitely a great response to my work-it made my day!
Three of Sumner’s paintings hanging in a client’s home.
How do you title your paintings?
I usually title them after whichever phrase or story inspired their creation. For my “Curly Girls,” I like to use fun phrases associated with femininity or names of iconic women as their titles. I picture my “Curly Girls” as sassy, self-confident burlesque performers, so I give them titles such as A Wink and a Smile or Hello Gorgeous, and I’ve named some after famous women, such as Ida Rubenstein. Titles like this convey the sense of empowerment, and confident femininity in these pieces; I even named one Riveting after Rosie the Riveter.
What is your studio like?
My studio is on the third floor of an old building here in historic downtown Frederick, Maryland. Since its up so high, and has big windows on two sides, the natural light is fantastic! There’s a big tree outside of the south window, and sometimes I’ll just sit and admire it while I’m contemplating a piece. Every year I get to watch the leaves on that tree spring up, which is really neat. Since I’m downtown there’s always a decent amount of noise coming from the street, which means I usually listen to music in order to drown out any distractions. Right now, it’s Mumford and Sons on my playlist :-)
Hiccup, my little dachshund mix, is always in the studio with me, so amidst the street noise there’s also the sound of squeak toys and digging, as he persists in trying to dig up the carpet. He’s a great little studio buddy for me, although he’s distracting from time to time, because, no matter how involved I am in a piece, I can’t resist when he comes over to my easel looking for cuddles. I keep all my reference books inside my studio, so at any given time there will be books strewn about, whether it’s a biography of Bosch, a collection of Greek Myths, or a fashion history book. I also hang some of my old pieces in my studio, as a way to remind myself where I’ve been and where I need to go creatively.