How Susan Gould makes a living making art
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Susan Gould is helping me sew up the sides of my Converse sneakers with black surgical suture thread. We're drinking very strong coffee and sitting in her workroom, which is lined with small plastic bins and boxes filled with hundreds of glass, metal, and paper objects she uses for her assemblage art pieces. The whole experience is surreal mending the holes in my shoes with a woman I met only an hour before, surrounded by old packaging and papers, buttons, and small objects from warehouses and thrift shops.
But surreal isn't a new term to the self-sustaining artist. In fact, it's the word most people use to describe her work: diorama pins, images trapped under magnifying glass, and items like dice, knobs, or bottle caps fused into a statue, all deceptively simple at first glance but strikingly detailed on closer examination.
"I am very particular about the images I use," says Gould, who often alters pictures and then collages them together in Photoshop. "They need to evoke a certain warmth that I can feel."
Gould usually starts with images.
"I am always drawn to the bizarre world of the Victorians," she says. "Vegetable and animal bodies with human heads. Surreal imagery. And definitely nostalgic imagery. I love the vivid colors in Renaissance paintings and costumes and old scientific images. But even these subgroups cover a wide category, and there are many contradictions."
For example, Gould isn't a fan of retro, cute, or whimsical styles. It's the fine line between nostalgia and whimsy that differentiates Gould's art from similar work. Hers are small pieces of reality that have been encapsulated and distorted into foreign and lovely objects that tug at the subconscious.
"I love the idea of taking things out of context and of evoking emotion visually out of pieces of parts," she says. "The dimension invites me to look inward. And it is this idea of being transported into an imaginary moment that intrigues me. Who says this has to be the only world?"
Even as a child, the concept of small, segmented realities fascinated Gould. One of her first encounters with the idea was when her parents took her at age six on a trip to the Museum of Science in Boston.
"I remember being captivated by the variety of shadowboxes and dioramas and thinking, 'If this is a job, I want it,'<0x2009>" Gould explains.
That fascination set her on the path to self-supporting artistry in 1986. Today she has retail carriers nationwide, as well as in Japan and Canada. Locally her art is sold at the Studio Gallery on Polk Street and at a few festivals and studio sales every year. She's also recently signed a contract to produce custom work for a company that supplies 43 specialty museum stores.
After working as a freelance graphic artist for 12 years, Gould was forced by outside circumstances to examine new employment options.
"The woman who was paying me $20 an hour as a freelancer told me she had to hire me as a full-time employee for $10.50 or she couldn't keep contracting me. And the idea of walking around with a portfolio like a first grader, showing it to potential new employers, made me cringe," she says. "So I asked myself, what else can I do?"
With no investor and no other source of income, Gould simply leaped headfirst into her business.
"I just ate rice and beans for a year and worked and worked and saved and saved and kept on going. I think my total investment in getting this business off the ground was $1,000. It became like a challenge to see how little I could spend, how much I could save," she recalls. "I learned so much about myself."
The experience was so important that Gould lists tips on her Web site for people looking to follow her example. According to her site, the top three things one needs to start one's own business are luck, optimism, and perseverance in that order.
"I think luck is a factor, but not the only one," Gould explains. "I was lucky in that the things that appealed to me happened to appeal to a large audience. I've seen so many talented artists whose stuff doesn't sell, and I don't get it. I don't even really feel like I can take credit for the things I make, most of the time. The objects are themselves. They're already beautiful, and I just see ways to put them together. It's not something I've created; it's just a way of seeing things differently."
In order to support herself solely by the sale of her work, Gould sometimes has to make tough decisions about which pieces she offers to buyers.
"In making a living selling my art, I have learned not only to become an efficiency expert and listen to my inner judgment, but that I sometimes have to sacrifice really great products that I cannot make a profit from," she reveals. Gould offers her recent production of dice as an example. Each set took painstaking work to create: she used cubes of wood wrapped in distressed foil from wine bottles and formed the numbers with upholstery tacks. Gould says she could never sell them for their true worth, so she gave them away as gifts. It is that fluid, compromising attitude that has enabled her to succeed.
Gould also does custom work for individuals. If a person provides her with pictures, she can turn them into anything from a bracelet to cufflinks to earrings. She also creates superhero figurines by taking a small plastic toy, removing the head, and putting the image of a loved one magnified under glass in its place. The figure is then mounted on a wooden base with wheels. It sounds simple, but Gould's hand brings a sense of the surreal to the affair, turning what seems like a child's craft project into a true work of art.
However, not all of her work is for sale or given away. The corners and walls of her apartment are home to the few pieces she likes enough to keep or art that others have made for her, each of which has a story. Through these creations I learn a lot about her father, her brothers, and her friends, their memories preserved and constantly present. She has a miniature tomato mounted on a pedestal that she's kept for years and a rack of key chains that inspires me to talk about my sister and the emotional attachments people form with inanimate objects.
Which eventually leads to the topic of my shoes and the project, currently at hand, of repairing them. Now we've got a small drill, which we're using to bore through the rubber sole. Gould asks me to prop my foot on a stool before I leave, when she pulls out a camera and snaps a photo of the finished product, which looks like something emo kids would pay $50 to own: shoes, slightly damaged.
"Preserving the moment," I joke as I leave.
"Always," Gould replies with a smile. "I'll send the picture."