Susan Springer: Catch and Release Artist

As I watched her heft the 30-inch ceramic salmon in her hands while she described her approach to art, I couldn’t help thinking about the fishing practice referred to as “catch and release.”

Like the fisherwoman she is, Sue Springer, artist and owner of Illahe Gallery and Studio on 4th and B in Ashland, is all about the process, whether it’s art or fishing. Sure she’s happy to share and sell the finished product, but once the fish, or any other piece, has swum out of her grasp, it ceases to be of much interest. Of course, that’s often the case for artists, but I’d never seen the analogy illustrated quite so literally. Seven sisters of that ceramic salmon are part of a wall fountain installation in the Grants Pass branch of the Rogue Federal Credit Union.

I interviewed Sue beside a white-washed work table in the part of the gallery that doubles as her studio. Beside me, supported by a square clay slab box sat an intriguing sculpture—in progress—of a robed woman. Atop her shoulders rest an abstract head reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist period. The piece is one of Sue’s contributions to the 8th annual invitational sculpture show that features a number of other artists. You can take it in until the end of the August.

I asked Sue how she envisions the completed piece. Parts have been already been fired in the back room kiln, others have not, so the ultimate colors of the clay and the glazing haven’t emerged, she said. But aside from an expectation that the firing will intensify the red colors in the clay of her hair, Sue acknowledged that there’s much she doesn’t, and can’t, know until the process is complete.

“Anytime you submit a piece to the fire, it comes out changed, integrally changed,” she said. “It’s totally fascinating. You know what it is going to be, but you really lack control. Sometimes wonderful things happen; often they are unexpected, but it’s always interesting.

“They will do what they’re going to do,” she said, with delight in the mystery. Then she described how it had been with another sculpture of a woman, one that has since found a home.

“I couldn’t get the position right. I had her sitting, but her arms looked rigid and uncomfortable, so I pushed her head down and then raised the back of one of her hands to her forehead.” As a consequence, the bloodless clay object not only came alive, but “named herself.” For the obvious embodied grief, she became known as Dolorosa.

By embedding her studio within a gallery—a dream she realized when she first opened a design studio and gallery on A Street in 2003—Sue can not only manage her time more efficiently, but she has the opportunity to share her creative process, dialoging with customers and curious visitors. Opening a gallery not only assured her a place to show her own work, but provided a venue for so many of the artist friends whose work she admired.

Though not a natural “schmoozer,” Sue relishes those times when her work elicits very personal responses from customers. “People will come in and tell me their stories that relate to something I’ve done. Someone may say, ‘I remember when I was in my teens and I saw those same mountains.’”

There’s another, “educational,” reason too, Sue said. “It’s important that customers know artists are real people with real mortgages to pay, and that this is a business, that I have to sell enough artwork to keep the doors open.

While relishing opportunities to respond to her Muse and make art for herself, Sue’s successful business model puts a premium on commissions. In fact, up until a number of years ago, most of her time was devoted to making and selling ceramic tile wholesale to customers around the country, under the name Illahe Tileworks.)

Commission work pays off by presenting Sue with opportunities to take “short courses” in various subjects. As an example, she relates another fish story. Clients from Salem, who have a “lovely creek” going through their property wanted to adorn the waterway with jumping steelhead. Not only did Sue have to go to school on these fish to ensure the anatomical accuracy, she had to invent and construct mounting brackets to attach them to the rocks with aluminum rods. For art’s sake, and at the clients’ request, she made her mottled specimens a little more colorful.

For years, Ashland residents and visitors have trod over some of Sue’s most public installations, including the “Rio Amistad” (Friendship River) piece in Lithia Park, and the Compass Rose embedded in the concrete at North Mountain Park’s nature center. And, these days, she’s engaged in completing a commission by Recology Ashland Sanitary Service, to create a foot-wide mosaic band around a 12-foot circular concrete pad that serves as a station for recycling bins. That’s also in North Mountain Park.

“The idea is to teach people what they can do with recycled materials,” said Sue. For instance, when someone from the city donated to her a bag full of metal keys, she knew just what to do with them.

As for the sculpture in progress on the work bench, you can see her during the August show. By then, those “silly shoes” may or may not be a “garish red,” and the cubist face, with the mouth set off on one side, might look “even weirder.” But also by then, she will have a name. “At this point,” said Sue, “she hasn’t told me what it is.”

By the way, when I’m not reviewing plays, I help my clients sell their homes and buy real estate in Southern Oregon. If you have a home you’re thinking about selling–or if you have someone you care about who has property to sell, I’ll be happy to apply my unique marketing skills to help you get the best price in the shortest time. Please call my cell at 541-778-8949.