Totally Natural

An Interview with Susan Clinard

Eleanor Roosevelt’s following words reverberate throughout Susan Clinard’s life, ‘The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience’. In actively seeking experiences through her work as a caseworker for foster children in Chicago working on the front lines in the community, schools, hospitals, and justice systems; collaborating with IRIS, a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven; being part of the teaching community (she taught with Gallery 37, an award winning arts education program); or shifting her base from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut Susan fed her inner artist with life’s ironies to complement her active imagination.

Susan is also greatly influenced by her sister, accomplished Flamenco dancer, choreographer and painter Wendy Clinard. She received her degree in Sculpture and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1995. Susan and her husband Thierry are blessed with two sons Olivier and Léo Augustín.

You are a great observer of life and your work bears obvious signs of that. How did you train your mind with the power of observation since the early days?

I trusted. From an early age I had an innate sense that the things I saw in nature, the people I knew, and experiences I had (difficult and otherwise) was to be listened to. Thinking in the present like this through the years has helped me realize that judging people before you get to know them, for example, is meaningless. We all experience so much of the same things… how we perceive beauty, how we hurt.

There is what I call a ‘call and response’ out there. I observe the call… from small things like a bird dashing in front of me momentarily and I respond to it. I laugh… maybe think about the flight pattern of that bird… maybe it finds its way into my art at some point. It is a treasured cycle of life communication.

Portrait of Guiseppe by Susan Clinard
Portrait of Guiseppe

You have actively sought experiences in life. Your work with the foster children in Chicago and later on your collaboration with IRIS for refugee resettlement initiatives are great examples of that. Could you have foreseen how much these experiences would permeate into your artistic endeavor?

I of course knew that seeking out these experiences would help me grow as a human being and fulfill that part of me that wants to nurture, but as an artist, I did not know these experiences would reverberate in the ways they have in my work. Now I see that it all goes hand in hand. Again the ‘call and response’ phenomenon that I spoke about earlier. I saw a need, I tried to fill it… instead it filled me. Artists must observe it all, we cannot stay locked up in our studios. We can’t just wait for things to happen to us, we must seek and extend ourselves.

In your life’s journey how did these experiences contribute in the development of you as an individual and as an artist?

As an individual, these experiences reinforce what I already knew… we all pretty much have all the same needs and wants. There is very little that truly separates us. Helps to then put yourself in others shoes.

As an artist, my world expands and I can attempt to tell more nuanced stories, connect to form and sensations that help illustrate the richness of the world we live in.

Your work vividly depicts the many hues of human emotion. As an artist what has been the human expression that you loved exploring most?


Funeral Procession of Innocents, Sculpture by Susan Clinard

Your artworks are narratives in lighter and darker shades of life. Has there ever been a project that you particularly loved being involved in?

Yes, in 2011 I moved into my new studio: a 200 year old barn. It has influenced my work in unexpected ways. There is the place itself; its architecture, history and surrounding landscape. But it is also a storehouse of the past filled with objects meant for a variety of uses. Working with what their makers left behind teaches me, quiets me, invites me to wonder whose hands touched them before and what stories they hold. I have incorporated some of what I have found into new body of work. They tell of stories of the joys and hardships of farm life, loss and love.

You work with different materials as a medium of your story telling. Do you first decide on the story and then the medium to be used?

Yes. Found objects, carved wood, stone, a ball of wire, or clay can be widely versatile in what it is I want to communicate in my work. As important is the way I treat the surface of those materials… smooth and polished, raw, unsanded, where you can still see the tool marks. All of this creates very different sensations. Even without the viewer touching the work… they understand what it feels like… and can translate that into emotion, time and place.

I observe the call… from small things like a bird dashing in front of me momentarily and I respond to it.

Do you register the emotions that you would like to depict through your sculptures in your mind only or do you maintain a sketchbook?

I have an idea of what I want to depict… when I am actually moving the clay or material around… my hands have a life of their own, total free flow in a sense. I am repeatedly surprised at the outcome of my work… makes me laugh or cry from the gift that is revealed. Sometimes I have to walk by a piece I had just finished several times, as if I did not make it, and I try and understand it… it really is a gift.

In your formative years as an artist you shared an excellent rapport with your sister Wendy who is also accomplished in her chosen field. How you two artistically complemented each other?

My sister is 2 years older than I. She trained as a painter then decided that dance was her true art form. I love her dearly and have watched her grow, fall down, pick herself back up again and try again. She has a deep trust in her creative vision… even when all odds seem against her. She pushes the envelope of contemporary Flamenco Dance, she does not fall prey to the easy or quick fix… she is an artist who keeps her vision clear and direct. This is what I keep in the back of my mind when I try new materials, new ideas and concepts.

You have a long tryst with teaching. As a medium of interaction between students and the teacher how creatively fulfilling has it been?

Teaching can be very taxing because I give it my all when I teach… but I learn so much about the process of creation by having to explain it to many different people. I first try to identify each student’s strength, add a little humour to calm the nerves, and wait to see how each person absorbs the feeling of the material they are working in as well as the instruction. I have learned a lot about myself and my own creative process by teaching others.

You have started experimenting with different art forms early. And the life experiences you gathered as you went through different phases did have a definitive influence on your work. How do you view your metamorphosis as an artist since the early days?

Totally natural. My work evolved over 20 years on my terms, in truly a natural way. No one told me what I should do… no one said stick to this because it sells better… thankfully I listened to myself. One exploration lead to the next, to the next etc. Every few years or so I can sit back and see how the work steered in one direction and how much better it worked if I let the materials and themes settle in me over a longer period of time. I have lots to learn and I have endless ideas for the future.

Portrait of Susan Clinard

Susan Clinard enjoys…

Susan’s favourite place to spend time in is her studio. East of Eden by John Steinbeck is her favourite book and she likes listening to world music, jazz, contemporary bluegrass, and Bach. She loves Indian food, eggplant, mushrooms and apples.

Find more of her work at

Image Courtesy: Susan Clinard