Interview: Susan Brilliant
Luca Curci talks with Susan Brilliant during CONTEMPORARY VENICE 2019 at Palazzo Ca’ Zanardi.
I am a multidisciplinary artist whose career has spanned a variety of mediums including visual art, dance, performance, teaching and theater. After graduating with a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Philosophy from Ithaca College, I received a full scholarship to study dance at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, and later a work study for ballet at Finias Jhung. I was a Graham dancer studying at the Graham studio in NYC, taking class with Martha herself where she often dropped in to teach. I became a demonstrator and premiered my own choreography there; “Heart of Darkness”. As a young adult in New York City in the 70s and early 80s I danced professionally as a principal dancer in the Cunningham style companies of Beth Cachet, as well as other pick up companies; Elinore Coleman, etc. Other performing and choreography credits include: “Inside Tracks” at the Judith Anderson Theatre, “A Day in the life” at Little Church Around the Corner, “For Colored Girls… When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enough” at Bernard College, “Beckett” at St. Anne’s Warehouse, “Nesting” at NYU Theatre, Neustro Children’s Theatre, among others. Teaching was on the faculties of, Kennedy High School, The New School, Barnard, Garden State Ballet Company, Richmond School of Ballet, Bklyn Friends. My passion in dance led me to pursue a master’s in dance in Education at NYU when my children were small. In 1998 I got certified in the Mind-body work of Josef Pilates by Romana Kryzanowska in 1998. Two years later I co-founded “Pilates in Port” in Port Washington NY where I taught Classical Pilates for over 15 years and added in Gyrotonics. Painting and drawing came organically out of this kinesthetic sphere. Classes and workshops were catch as catch can while raising three daughters with my husband. Self-taught, sketching the masters, and time at the Art Students League from the age of 18 where I studied with Isaac Sawyer, Robert Cenendella, (and recently in a workshop in Tuscany with Frank McCain), I began to cobble out a practice. Charles Pasqualini at “The Painter’s Studio” became my primary teacher, mentor and friend. My work was involved in exhibitions at both studios and in some private showings on Long Island. In San Francisco I work out of my studio thru Art Explosion/Art Span and have participated in Open Studios since 2014. It was thru an Open Studio that led to an ongoing collaboration in Art and Healing with The Northern California Women’s Imaging Center in Palo Alto. There are seven of my paintings there, purchased in their permanent collection as part of a series of the figure called “A Celebration of Women”. I also curated a continuing exhibition there including other artists (including my daughter’s artwork) I continue to work from the live model thru the studio of Michael Markowitz here in San Francisco. In 2019 I completed a 3 year program to become a Tamalpa Life/Art Practioner versed in the work of Ana and Daria Halprin, and an International Registered Somatic Educator. This is movement based expressive arts therapy and education program that uses the arts as a resource for healing, and transformation. From Feb-May 2019 I conducted workshops called “A Taste of Tamalpa” and “The Creative Spark”. In April 2019 I created Poesis – a Gallery Event in Dogpatch including paintings, dance, live music, choreography, video directed by me and in collaboration with other artists.
Luca Curci – What is art for you?
Susan Brilliant – Art is a breath, this breath. It is living this life with the need and desire to leave marks, footprints in the sand. Getting to the essential, stripping away the distractions and abstracting the essence. It is also the place where I both find myself and lose myself at the same time. There are mistakes and failures and sometimes these are my signposts to new discoveries and experiments. It is delicious, joyful and mysterious, not without struggle. I summon up courage to go inward and find out who I am, excavate, show up, not just for myself, but for others. Its both the question and the answer to: “what is this life that we live?”. I paint the dance and dance the painting, with all the overlapping planes and crazy rhythms, space, while singing the stillness. It is the energy of this moment and this vitality that needs; yearns to be expressed, noticed, witnessed. It is learning forever. Art is our birthright – we are all artists in the making the gift is as Da Vinci spoke “the spirit emerging thru the hand”.
LC – What is your background?
SB – I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Long Island when I was 4. My grandparents came from Russia and Poland, looking for a new world after persecution in their homelands. My grandfather started with a truck collecting rags, scraps on the lower East Side and later, my dad and brothers turned the scrap metal business into silver recovery. I always liked to collect things, make collages, and the feeling of the color of copper to me, at an early age was magical. Biking everywhere. The beach. Walking along the shore in that majestic light that even brought Jackson Pollock to the village of Springs years before… . My parents had a house there. Saw my first De Kooning exhibit there at 18. I had never seen anything like his work and was completely transfixed. It was a formidable experience. My parents took us to museums and the theatre. MY husband and I also took our children to museums growing up and to Europe to go to the churches and museums and absorb the art. Standing alone in front of Guernica at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an early memory where I was stunned, overwhelmed. I was 17, the Vietnam war was escalating. This piece of art affected me deeply. It gave me hope that there was a way to witness, to voice. That was so powerful it shook me to my bones. College – dance, painting, philosophy. My painting teacher Allen Atwell taught us how to see. I did three pastels that I showed him after I went to New Haven and saw some more Picassos at the museum there. He paused and said as he looked at my work – “I see you’ve been bitten by the bug”. Yes and at the same time there was dance. I fell in love with Graham technique and studied with Martha Graham, and became a professional contemporary dancer for 12 years in NYC, dancing in small companies (Beth Cachet, Elinor Coleman…) taught company class, choreographed my own work, and taught at studios and colleges in NYC , New Jersey and Virginia. I would take classes and workshops at the Art Student’s League whenever I could and later while raising my children, and even now a workshop here or there. My first teacher there was Isaac Sawyer who was an incredible artist in his 80s who would come to my easel and touch up my painting with a dab here and a story of Isadora Duncan and her poet husband. The hallways smelling of paint and turpentine, quickened the blood in my veins. Walking in, I always felt a little more alive and this sensation nourished my dream of becoming an artist when I had no support from my family. Later in my life I found a studio, mentor and friend aT Roslyn School of Painting taught by the late ‘Charlie’ Pasqualini, who combined precise “seeing lights and darks” with a “classical oil palette”. He gave me so much, but his genius was in his radar lens into your soul. He gave me the space on my canvas to be me. He recognized my love of abstraction and he encouraged me to go study the Degas’s that I was forever copying in class, see in person at the Met. I was combining charcoal and oil and pastel, something I still do, and he wanted me to see how Degas experimented and did that back in the 1800s. I love the figure and have been doing a continuing series of the figure in abstraction since 2014 when I moved to San Francisco. Gesture, movement, repose, volume, line etc. It all fascinates me like an eternal beginner seeing for the first time. To me it is a continuation of dance, a celebration and joy. I also love to do big abstracts from a sketch or allowing the canvas to lead me with multi layers of paint and scapings.
LC – Where do u find your inspiration?
SB – The human figure, nature, in rags and scraps; everywhere. Gesture, the early Abstract Expressionists especially the women artists of that time, the Renaissance painters and sculptors Bronzino, etc…, Degas, Cezanne, Japanese prints, Dorothy Tanner. I like to experiment with materials: oils, pastel charcoal, watercolor, scapings poetry, music, dialogue. En plein air and in the studio.
LC – Did your style change over the years? In what way?
SB – I started with Representation in oils. I felt the pull of Abstraction and went into that direction. I’m still exploring the figure in stillness and movement. I do large abstractions, expressive in nature. I continue to work in charcoal, pastel and have added acrylics, ink, and watercolor into the mix. As my dad used to say, “plus que ca change, plus que ca meme chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same).
LC – What do you think of the concept of this festival?
SB – The theme of Identity: The Cities seemed timely. I sent in a video called “Stop” about gun violence in America. My piece “Ancestral Footprints: The Rain” is a large abstract of layers of paint on paper about my grandmother Lina coming over from Russia on ‘the boat’ and all I knew about the journey was that “it rained and rained”. I am the grandchild of immigrants like many other Americans, yet at this time 2020, immigration is being challenged and little children are being separated from parents and caged indefinitely by the Mexico border in my country. In my painting Woman 2019 there is a Woman with her arm reaching up up into the atmosphere and is fragmented. Hope, strength yet… so far to go.
LC – What is your idea about ITSLIQUID GROUP?
SB – I found ITSLIQUID platform and festival a wonderful hub for artists working in many different mediums. It was wonderful to interconnect with artists from around the world in such a beautiful old world setting in Venice. The Palace where my paintings were hung, was alive with so much history and light. The palace itself was exquisite in its beauty and the paintings were hung with care. The directors and curators were warm and professional. As an artist it’s very easy to get isolated in one’s studio. It felt very expansive tome to be involved in this international festival with many other talented artists.