Interview by Sam Desmond

Studying human anatomy for four years and recently obtaining a degree in gemology, artist Suzanne Scott finds inspiration in obscure or unlikely muses.  Her most distinctive artwork centers on her fingerprint portraits, a dizzying, engrossing mix of unbounded abstraction and militant hyper-realism.  She has channeled dark points of her life into her art by maintaining a diligent work ethic to carry her to inspirational highs brought on by personal woes. 

So why fingerprints? 

Well, I began making paintings of the fingerprints of loved ones circa 2001.  Maybe as early as 2000.  It was right around my first divorce.  I’ve done self-portraits of my own fingerprints before and after my divorce, the difference is stunning; to see, through self-reflection, how I’ve changed over time.

You are born with your fingerprints.  Technically they are the same throughout your life, but if you don’t use them, they grow more faint.  This also means how you use your hands influences what becomes prominent.  My favorite fingerprint generally is the thumb of the dominant hand.  It’s used for gripping and has the most distinction because of the constant use and pressure.

You said you started with fingerprint portraits after your first divorce, have you done any other portraits at extreme emotional points?  How has it affected the final product?

Yes, my current piece is my father’s fingerprint.  He passed away very suddenly this week (the painting is literally half-sketched, half-painted and hanging in Scott’s studio during this interview).  He was a talented biomedical engineer who was crippled. I will always remember amazing times with him, some of the most fond memories were being with him on fishing trips as a young girl(another series of Scott’s features hyper-realistic renditions of fishing lures from her youth that range from surreal-looking sea creatures to the Kate Spade black/white/gold palette of 2014) It’s too difficult for me to revisit this work now, so I’ll put it to the wall and get back to it when I’m more ready to accept his passing. I know that when I do come back to it, it will be enormously cathartic for me and I will use the process as part of my therapy.

Scott’s fingerprint portrait of her father, who passed away suddenly while she was painting his portrait

So talk me through the process, after you pick someone important in your life, how do you go about with this unique portrait?

(Scott rushes over to her bookcase and pulls out a stack of heavy stock, vintage, manila-colored forms with grids outlined) These are actual police fingerprint forms for suspects (she lets out a laugh), so old school, right?  But from here I look at all the fingerprints and decide which one speaks the most about the person’s life, personality, goals, and more importantly the relationship I have with that person.

I take the image (an actual fingerprint, so 1 inch by ½ inch)and go to a copy shop to have it blown up 200% onto an 8 ½ x 11 sheet.  From there I start free drawing a specific cropped section onto a canvas.  Always a square but it ranges from 12” all the way up to 54”.

How does color come to you for the portraits?  Do you have a piece that was heavily influenced by color?

Yes, color is relevant in every painting.  I have one painting based on my great aunt’s fingerprint that’s entitled, “You Should Never Be a Redhead.”  I’ve tried it and she was right, I should never be a redhead!  She was such a pioneer of her lifetime.  A Ukrainian immigrant, she trained as an RN and eventually became one of the first airline stewardesses.  She was incredibly beautiful, too short to model, but she was a hand and leg model.  She’s really one of my idols—an intelligent, captivating, beautiful sophisticated woman who could also be down and dirty and drink with the boys.

The coloring on her portrait (one of the largest at 54”) is very layered, as she was.  The color scheme is partially based on the fact that I recovered her fingerprint posthumously on her Coast Guard ID, this gives it it’s ethereal quality.  I’ve painted hidden messages like her initials for instance, throughout.  (Being horrible at Where’s Waldo, I gave up and asked Scott to point out the initials to me).  The colors—the mix of cool and warm speak to her ironic combination of strength and softness.

I learned the majority of my color theory from Chuck.

“You Should Never Be a Redhead”

Speaking of which, you have quite the mentor in Chuck Close.  What about his process has influenced yours?  How has he guided you to better art?

He told me to force myself to paint everyday like it was a paid 9 to 5 job.  He taught me that you have to force yourself to paint even if you aren’t feeling like it, and to treat the ‘bad days’ as opportunities for correction in the work.  For seven years he called me five times a week at 9 AM to make sure I was awake and getting in front of the easel.

His work ethic is like none I’ve encountered and I’d be thrilled if even a bit of it rubs off on me. To this day he critiques my work regularly and helps me to aspire to be the best painter I can be.

I have received critiques from Chuck that have made me cry for weeks straight. And I have received critiques from him that I’m on cloud nine for weeks! The former ones are really when I find my art growing. Naturally I obsess about the points Chuck spoke of. Always it results in my work improving, I push myself and am consumed until I feel like I have reached a new level.

How did Chuck Close become your mentor?  Was it an immediate connection? 

I met him years and years ago at the welcoming party for Adam Weinberg at the Whitney. After we had a lengthy discussion about process, Chuck, being such a warm, generous spirit, had asked me to stop by his studio with my slides–that shows how long ago this was that artists were still using slides to show their work! Chuck is a constant supporter of young artists, always encouraging, particularly in cases like mine where I really didn’t have an existing community of artists around me.  When he called the next day I told him to “f*ck off” thinking it was my husband at the time trying to pull off a bad joke.  I couldn’t believe Chuck Close would actually care enough to call me. He’s not only been a mentor for me, but also a best friend.

Let’s talk about your artistic training.  What in your life has been most influential in your painting?

I’m a proud to say I’m mainly a self-taught artist. My many attempts at art school always ended in my dropping out and feeling frustrated, choosing instead to explore and grow in other ways, by traveling and such.   What created dissonance for me in formal art study was the over-emphasis on theory and lack of instruction in practical application. Instead of learning more theory in a college setting, which I felt was better earned with life experience, travel, reading, looking at art everywhere and interacting with interesting, accomplished people as I developed into my adult years, I chose to study human anatomy for four years at The Art Students League on 57th Street. This gave me the tools to be confident in my drawing skills, from there the bones of abstraction can be born. I have also just completed a degree in gemology and the inherent color theory present in the spectroscope readings of gems and minerals, the natural patterns of identification for gems, inspire me to build on the natural art around us.

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