The rows of dirty old cemetery flowers depicted in Susan Lenz’s Last Words are somehow so inviting. Somber and sweet rolled into one, her solo exhibition at Tapp’s Art Center, on view through Aug. 2, touches on many levels of humanity, exploring our connections with memory and our feelings about passing onto the next plane. Countless words come at us from every direction, inviting us to share in Lenz’s vision of death not as an end, but as an experience that is part of life and firmly rooted in it.
Lenz works with found, collected and discarded objects. It is a growing trend in the art world to work with upcycled materials, but Lenz’s approach puts her into a special class of working fiber artists. Tying into a deep appreciation of history and culture and the artist’s own past through these found materials, her work is chaotic, raw and lovely — both tender and rough around the edges, much like the process of loss.
This large body of work is a culmination of projects going back as far as 2005, with the bulk of the work starting in 2008 while Lenz was in Maine doing an artist residency at the MacNamara Foundation. This is where her quilt graveyard rubbings originated, and served as a starting point for similarly themed projects that followed.
Stepping into Last Words, you immediately recognize the Victorian-style quilt rubbings and graveyard silk flowers as Lenz’s work, as the themes connect with other bodies of work she has created. There is a comforting familiarity to her use of text, mixed media and embroidery. Along with textiles, Lenz also uses collages, handmade books, image-transfer photographs and organza banners.
Lenz’s process of creation is both intriguing and inspiring. Using crayons, she takes rubbings directly from gravestones and assembles various pieces of text and imagery onto found pieces of linen and garments. Then, each piece is meticulously stitched with details and buttons.
Fiber art found its way into mainstream Western art in the 1960s and ‘70s, and there is a connective thread between Lenz’s work and that of other fiber artists, many of whom use text and clothing to address issues of feminine identity. This is especially apparent in Lenz’s piece My Epitaph Quilt. About this piece, Lenz says, “As a feminist, I hated the idea of saying ‘wife and mother’ — how utterly subservient, ordinary, boring and patriarchal — yet what role in this world is more important?”
Down the hall from that piece is a Virgin of Guadalupe crayon-rubbing piece displayed next to an art quilt with a small child’s nightgown adorned to it. The text across the middle of the tiny innocent white gown says simply, “only child.” The close proximity of the pieces lends to a deeper emotional connectivity as you walk, gazing from one to the next.
Images relating to death and religion can carry heavy, almost overwhelming messages. This is not the case with Lenz’s work. Instead, her work carries an air of peaceful self-reflection, with a dash of beauty and humor. Although she is technically Catholic, Lenz considers herself more a spiritual person. It shows through in her work, which references ritual and tradition but is also about reflection on the passing of time.
An example of this is a small rubbing piece made from a used wedding gown, cut down to the size of a dainty white pillowcase. On the pillowcase are two hearts with the names of the artist and her husband. Taken from Elmwood Cemetery, just a few blocks from their home and business, the artist questions her own legacy. It is this persistent questioning that keeps the drive going behind creating her work.
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