The Act of Imagining: Valerie Suter’s Literary Paintings
Moved by her love of reading, artist Valerie Suter creates a whimsical series of writers' portraits.
Scrolling through Instagram, we came across a whimsical animation of the poet Dylan Thomas speaking the line, “somebody’s boring me.” The rest of that anecdote goes like this: “Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.” The video was decidedly cheeky—and the painting was beautiful. The eye-catching image made us wonder if there were more writerly portraits, and who the artist was behind them.
Born and raised in New York and now currently based in Los Angeles, artist Valerie Suter studied visual art at Central St. Martins College of Art & Design in London and has a B.A. in Modern History from McGill University in Montreal. Her paintings, on writers and other artists, have been exhibited in New York, London, East Hampton, Montreal, and Los Angeles.
Suter is also an illustrator for Lena Dunham’s newly-launched Lenny Letter. Her most recent piece is a portrait of Ellen Pao. We spoke to Suter about her inspiration for the series, her favorite books, and her advice to aspiring artists.
“Photographs of authors sometimes fascinate me because they seem to capture a person lost in thought or in the act of imagining, perhaps offering a glimpse into the mysterious act of writing itself,” Valerie Suter told FYNTR. “I’m really interested in tangible vs. intangible image-making and the similarities and differences between visual and verbal realms of creativity. Painting writers lets me draw a connection between two disparate worlds that I wish would overlap more often.”
If you like what you see of her work here, you can see it in the flesh as part of a group show at Los Angeles’ Co-LAB gallery on February 27, 2016. For those outside of the L.A. area, the paintings are available for sale online at Suter’s website, valeriesuter.com. But keep your mitts off the Virginia Woolf! We call dibs.
What inspired you to paint writers?
It began when I was living in London years ago near where Virginia Woolf once lived; she was on my mind a lot, and since I was studying art at the time, I made a painting based on a photograph of her that I loved. Later on, I noticed that I kept gravitating towards author photographs when searching for subjects to paint and decided to do a series specifically focused on writers. I made a book out of the paintings for the L.A. Art Book Fair this past year that had excerpts of the authors’ work alongside the images and the series has grown from there.
I’ve always loved reading, and I cherish the work of so many authors. I think of painting as a way to honor and respond to them, to put them on stage while trying to make contact with something in their persona or to better understand who they are or were. We have so many fleeting encounters with impermanent images today and making a painting seems like a way to commemorate something or someone by means of an ancient and more lasting medium.
Virginia Woolf by Valerie Suter
How do you choose the image?
I usually start with a desire to paint someone whose work I know and love, and I’ll search for an image of the person that’s in some way mysterious or compelling. Visual art can be so subjective and I enjoy the objective challenge of capturing likeness. I’m often drawn to a photograph because of some mysterious quality in the author’s face or expression. I love trying to find that person again in paint. I like using black and white photographs as references because I can be really unbridled with color and pattern and my own aesthetic inventions become a sort of conversation with the original image.
Elizabeth Bishop by Valerie Suter
There was recently an interesting article at Lit Hub about how author photos change our perception of a writer?s work. Can you think of a time this happened to you, when you were surprised by an author?s look?
I recently came across some photos of Mark Twain that delighted me, though they weren’t necessarily surprising: Mark Twain writing in bed, Mark Twain playing pool. I love finding obscure photos of writers that illuminate something of their lives or personality and that wouldn’t necessarily appear on a book jacket.
Mark Twain by Valerie Suter
We love the animated paintings on your Instagram. How do you create these?
The quotes are all from the author’s work. I make the painting first and then spend a long time looking for a single sentence or excerpt that could serve as the top of the iceberg in terms of the author’s work and voice, and that matches or deepens what’s happening in the image. Then I write or type out the text and take a series of photos with a stop-motion app. I try to use as little technology as possible to keep the animations looking loose and old-fashioned. I started making them partly because I’ve often felt frustrated by how static paintings are; I want to make these flat images of people come to life. I want to see them speak.
Joan Didion by Valerie Suter
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
My parents are both artists, so growing up surrounded by their paintings and illustrations was deeply formative. I’ve been influenced by so many other artists?Maira Kalman, Elaine de Kooning, Luc Tuymans, Cindy Sherman, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Peter Doig, Cy Twombly, Elizabeth Peyton, to name a few. I also love William Blake, David Hockney, Albert York, Fairfield Porter, Miranda July, and Louise Bourgeois.
Dorothy Parker by Valerie Suter
Who are your favorite writers / or favorite books?
Some of my favorite writers include John Steinbeck, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Julie Hecht, Alice Walker, John Updike, Grace Paley, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier, and Patti Smith. Astrid Lindgren, Lena Dunham, Wallace Stegner, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Rimbaud, Sylvia Plath, and Mary Gaitskill.
My favorite books include: Franny and Zooey, Little Women, The Waves, East of Eden, Just Kids, Chronicles, Do the Windows Open?, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Gilead.
John Steinbeck by Valerie Suter
What advice do you have for aspiring artists? What inspires you?
Honor what you love and enjoy; hone what speaks to you and what you want to say with your work. Protect your sense of play and never cease to be curious. Embrace failures and mistakes and learn all you can from them. Listen and look and be patient and specific. Develop habits around making whatever it is you want to make.
I’m inspired by people who value their imaginations and who think for themselves, who are curious and open and who have created or create work that seeks to illuminate and is marked by generosity of spirit. I’m inspired by work that is sensitive, honest, brave, and playful. I’m inspired by music and lyricists?I just finished Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and then had to paint him! Also nature. Animals. Children. Humor. The mystery of personality. And the list goes on.
E.B. White by Valerie Suter