Q&A: Suellen Parker’s Manic Optimism in Letting Go at Whitespace

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Suellen Parker, Twirling, 2011, archival pigment print, 40 x 40 inches. Image courtesy Whitespace Gallery.

Photographer Suellen Parker, who’s also the current program coordinator for the photography department at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, has a recently opened exhibition at Whitespace Gallery entitled Letting Go. Parker’s past work, such as the characters and scenery she developed in her 2004-2006 series, Incurable, explored what it means to seek unrealistic perfection. Her primary focus was how people change and shape themselves in response to judgment and feedback from external influences. Letting Go, however, shifts its focus to how one can overcome these idealistic views formed by society by taking the time, however brief it may be, to discover one’s own identity.

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As Parker reveals in her statement for Letting Go, setting aside time to allow self-discovery without the noise of societal pressures is essential. Parker’s process—which includes creating characters from clay, digitally shaping their surroundings, and photographing the final scene—adds to the meaning of the work itself. Her characters must go through a similar process to break away from rules for how they should present themselves.

Suellen Parker, The Tie That Binds, 2012, archival pigment print, 40 x 40 inches. Image courtesy Whitespace Gallery.

To better understand Parker’s creative process as well as how her characters embody new beginnings, a sense of authenticity, and self-exploration, I emailed her a few questions regarding her new work in Letting Go.

Claire Maxwell: Your work is constructed by a unique process. Can you talk about your process and how Letting Go differs from past exhibits such as Incurable in terms of how the work is made?

Suellen Parker: My process for making the work in Letting Go is more or less the same as in my previous works. The biggest difference is my relationship with the material. When I first began creating this type of work in 2003, I was experimenting with combining sculpting, photography, and digital compositing. At that time I was in graduate school for photography, but was burned out on making work through machines (i.e. camera and computers). I wanted to make something with my hands, so I found a way to incorporate sculpting into my work. Much of the process revolved around learning about how to work with the materials and tools, as well as finding the right balance between the three mediums (photography, sculpture, and photo illustration). Now that I have a better understanding of my material, the process is simplified into obtaining the right balance, while finding ways to push the aesthetics of my work.

CM:
How do you feel your specific process contributes to both the meaning of the work itself as well as the feelings that are evoked by observing your work?

SP:  For me, my process lends itself to creating imperfect worlds for my imperfect characters. Because the work is composited together like a puzzle, the overall scene looks slightly off. This parallels my experience of life where nothing is truly perfect or predictable. In all of my work, my characters are going through an experience in reaction to or contrast with the expected norm. This expected norm is dictated through slick media–TV, internet, print media, etc. I hope that viewers are able to feel empathy for these characters through their imperfections.

Suellen Parker, Blue Boy, 2012, archival pigment print, 58 x 36 inches. Image courtesy Whitespace Gallery.

CM: Do you think that personally molding the clay by hand as well as photographing the objects in the lighting and setting of your choice increases the connection you have with your work, rather than only doing one or the other?   

SP:  My characters are born when I mold the clay. It is a very intuitive and relatively unplanned stage of the work which creates a strong connection between the character and me. Because of my limited sculpting skills, I am unable to make the work truly come alive through sculpture alone. Photography helps, but Photoshop is where it all comes together. I am able to composite and paint through the computer to realize the potential of what I see when I first sculpt my work.

CM: One of the most noticeable aspects of your work is your way of incorporating of photos of real eyes on the sculptures rather than constructing them like the other parts. Eyes are arguably the most expressive part of the human face. Did you take this into consideration when creating the characters?  How do you think the work in Letting Go is affected by this step in your creation process?

SP:  The eyes are important in any portrait because of its believed connection to the soul, not to mention that that we look into each other’s eyes to see what the other is thinking and feeling.

Technically speaking, in my experimentation I found that using photographic eyes, specifically the eyeball, made the characters come to life almost instantly. The beautiful details in the iris and the glassiness of the eye all lend themselves to creating an illusion that the characters are alive. The areas surrounding the eyes are typically sculpted, giving the specific desired expression.

Suellen Parker, Moments of Pleasure, 2012, archival pigment print, 40 x 40 inches. Image courtesy Whitespace Gallery.

CM: In some of your pieces, like The Magic of Believing from 2006, the setting appears to accentuate the emotions of the sculpture. How do you construct the setting and environment in accordance with the character?  Is its construction equally as important as the sculpture itself?

SP:  The environment is extremely important in telling a more complete story about the characters. For each piece, I start with a simple concept, usually sketching out my ideas. Next I sculpt the figure, keeping in mind the appropriate attire, body language, and facial expression. Then I take photographs of objects, walls, floors, and furniture that will then become the environment. Finally I start to put the puzzle together, ultimately adding in or taking out parts and pieces to create the scene.

Conceptually I think about unique or unexpected actions or objects that will help define the character or scene—anything that will subtly give context to the psychological space the character inhabits at that moment. In The Magic of Believing, I wanted to portray a sense of pure and manic optimism and found that adding a hint of a self-help seminar finished the piece.

CM: Self-identity and the formation of ideals influenced by environment have been topics of your past work. How do you develop these issues further with the characters in Letting Go?

SP:  In Letting Go, the characters have the same pressures and expectations from the world as the characters in Incurable, but they are responding differently. In Incurable, the characters strived to be perfect in how they present themselves according to the rules taught to them by the outside world. In Letting Go, the characters are listening more to their instincts regardless of what “the rules” dictate for them to be or do. Letting Go is about moments of being free from judgment and expectations.

CM: Would you consider the work in the new exhibit to be more hopeful than your past shows?

SP:  Absolutely. While it can be more difficult to take risks and not conform, ultimately these risks lead to happiness and authenticity.

Suellen Parker’s exhibition, Letting Go, is on view at Whitespace Gallery through November 24, 2012.