‘These paintings are messages to my daughters’: Columbus artist featured in national exhibit

Take a tour of Suzanne Reed Fine's art studio

Columbus artist Suzanne Reed Fine was notified this spring that her painting “Lark” was selected for the American Watercolor Society’s 150th Anniversary Exhibition in New York City.
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Columbus artist Suzanne Reed Fine was notified this spring that her painting “Lark” was selected for the American Watercolor Society’s 150th Anniversary Exhibition in New York City.

To be included in the American Watercolor Society Exhibition is one of the highest honors a painter can receive, and local artist Suzanne Reed Fine has done it twice.

Reed Fine, a native of Colorado, is a fourth generation artist and began studying the elements of art at an early age. Throughout her career, she has studied with many artistic giants including Stephen Quiller, Katherine Liu, Bo Barlett, Alex Powers, Charles Reid, Judi Betts and Eric Wiegardt.

This spring, Reed Fine was notified that her painting “Lark” was selected for the American Watercolor Society’s 150th Anniversary Exhibition in New York City. The organization received over 2,000 paintings as submissions for the contest, and Reed Fine’s “Lark” was among the mere 150 selected for the exhibit. This is the second time Reed Fine has been featured in an American Watercolor Society exhibition.

Reed Fine recently sat down with arts reporter Carrie Beth Wallace to discuss her path to painting, why she paints, and the American Watercolor Society’s daunting selection process she’s succeeded in twice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You are a fourth generation artist. What was your childhood like?

A: It was a lot of fun. My grandmother, who I lived very close to, and my dad were both painters. My grandmother was also a sculptor. We lived very close to the border of New Mexico, so we would go to Taos and Santa Fe a lot. We would go look at art and do things that involved art a lot. My father was a mechanic, but in his spare time, he would do his painting or woodworking. It was really wonderful. We spent a lot of time outside.

We were always outside. On weekends, we would just get in the truck and go. We’d spend time fishing or hiking. I would mostly be reading a book or drawing. I didn’t like to fish, but I liked being out there among the trees and everything.

Q: I read that by the time you were in high school you were studying art outside of your normal curriculum. Things like color study and watercolor with Stephen Quiller. How did this come about?

A: Well, I went to a small school. There were only 38 people in my graduating class. So the art teacher thought he couldn’t teach me anything more, so he said, “Why don’t you go take art at the college?” ASU was only 30 miles away and that’s where Quiller was teaching. I began taking classes there. I took a design class, some watercolor and color theory.

Q: Your website also indicates that you spent sometime in graphic design before you transitioned to painting. How did this transpire?

A: Well, I never knew I would be a painter. I loved to draw, but I felt like I really had a hard time with color and I really struggled with it. So I just wanted to work in black and white. At the time, I thought graphic design would be a great way to go. I loved illustration and pen and ink is what I really loved. Drawings of people in graphite. So I decided I was going to do that, and started taking the business classes. Then when I graduated, I studied graphic design at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta and after a while, I just got tired of it. I spend a lot of time doing logos and labels and things and I just decided I wanted to try something new. I chose painting.

Q: What was that transition like?

A: I was really frustrated. I had been working on an illustration of a Native American dancer. It was a pen and ink and was a really tight drawing. It had taken me probably about two weeks to do this and I was almost done. I was at the end of it, and it was with the dip ink. Well, I dropped it. And ink went everywhere. All over the drawing. I just lost it. I mean, I was tired. But I mean, I just remember feeling so frustrated. My father had given me this giant canvas that he wasn’t doing anything with, and I had all of this paint. I didn’t even have any brushes. I found a putty knife from where we were remodeling our bathroom, and I just started going to town all over the place on this canvas with all of these colors. Just getting the frustration out about all of this drawing. It ended up being very freeing.

Q: Do you still have the painting?

A: (laughing) Oh, no. I mean, I’m sure I painted over it. The painting was awful and it had way too many colors all over it. It was so bad. It had every color in the world on it. It was such a mess. But I really liked the way that felt. Getting all of that frustration out by painting.

I guess I had just always thought that if I wanted to paint, I needed to paint like Andrew Wyeth, who I loved. I have always admired his work. You know, he’s a very realist painter. I could draw that way, but I just didn’t think I could paint that way. So it was confusion therein my own head about how that was all going to work out.

Q: Go back to what you just said about the battle between realism and abstract. Your style still does that, don’t you think?

A: It kind of does. I like the idea of realism. I still draw realistically. I draw every week with Bo (Bartlett) and Garry Pound and everybody. But I like the expressiveness of painting and the fast immediacy of quick brush strokes and that dance that you get into when start painting and you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. You’re not thinking, you’re just doing what comes out. That is exciting for me. But I still like to have a bit of something that you can recognize- something that sort of helps to tell the story and lead it a little bit.

Q: I love how you balance those two elements in your paintings. Hearing your constant use of both techniques is interesting. Now, I’m curious. What is your process like? You’ve said online that music plays a large part in it? What is a typical day in your studio?

A: My studio is at the Johnson Mill Lofts right next to Bibb City. I have got a great studio that juts out and has windows, windows, windows. It’s wonderful. I just moved there in November. I was in my house for a while, but now I’ve gotten into a bigger space.

When I get there, I’ve already dropped everybody off at school and taken the dogs for a walk. Then, we go straight to the studio. I turn the music on, get the air conditioning going or open the windows. I just kind of sit in the space and look at the work that I have going. I generally have four or five that I’m working on at once. I get tired of one and move onto something else until I’m ready to come back to it. So I sit and kind of look at everything and figure out where I need to be, although at the end of the day before, I’ve usually already looked at everything and decided what I’m going to do the next day. So I have a cup of tea and just look at things- kind of a meditation thing. Then I get the music turned up and I get started. You know, the music starts out kind of low and then I’ll put on something more upbeat as I start to work.

A lot of times, when I’m painting something in particular, I have to watch for lyrics in songs. If it has a lot of lyrics, I find that will kind of influence what I’m painting. So a lot of times it’s just music with no words.

Q: Interesting. Classical? Electric? What kind of instrumental music?

A: Yeah. I don’t really know how to describe it more ... like Moby?

Q: I just find it interesting how some painters only paint to certain kinds of music.

A: A lot of the time, it is classical music. Or jazz. Just kind of a little bit of everything. Whatever instrumental music Pandora puts on the radio for me.

Q: There seems to be so much of your process that is not on the canvas. That is so interesting.

A: A lot of it. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s funny, sometimes the paintings come out very quickly and they’re right there. Like the “Lark” painting I did. It came out right away. I mean, I had processed it, but when I got to painting, it came right out. But other times, I’ll work and work on something. It just depends.

Q: OK, I ask every artist this, and it’s going to make you laugh. But I ask this because it’s fascinating for readers to read, and I never get the same answer twice. What is your favorite color?

A: Ha! That is a good question. Manganese Blue is my favorite color. It’s a Colorado color. Like the Colorado sky.

Q: We’ve talked about your process and your work, now let’s talk about “Lark” and this great honor you’ve received from the American Watercolor Society. It’s a big deal. Can you tell me more about the painting?

“Lark” by Suzanne Reed Fine. “Lark” was selected for the American Watercolor Society’s 150th Anniversary International Exhbition in New York City. Courtesy of Suzanne Reed Fine

A: So “Lark” is actually a painting of my daughter Cassidy. She is a dancer. For her recital last year at Academy Dance, she came home with several crazy costumes. One was a gold lame thing that she could actually pull off. Then, they had one that was a typical ballet costume with a flower in her hair. You know, traditional ballerina. I always love those. It was great. It was green tulle and a white bodice. So we had gone out in the front yard and I was taking photos of her. She was twirling around and doing all of these different moves. But then she sat down and was sort of fixing her skirt in front of her and the way she was just looking, I was just clicking the camera down getting her more in the unposed pictures. When I looked at it later, I thought, “I have to paint that.”

So that is her in the background looking down. My kids are in a lot of my paintings. I am in a lot of my paintings.

Q: What is interesting is this overlay in the painting. Can you tell me more about that?

A: The overlay is made up of flowers that I painted on top of her. We had gone to Amsterdam in tulip season and so we were taking pictures of them everywhere we went. There was one that was this beautiful red. It was a real lacy looking one. I don’t know what kind it was but it was beautiful.

Anyway, do you know how when you used to work with film and you would accidentally double expose or over expose something?

Q: Yes. That’s what this reminds me of, actually.

A: That’s what I was thinking of. So I wanted to show that she is more of the delicate gentle flower. She is my soft spoken child. Always very contemplative. She was that way even as a baby. So that is what I wanted to represent about her and I thought that the flowers sort of said that about her.

So in my mind, I had this dream in my head when I was asleep. I saw this and then when I started painting it, it was all in color. It was green grass and blue sky and all of this stuff. I kept looking at it thinking, “This isn’t right. What is wrong with this?” Then, I remembered that she was in black and white in the dream and the flowers were in color.

So then it was just an exercise of thinking, “OK. everywhere the flower is in front of her, I want to make that brighter so it looks like her coming out more.” So when you look at the painting you can see her arm, her dress, and she actually has flowers in her hair. So I wanted to make it look like it was definitely a giant flower, but her, too.

Q: Let’s talk about the selection process for the American Watercolor Society’s exhibits. What can you tell me about the admission process? How did they find this work among 2,000 entries from all over the world?

A: So this painting I only showed to probably two people. Normally, I show them to several people, but not this one. I had been turned down to other shows, but this is my second time to be selected for the American Watercolor Society one. That was huge. So I was nervous to show anyone because I didn’t want anyone’s feedback. You’re only allowed to submit one painting. It’s very hard to get selected.

There are five jurors. And I didn’t find this out until now, but each juror has a little clicker. They had over 2,000 painting from around the world submitted to them. They look at each painting on this big screen. They go through it once, all 2,000 of them, and then they go through it again. As they go through them, if the person likes it then they click their clicker. All five jurors have to like the painting for it to be selected. They narrow down and narrow down, but all five of them have to agree that it’s a strong painting for it to make the cut.

They had chosen 150 this year because it is the 150th anniversary of the American Watercolor Society. I didn’t realize it was that intense. I mean, I knew it was hard to get into, but I had no idea what the process was until now.

Q: Will you go see the show?

A: No, actually the last day is Saturday. I didn’t get to go. The banquet is on the night my daughter is running regional track. Then my other daughter has prom. So I thought, “Oh well!”

Q: What are you currently working on? What’s next for you?

A: I am working on several commissions. I just had the show at the Columbus Museum, so that had been taking some time. So I’ve got the commissions that I’m doing, and then I have a show coming up in Colorado in July.

Q: What’s it called? Do you know yet?

A: I’m thinking “Undercurrents.” When I was out in Colorado in February, everything was frozen. I was loving to watch the river, The Rio Grande, right outside my cabin. I was watching the melting water and the chunks of ice that would come down, and then the snow that coming down and these broken patches of snow and ice all around it. So I was thinking about the life and the body of the water. How things are living and then they’re covered up. You know, the symbolism of that with people, but portrayed in landscapes.

Suzanne Reed Fine

Hometown: Del Norte, Colo.

Family: Husband, Joel; daughters, Harper and Cassidy

Formal Education: Adams State University, Portfolio Center of Atlanta

Occupations: Professional artist, instructor for Columbus State University’s Continuing Education Program, private instructor for her private studio.

More to know: Fine is a founding member of the Executive Board for the Bo Bartlett Center at CSU, and has been involved in the development of a new local Partnering In Education program called “Art Makes You Smart.”