Interview with Featured Artist Shushana Rucker
By Linda Hoffman Kimball, MFA
LHK: Thank you for sharing your artwork with Segullah, Shushana Rucker! I discovered your work through J. Kirk and Amy Richards’ “Vision of the Arts 2017 auction. I did a little googling about you and discovered the rich interview you gave to Kyoung Dabell at BYU-Idaho where you teach. I also checked out the F.A.N. Gallery in Philadelphia. I see that you have a show going up there in March, right? Congratulations!
Shushana: Thank you! You did your research!
I know you’re a professor at BYU-Idaho. Are you a Mormon? Was your family growing up all Mormon, too? If so, what was it like growing up in a very large family in Pennsylvania where I assume Mormons aren’t as ubiquitous as they are in Rexburg?
Shushana: I am Mormon, and was raised in that faith. Pennsylvania has very low per-capita Mormon membership. When I went to high school there were only two other members in the entire school, so, yes, we were a bit of an oddity, but mostly because of the size of our family. The Philadelphia area is rich with diversity: religious, racial, cultural etc. so you don’t stick out quite so much when you belong to a minority religion.
LHK: You grew up as one of 12 siblings on the lush and lovely campus of a boy’s military school outside of Philadelphia where your father was an art teacher. Like your siblings, you were home schooled by your mother. Can you tell us what that was like?
Shushana: Growing up on campus of a private school was really great for us, we had access to all the facilities the campus offered including indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, horses and all kinds of other things. We never had lots of money, but always had something to do. I was home schooled for most of my primary and secondary education, I did attend high school for one year, but I hated all the wasted time. My mom has a degree in education, and created curricula for each of us, but school time was not particularly structured. We spent time throughout the day on each subject, but we didn’t sit down at desks and work in a structured way.
Early on I wanted to be a chemist. I loved science and was fascinated by chemistry. My dad always encouraged us to make art, but I thought of it as more of a hobby for most of my growing-up years.
I have the best parents, and they worked hard to have strong connections with all their children. The age span is from 18 years old (youngest twins) to 39 years old. The beautiful thing about a large family is that older siblings take care of a lot of the social and emotional needs of the younger siblings. I feel that in a family structure each person makes up an important part of the whole unit and each person has something to contribute. We have all learned from each other.
LHK: What is your family configuration now?
Shushana: I and seven of my siblings are married with the combined total of 28 children, with 3 on the way. My parents keep busy with all of those grandkids! My husband and I have been married close to 8 ½ years and we have a 5-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son. My children are both very strong willed. My daughter has a mischievous streak and has been known to sneak into my studio and paint on my paintings when she’s mad at me. My son has given me so many gray hairs! He can climb anything and gets into everything. They are both very sweet and loving.
LHK: From an early age, you got to work in your father’s on-campus studio creating art. What kind of art did you spend most of your time pursuing? What was that experience like?
Shushana: Up until I was 16 I learned art mostly from my dad. He taught me everything from ceramics and jewelry making to printmaking and photography, but I mostly focused on painting. I started taking continuing education courses for college credit at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when I was 16, mostly in drawing and painting.
I loved being free to spend hours a day making art, but it was difficult for me to not take my dad’s critiques of my work personally. I was your typical angst-filled teenager and I didn’t love being criticized.
LHK: In your interview with Kyoung Dabell at BYU-Idaho, you mentioned that as a child you thought you wanted to paint portraits and landscapes – but something changed when you attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. What changed and why? How would you describe your new artistic approach and vision? Was this a smooth transition or fraught with struggle? Tell us with some specific situations about your transition from a suburban girl to a young adult in a city with all its grit and complexity and how that effected your artwork.
Shushana: I think everyone’s point of view changes and broadens when they leave home or attend college. PAFA has a pretty unique curriculum, the first 2 years are foundation years, you spend 6-8 hours in class a day, 5 days a week building traditional classical painting, drawing, sculpting and printmaking skills. The second 2 years are spent in your own studio space taking fewer classes and having critics visit your studio on a rotating schedule. During the studio years you are encouraged to develop your own style and concepts. My first semester in studio I struggled. I knew I wanted to make work about the cycle of life, but I was making some really corny stuff about dryads and mythical figures. I lived in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood in Philadelphia with a few roommates and I started to notice that as far as technology had advanced, people were not necessarily happier. I started making work about urban blight because of this, but also because I felt it showed the life cycle – birth, death, resurrection in a different light.
LHK: Many of your current pieces are urban landscapes filled with power lines, graffiti, rust, or decay of some kind. You have even said that some people call your paintings “ugly.” I beg to differ. Some of what I love the most about your work is the almost throbbing beauty of color, composition, design, line work that surges from subject matter that can be seen as harsh, or even brutal. I’m reminded of this passage in Matthew 13:15-17:
For this people’s heart has become gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which you see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which you hear, and have not heard them.
It’s as though your artwork declares that in the entirety of human experience – even the gritty and raw – there is a transcendent beauty, an energy of wholeness. In the midst of a weary world, there is that one vertical of vibrant red that shouts “Hallelujah!” or a network of power lines that draws us in – as though to a map of the galaxies – and directs our paths. (Can you tell I’m a fan girl?)
How would YOU describe what you’re going for in your urban pieces or even your rural paintings and prints of what seem at first to be images of entropy?
Shushana: I am currently focused on the changes that come with passing time, but have also recently been interested in portraying the connections we ignore (power lines, infrastructure, etc). Everything always goes back to that original idea of the life cycle – birth, death and rebirth. The birth to death part could be seen as entropy, but I am interested in the rebirth part – or the promise of it.
I often say I draw inspiration from many artists, but my go-to list would be Mondrian, Rackstraw Downes, and Whistler. Formally, I am interested in making work that goes back and forth between modern flatness and illusionist space. I like to use power lines, train lines, or roads because they can be used to do both.
LHK: You said that when you got to graduate school at the University of Delaware that you felt that you really had to buckle down and work hard – instead of riding on knowing that you were “talented.” In what ways did you work harder? What results did you see? What were some of your biggest hurdles?
Shushana: I think after graduate school was the true test for me. I didn’t make any art for about a year after I finished school. It was the peak of the recession and I realized that making a career as an artist took a whole lot of self-discipline and hard work, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put in the effort. I also suffered a miscarriage during this time which I struggled with emotionally for the better part of that year.
LHK: That must have been very difficult. I’m so sorry.
What kind of evolution have you seen in your own style and in interests?
Shushana: Moving to Idaho has definitely expanded my appreciation for different kinds of art. Living in the Northeast, I always looked to NYC for guidance as a cultural center. I’ve learned to appreciate the different genres and styles of the West. I am still trying to wrap my head around the Idaho landscape. Most of my work goes to my Philadelphia gallery before it goes anywhere else and the demand is for imagery of Philadelphia so I haven’t had that much of a chance to process my relationship to this environment.
LHK: You have bookbinding and other artisan skills. Can you describe what they are? How does changing the medium you work with affect your attitude, goals and process for your art?
Shushana: I started sewing when I was 9, and when I was a teenager I used to design and make a lot of my own clothes. Because I know how to sew, other things related to sewing are pretty easy for me to pick up on. Bookbinding is closely related to sewing, my favorite bindings include fancy or challenging stitches. Book arts is taught in tandem with printmaking and is considered a fine art, but I prefer binding books as a craft. I also love to crochet, and again I am mostly drawn to intricate design work, I crochet a lot of decorative work like doilies and ornaments. I consider these “craft” related endeavors as separate from my fine art, but maybe someday I’ll find a way to combine them.
LHK: As a wife, mother, professor and artist, what are your biggest challenges to finding work/life balance?
Shushana: Time is always an issue. I have found that making a habit of working in my studio every day has helped me keep my toe in the water even during the busiest times in my life. It’s difficult when I have to travel to teach workshops or for shows. Kids can make that logistically difficult. I am blessed to have a hardworking husband who believes in picking up my slack and understands and supports my work.
LHK: You have a show coming up this March at the F.A.N. Gallery in Philadelphia. What other significant events fill your months ahead?
Shushana: I have a solo show with F.A.N. every 12 months, which keeps me motivated to churn out work. I have a show coming up with two of my siblings and my dad in Portsmouth, Virginia at The Visual Arts Center at Tidewater Community College which opens on the 20th of this month. I am part of an exhibition entitled “Landscape Revisited” at Montgomery College in Maryland which opens the 27th of February and I will also be part of “Certain Women” at Anthony’s Fine Art in Salt Lake City which opens on March 2nd.
LHK: Wonderful! Congratulations! Sounds like you’ll be busy! Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives and talents with the Segullah audience!