Woods Hole artist Susan Shup tells a story through her vibrant language paintings.By Colby Radomski | Photography by Corinna Raznikov
ARTIST SUSAN SHUP CAN’T REMEMBER A TIME WHEN SHE DIDN’T HAVE A BRUSH IN HER HAND. “I’ve pretty much always painted,” says the petite, pixie-cut blonde. This day she’s wearing a multicolored silk blouse printed entirely with the word “happy”—a textile reincarnation of one of her language paintings. She stands in the kitchen of her cottage overlooking Eel Pond where, she has spent the last 30 summers. She’s surrounded by more than a dozen painted canvases emblazoned with colorful three-dimensional words and abstract shapes. Some feature the incorporation of other media, such as newspaper and magazine clippings as well as printed clip art that’s been adhered onto the painted canvas surface. She pulls out a nautical map of Woods Hole, an original, which she transformed by adding obscure shapes and painted dots, sketches of people, a cutout of a Sperry Topsider boat shoe, a printout of an airplane and words reading “Stranger in Paradise.” At first glance, the clash of colors, shapes, letters and pictures seems haphazard. But careful inspection reveals their meaningful placement and a deeper, personal message.
A Pennsylvania native, Shup studied painting at Penn State where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. While summering in Maine, during her college years, she fell in love with New England and ultimately landed in the Bay State. “I discovered Boston and decided to move there instead of New York after school,” she says. Living in Cambridge, she met her husband, Belgian oceanographer Claude Frankignoul, who at the time was worked at MIT. To be with him, Shup became a bi-continental, living in France most of the year and spending summers on Cape Cod. “He received multiple job offers in Washington, D.C, Hamburg and Paris,” Shup relates. “We traveled to these places and looked at them, and I said, ‘Well, how about we try Paris?’” Three decades later, she and her husband, who now works at the University of Paris and as an adjunct scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, split their time between the City of Light and the Woods Hole science community.
Though Shup has explored several realms of artistic expression, including creating jewelry and glassware and publishing the sound recording “You Are Great,” which has attracted the attention of ELLE, Marie Claire and Maison Française magazines, it is her abstract language paintings that remain the central component of her repertoire.
“When I was a younger painter, my paintings were more landscape oriented and they were gestural, expressionistic and even abstract,” she remembers. Her work, she says, has moved from controlled to more freeform, integrating the usage of words and sounds into her paintings. It was nearly 20 years ago that she serendipitously discovered her signature style, which she calls “painting out loud.”
One day, she answered the phone in her studio and couldn’t find a pen to write down a message. “So I grabbed a tube of oil paint and I wrote on this big prepared canvas,” she says. “I went about my business and went home. When I came back to the studio the next day and saw these three-dimensional letters—each one was a different color on the canvas—I had one of these ‘eureka’ moments.”
While simple in concept, her paintings, in oils and acrylics (usually squeezed straight from a tube sans brush) are created methodically through the collection of language and the experimentation of colors and shapes with words. Often the words are focused on the repetition of a sound, a technique she calls “Da Da-like.”
“I take a bit of the world around me and interpret it,” she says. “I have notebooks filled with content. I write things down and then every once in a while I’ll find the painting that is associated with the words. The words and the painting need to jive.” Music, especially rock, inspires her work. One of her paintings includes the words “sweet emotion,” from the famous Aerosmith song. “I’ll hear sounds that strike a chord with people and create something.” But while her paintings appear playful and whimsical, Shup says they carry implicit significance. She compares her artwork to a comedian’s stand-up routine, in that it’s often bittersweet. “The content might seem somewhat optimistic,” she says. “But it reflects the heavy act of painting.”
Since starting her language paintings, Shup has taken her art outside of the studio to combine it with fashion. In Paris, she has collaborated with several fashion designers to create artist editions (limited edition textiles) and she has illustrated art books, including a version for fashion empire Hermès. But it was a collaboration with notable French wedding dress designer Florence Picant that helped Shup connect with the designer behind Dubai-based kitsch couture fashion label OTT (Over the Top) in 2011, which ultimately put her on the fashion map. The collection, called OMG by OTT, features a variety of pieces, from ponchos and printed silk tops to vibrant skirts and jackets that have been worn by celebrities like singers Natasha Bedingfield and Christina Milian, and “Empire” actress Ta’Rhonda Jones.
Both her fashion work and her paintings have been included in the prestigious global art show Art Basel as well as the Berlin Collective, and are represented by galleries in both London and France, including Galerie Louis Gendre. But to get the most authentic taste of the artist’s imagination and output, stop by her own studio in Paris, called, appropriately enough, SHUPSHOP, open by appointment.