In any community, there are people who work behind the scenes, who see what needs to be done and don’t hesitate to take on the task, no matter how large or small. Susan McDowell, local artist and head of the new Salt Valley Arts Center, is one of those very talented people.
When she’s not volunteering countless hours to keep the arts moving forward in Saline, Sue spends her time as a glass artist, using colored glass in a way few people may have seen. McDowells’ artist tagline, "Finding art in the everyday...working in glass to reflect what I see," is the perfect embodiment of her inspirational process.
When looking at one of her intricate glass pieces, it’s difficult to picture the extreme techniques used to achieve such a delicate result. According to McDowell, “I take pieces of compatible glass, fuse them together (possibly multiple times) in a kiln at ~1500F, until I have the result that I want. I often work the surface of the glass as well - engraving or sandblasting - and then re-fuse so there will be texture without sharp edges.”
When she began, McDowell worked “to put the glass together in an attractive pattern.” But now she says, “I'm much more conscious now of using my medium to express something...I'm also much more aware of the environmental concerns around glass production so I’m very mindful that what I make could be around for a very long time.”
Sue’s glass pieces really are so much more than just pieces of colored glass fused together at high temperatures. She is inspired by experiences she has had while traveling, and channels that inspiration into each piece that she creates. “I try to evoke a sense of being present in that place in my work...I want to be able to view or hold my work and think, ‘Yes! I don't have to do or say anything more for someone to understand how I was moved by this.’”
McDowell identifies most with Impressionist artists, whose slightly abstracted landscapes and use of color are reflected in her own work. She says, “Impressionists continue to knock my socks off with the way they used color. But I also really admire detail work - so Albrecht Durer is amazing. And I love the way Dutch artists capture light and water.”
She was able to capture some of this light and water in one of her own pieces - her favorite one, in fact: “I made a very large fused glass panel based on a Celtic design I'd done when I was a child. It features a blue heron in the center surrounded by other marsh views and creatures. It was a real technical (and artistic) accomplishment for me.”
It’s not surprising that glass fusing can be a little bit dangerous, but when asked what McDowell’s scariest experiences with art were, she said that they were twofold: “Physically? Burning myself when I was learning to flamework glass. Psychologically? Probably my first [College for Creative Studies] critique. I wasn't sure what to expect as an adult, returning student in a graduate sculpture class (it all ended up fine).”
Sue’s work is universally admired, but one of the most memorable reactions she has had to her art happened in 2011. “My Mom, who had dementia, came to one of my holiday retail shows. Without any prompting, she gushed that my grandmother would have just loved to have seen my work. My grandmother was a real inspiration to me and I was really moved that my Mom ‘got’ my work and that she thought my grandma would have as well.”
Currently, McDowell is working on something she calls "The Polar Project" - “I took a ‘bucket list’ trip to Churchill Manitoba in search of Polar Bears last Fall. We found bears and I was really struck by the beauty, isolation and environmental fragility of the shores of Hudson Bay. I've been making a number of pieces based on the pictures and memories I have from the trip. Stay tuned for an exhibit sometime in 2018! I've been trying to capture some of it in the blog on my website, www.beachgirlglass.com.”
While her focus is on glass fusing, a medium that she is able to do in her garage-turned-studio, McDowell is also interested in exploring needle felting, and has been creating some landscapes in fiber. She says, “I'd like to take my fiber work around the country in an RV and work up a piece in every spot where I can stop long enough to do so. Or I'd like to go back to Churchill in the spring/summer so I could see more polar bears without being so cold.”
McDowell certainly doesn’t shy away from adventure and tackling tough things. The best piece of advice she’s been given? “Don't self-select what you do or what you apply to - let others tell you if they don't want you, but don't assume you aren't good enough or don't belong.”
Salt Valley Arts
Sue’s hard work ethic has been put to use this last year in a very different kind of creativity: helping start up and run Saline’s new arts center.
When the director of Two Twelve Arts Center announced in the spring of 2016 that they’d be closing their doors for good that summer, Sue saw the hole that this would leave in the community. “I and several other volunteers got together to try to find the resources so we would have a place to continue our community. With help from David Rhodes and others across the community we were able to secure a physical space at EHM-Senior Solutions on Russell Street. We're in the old Saline Hospital ER! Then we were able to arrange for Saline Community Education to handle the administration required for our instructors and for our classes.”
The arts center continues to grow and is led by volunteers, with no paid staff. “We just recently became a true MI registered Non-Profit organization (501c3). Our steering committee has begun to morph into a more formal structure of business officers and a true Board of Directors. We use Saline Community Ed and Pittsfield Charter Township Parks and Recreation to advertise our classes and enroll our students. We will be kicking off a membership drive in the Fall with an Open House of our facility on Russell St.”
The former Saline Hospital might seem like a strange place for an arts center, but the old Emergency Room has morphed easily into a unique art space with the help of new owners, EHM-Senior Solutions. McDowell is very enthusiastic about working with them. “EHM-Senior Solutions is an amazing community partner! They have a variety of different communities coming to and residing on the campus on Russell St. And Denise Rabidoux, their CEO, is a strong supporter of the arts. It just felt like a natural fit for us. They are a very generous landlord and we're very grateful tenants. We've been offering an Art Respite program for their residents and families and we'll do other projects this Fall and Winter that are specifically for EHM residents in addition to our Community class offerings that are open to all.”
Of moving forward with Salt Valley Arts, McDowell says, “The past year has really been an organizational blur and we've been working hard to get the pieces in place so we could become a ‘real’ business. Now that we have our 501c3 status in hand, and we have a year of offering classes in this location, I'm hopeful that we can begin exploring other offerings for the community. We've talked about events and exhibits as well as special workshops and guest artists coming to SVA. I'm hopeful that we can begin to get these types of activities into our calendar in late 2017-2018. Stay tuned!”
For a full class listing for Salt Valley Arts (including glass fusing classes taught by Susan McDowell!), head to www.saltvalleyarts.org or the Saline Community Ed page, salineonline.org.