Helping the disadvantaged express their artistic talent
Susan Cresswell has art running through her veins. It’s a part of her makeup; it’s just, as she tells me, who she is and she’s proud of her work and where she is today as an artist.
“My art background is I’m just a fourth generation artist,” Susan explains. “My grandmother was a fashion illustrator for The Denver Post in the ‘30s. I come from a whole family of artists. My maiden name is Flieger which is German. It is interesting throughout history how people have treated artists with German last names. Planet Altered did a show for me called “It’s in the Genes”, which was displays of artwork from my family.”
She adds, “I get my inspiration from nothing or everything. It’s just the way I’m wired—it’s what I do. It’s just there; I can’t help it.”
Other than the show at Planet Altered you would be hard pressed to find Cresswell’s work on permanent display at a gallery. Her house, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of artistic riches with every piece in an appointed place, from the sculptures on the deck to the paintings and photographs on the walls to the jewelry in the bedroom.
A retired hairdresser, Cresswell now has enough time to juggle three or four projects at once. She is constantly creating and repurposing materials often given to her by friends who just couldn’t bear to throw something out and knew if they gave it to her she could make something beautiful out of it.
A few years ago Cresswell was driving by the Hart Gallery and saw their Christmas tree and asked if she could work with them. Now on the board as the Art Director, she is able to contribute her time and resources to the homeless population of artists who create and show their work there.
What she wants to do is own her own gallery so she can get the stuff out of the house. But in the meantime she shows her artistry in the window displays for the Hart Gallery. “They’re quirky usually; most of the things I do art-wise are humorous. I use everything from instruments to stuffed animals to glass to photography to paintings. What’s fun for the Hart Gallery is it’s inexpensive. I can make something out of nothing and it’s fun.”
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Cresswell teaches art classes inside the space, from composition to blending of colors to how to twist wire to make earrings to sell.
“I do what I have to do to get them inspired. There used to be a lot more people sitting around the table. Maybe a year ago I would sit them down and teach them how easy it is to tear construction paper and make faces. You can do a lot of fun things with tearing paper and twisting wire,” she explains.
“At Christmas we made angels with broken records for trees. It’s all about getting people to make projects to fundraise for the Hart Gallery. Some of them don’t have a clue what to do and I set them down with five materials and show them what I expect out of them. A lot of the things we use are donated. It’s all about utilizing and repurposing. Donations inform what we do.”
Preparation is as important as the creation process itself. “I do preparation at home and show up to do a three-hour project. Some of the artists are blind, some of them are deaf, and there are so many with mental illnesses. Sitting around the table with them you realize how much in common you have with them. We have the same struggles—their outlet is art.
“It’s really amazing to see a lot of the artwork that comes out of these people. They’re dramatic—it’s not a landscape. There’s a lot of pain and suffering. I see it bringing people out of their shell. It’s so rewarding to see them do a piece and somebody buys it because they connect with it. That is the heartbeat. Seeing people hurting and living and growing together.
“On Wednesday and Thursday we do classes. They want to come back the next week and see it framed and hanging in the gallery. It gives them a purpose that they mean something. I don’t know any other venue where you can do that—instant gratification is where you have a pen in your hand and maybe you draw a bleeding heart.”
Asked what she thinks about the state of the arts in Chattanooga Cresswell says, “Chattanooga is really a cool place to live. I’m excited about it. I want to be a part of it. Artists reach out to other artists. We all know each other and support each other. Hanging out with artists make you feel less crazy than with people who are left brained. I am humbled and honored to be included in this group of artists.”