Susie Hall (b. 1957) is a Bedford, UK born-and-based visual artist. Her oeuvre traverses several styles, mediums and decades, and Hall is an erudite art autodidact. “I had no formal training in art or art history, coming from a working class background the assumption was, at the time [1960s and early 1970s], that when I finished school, I would work to support the family,” Hall said during the course of several conversations. She is engaging, witty and charming. I found that she – like many others – is encumbered by the social and economic conditions that women face in the “art market” (and beyond), especially women in their 50s and 60s who are emerging artists.
“Back when I started to enter the job market, in the 1970s, I wanted to study textiles, design or painting, but this was not encouraged, in fact, it was actively discouraged; however, art was in my life early on, my father was a sculptor, and my mother worked as a radiographer; she’d bring these X-ray sheets of Kodak paper home, the excess stuff, and we would use wax crayons and try them out on these huge sheets.” Hall laughs recalling these early creative days of her life; she would also work with watercolors, and she says, again with a vivacious, enthusiastic and endearingly Midland’s locution, “I was around when felt-tip pens were invented, and used them quite a bit! On top of that, I would use poster paints, taping small pieces of paper edge-to-edge to paint on, write poetry, etcetera. Ah, yes, and I used a compass to create circles which I then sub-divided to make flower-like shapes. I would then type poems that I had written into the shapes using a typewriter, ignoring any punctuation and alternating letters black/red/black/red etc., until all the spaces were filled up.”
“Back when I started to enter the job market, in the 1970s, I wanted to study textiles, design or painting, but this was not encouraged, in fact, it was actively discouraged.”
Paralleling, in many ways the conceptual art movements of the 1970s, Hall – in the early 1970s as a young teenager in a small English town – was working with alternate color typewritten work generated and held by a rule, within a circle, on sheets of paper (I immediately thought of Jenny Holzer). Yet, professionally, Hall said, “I had no serious ambition. I was working in isolation; I was doing it to amuse myself, I never really showed it to anyone, except my parents. In school, I just wanted to be writing stories or in the art room, so I did one year of Sixth Form, got sick of the whole thing and dropped out, and this was much to the dismay of my teachers. Yet, none my family had been to University, again, like I said, it wasn’t said, but it was tacitly expected that I would get a job. My ‘careers advisor’ was flummoxed when I said I wanted to be a textile designer or artist, he said I could do a foundation course to see what I wanted to do.” Stopping for a moment, she breathes deeply, “I knew what I wanted to do, his response […] less than helpful, so I didn’t pursue it. Also I am actually quite a shy person, and the thought of leaving home in my late teens just horrified me. And then with time, family obligations, marriage, and the works, the creative side of me kind of disappeared.”
“I had my first child when I was 28; at that point, I had been working for 11 ½ years. Oh, yes, and I was married to someone who was very horrible; he barely tolerated, much less encouraged any creativity.” Hall and I began to talk about the ways in which women are marginalized from careers in the arts because of patriarchy, systemic and personal relationship barriers, much less lack of art institutional support. And she loves her children, which is evident in the struggles and sacrifices she made to keep the family financially afloat. All of this takes time, takes so much effort and energy, that there isn’t room left, when there is no support, for creativity. There is certainly a glass ceiling in the art market, keeping women, because of multiple intersections of societal neglect or outright hostility, from creating, distributing and profiting from their work.
“I had my second child when I was 31. We were quite hard up, dreadfully poor actually, so I started designing little celebration cakes for local people, wall plaques out of salt-dough, and painting them up. I couldn’t have the oven on for as long as it took to bake them, as my husband didn’t want to pay for the energy bill! That marriage, need I even say, eventually collapsed.” Hall recounted personal tribulations and employment tribunals, facing the world alone after separating from her boorish ex-husband, yet also of the freedom that came from leaving.
Eventually, she landed a job working with special needs children, and started teaching Middle School. “The school tried to get my on a training course, but I needed a degree. I decided to get one, so I rang the local university, they didn’t do visual arts, so I signed on for an English degree, and it was one of the best things I have ever ever done. The primary school let me have time, and I was paying my own way to for the University course. Before I finished my BA, I was asked by the primary school to teach English and Art for years 7 and 8. I looked at what the national curriculum was offering, it was, to put it mildly, boring. So I reinvented the class! For year 8, we did pop art, Lichtenstein and Warhol, and we did CD covers in a Pop Art style, and the children loved it, eventually I taught them Art Deco, and I taught the year 7s about pointillism. They all left that class with something far less restrictive than that which the other art teachers were giving.”
“I had no formal training, coming from a working class background, in art or art history, the assumption was, at the time (1960s and early 1970s), that when I finished school, I would work to support the family.”
Hall made her way out of the classroom and rented a space in the center of Bedford, where she created, owned and managed her own business, a paint-your-own-pottery studio. She sold this business, because her “personal life was crumbling.” I didn’t inquire further, Hall demonstrably wanted to pass over this period. Nevertheless, despite being left with no employment or income, she persisted. In 2009, she landed a job with a solicitors’ office, and that is where a conversation with the coworker about Georgia O’Keeffe led Hall to, as she put it, “pick up my paint brushes!” I asked her, after a long discussion about dealing with unscrupulous gallery owners and the ruthless art market, how she is today, in 2019, “I am always wanting to do more, to go further, to push beyond, to get a bigger space for one, as I would love to work on larger canvases. Right now I am working out of my garden studio. Better than the dining room table. Yet at the same time, I feel like I am finally settled. I am with a man who is a musician, among other things, he is very creative. Early on in our relationship, I began to understand the importance of being with someone who is supportive, who does the domestic chores, sharing and caring, without complaint, without reference to the time that it takes me paint, to think; he loves to see me doing what I love. I can spend hours out there and he’s not going to be upset. It’s amazing to find, to let out, what’s been locked away in here for years.”
Yes, yes it is.
. . .
Featured Image, Boom 5, via http://susiehall.org/gallery/