How I Became an Artist by Susan Gore Gardner July 17, 2020

When you’ve walked an usual path like the one that led me to be an artist, you don’t always realize how most people have no idea how the road opened up to you. And everybody has a different idea of what ‘being an artist’ is. As an artist, I seek to capture on paper those things that are visible for a fleeting moment and share them with you. My art will make you smile, and make you remember or consider for the first time something that will be a blessing to you. So let me share how it all came to be for me.

I’ve loved to draw since I was very young, but an art class at age 13 with Sylvia Steed in junior high opened my eyes to the many techniques in art. In high school I didn’t take art classes because I had an aptitude for writing and adored literature, and was busy excelled in an Honors English class taught by Gene Bledsoe all 4 years of South Cobb High School. I entered college as an English major and presumed I’d pursue a career in writing or journalism. During college I worked part-time at Ann Cockerill’s Red Cockerill Gallery & Frame Shop and was exposed to all kinds of art including the then-new Prismacolor colored pencils. That coincided with taking classes in Drawing, Art History and Printmaking during my junior year in college and people, it was the proverbial switching on of the light above my head. I knew in my heart I was going to be An Artist! I took every college class available in the art field. Thomson Salter & Barbara Swindell at Kennesaw College were vital in exposing me to the world of creativity. I loved drawing best, and chose to turn my fondness for animals and bird-watching into a career as a wildlife artist. Upon graduation from college in 1980 I began showing my work in many art festivals including the Wildlife Art Show in Lenox Square in Atlanta, the Southern Wildlife Festival in Decatur, AL & Art in the Park in Marietta, GA as well as local galleries in the region. I entered juried art shows (these are highly competitive art shows required submitting slides of my work) and thus I showed my drawings in the S. Brown Gallery in Atlanta, the Salmagundi Club in New York City, Galerie Triangle in Washington DC, St. Hubert’s Giralda in Madison, NJ, and more. For 15 years I worked with colored pencils, until a new chapter began…

Part 2 of “How I Became an Artist”

In the late 80’s I had an unexpected change in direction when I went to a weekend watercolor workshop with some friends. Turned out it was a workshop taught by Susan Knight Smith to teach techniques using pastels, not watercolors! The other artists shared some pastel sticks and paper, and when I touched that stick of pure color to that wonderful textured paper, I was instantly smitten. A new world of subjects opened up, and this messy but fascinating new medium was a refreshing change. Broad strokes of color were ideal for creating light-filled landscapes & still lifes. Then one night at an Eric Clapton concert, as I peered through binoculars at ole EC from the ‘nosebleed seats’ at the Omni I had my first epiphany: his black jacket, white t-shirt and black Strat suddenly became shape & form & tone defined by magenta, blue and green stage lights. And so began my series of musician portraits as I sought to capture on paper what I saw that night.
This portrait of Clapton was the first of the portraits, in which the use of negative space became a integral part of my style. Bluesman Robert Cray was my first musician to photograph in person. Shy me found some courage and got a Photo Pass for his show at Center Stage Theater in 1992 and stood at his feet that night. He and opening act Larry McCray were great subjects! More recently, photographing Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives in 2012 led to creating a series of 5 portraits that Marty chose to be his own.

The portraits have led me to wonderful encounters with musicians at venues from Mill Town Music Hall in Bremen to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Whether amateur or professional musicians, I am able to spot their love for music and capture that on paper. I want them to know I truly see, hear, and appreciate their efforts.

My initial interest in the instruments for the sake of accuracy has turned into pure fascination so I go often to Gruhn Guitars in Nashville to do research where they patiently answer my questions and cheerfully introduce me to stunning vintage guitars.

Part 3: In the Presence of a Great Artist

As I pursued a career as an artist, I soon heard of Robert Meredith, a Georgia painter who was quite talented and well-known for his portraits, landscapes, and striking trompe l’oeil paintings (which are objects painted so realistically they ‘fool the eye’). Robert Meredith had lived in New York for many years, establishing himself as an artist there, but he moved back down to Georgia. In the 90’s he decided to teach painting classes in his studio in an old log cabin, and I joined the class. I was shy and quite intimidated by Robert’s talent, but knew that this opportunity to study with him was a remarkable one. I was still new at pastels and willing to learn everything he had to teach.
Keep in mind I was using pastels while everyone else was using oil paint on canvas. I endured a great deal of teasing from him about bringing my “crayons” to class and making a mess with their dust on the log cabin’s floor (“You should be painting with oils as God intended!” he would yell at me, with a grin), but my persistence in using pastels & my declaration that I wanted to know everything he had to teach was all he needed to hear. Robert set up challenging still lifes, brought in models to pose for us, and often brought in art books for me to take home & read when he thought I’d benefit from what an artist from the past had done. He was very hard on me in class sometimes, very critical and challenging, but I knew it was because he saw potential in me & was trying to make me grow and find my own style. His encouragement was steady, and when I would have a breakthrough his delight was fun to watch. He organized class trips to the High Museum and to the Andrew Wyeth museum in SC. And he organized a painting trip to France, where I learned to paint en plein air (painting outdoors) at the beautiful locations he chose. We visited the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, and discussed the important works of art there.
The years I spent in his class completed my evolution into a serious artist as I learned how to truly ‘see’. I learned composition, and how to follow my unique inspiration to create a distinctive style. Robert is dedicated to creating art, he is confident in his identity as an artist and always true to his personal muse, he’s extremely knowledgeable about the art world and art history, and is a phenomenal painter – a great example of a true artist, to me. What I have become as an artist is due in great part to his teaching, encouragement and challenges. I am very honored to call him my Mentor and friend.