Exclusive Interview with Susannah Montague, 3rd Prize Winner of the Yasha Young Projects Sculpture Award 2020 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize
Synchronize joy and curiosity as soul counterparts and watch as flights of fancy set sail into a world of imagination and creativity. With eerie hints of mischief and nostalgic tunes of yesteryear, the symbolism and intricacy of Susannah Montague’s contemporary sculptures is unlike any I’ve seen before. I imagine Kewpie dolls everywhere shiver, seemingly spellbound by Susannah’s charismatic porcelain narratives.
Full of whimsy and mystery, there is a temperate sanctuary that flows in a steady undercurrent of oddity. The result of these visionary creations form a marriage of darkness and light in shimmering juxtaposition. Steeped in magic, it seems impossible to look beyond the fierce energy and reflective composition. Hypnotizing- mesmerizing- this is the artful work of Susannah Montague. Immerse yourself, delight in the sculpted grandiose, and step into the wonderfully imagined world that awaits you.
About the Artist // Susannah Montague is a British born ceramic sculptor, based on Bowen Island, Canada. She received her BFA from Emily Carr University and OCAD University. Montague’s highly symbolic and eerily beautiful sculptures at once draw you in and repel you. In each of the surreal porcelain works, there is a narrative to be discovered. Using a combination of hand building, press molds, and slip casting to build her sculptures, she also references traditions from ceramic fine-craft and art history.
Susannah Montague uses symbols such as fading flowers, bubbles, skulls, and insects to represent death and the transient nature of life. These symbols, interspersed with casts of toys including dolls, helicopters, and bunnies, take on a slightly sinister feeling in their modern compositions. Montague’s work examines the cycles in our lives and asks us to revel in the beauty of the absurd.
There is a moment when all the forces of human touch, through clay, elements taken from nature, and the science of the glazes and kiln heat, have all come together. These particular pieces stay in my soul forever.
Exclusive Interview with Susannah Montague
Susannah it’s an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you! Congratulations on being the 3rd Prize Winner of the Yasha Young Projects Sculpture Award 2020 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize!
Thank you so much! I was incredibly honoured and did this award ever arrive at a perfect time, with things in the world coming to a grinding halt due to the pandemic. My gallery, all galleries, had shut down and I had to start homeschooling my twins. Needless to say, I really needed a spirit lift! I am so grateful for the wonderful award and chance to exhibit in San Francisco; it completely inspired me to keep working hard in the studio, despite the anxiety and challenges.
That is such a pleasure to hear, and speaking of your efforts… horned Siamese babies, sheriff angels, smoking kewpies, and eerie religious undertones, there’s a very dreamlike perspective of themes and symbols. The extraordinary ingredients of your work are a wonderland of visuals. What are some of your favorite elements and characteristics of your sculptures and why?
One of the most satisfying elements of my sculptures is when I sense they are emitting some sort of strong emotion and I feel like they have something to say. When I take a sculpture out of the kiln for its final firing, and it’s cooled enough to touch or hold, I stare into it closely to see if the glaze worked or if it cracked. Often a particular work will speak to me, in a metaphorical sense that is, and it fills me with the depth of what it means to be alive and an unspeakable essence of being. There is a moment when all the forces of human touch, through clay, elements taken from nature, and the science of the glazes and kiln heat, have all come together. These particular pieces stay in my soul forever. I am often curious as to why certain artworks hold a sense of power and when art becomes something existential… bigger than anything we can conceive.
I love the idea that artwork harnesses an elemental spirit and can become our soul counterparts. Will you tell us about your very first sculpture?
A giant, deranged sphere with flora coming out the top. It was made of paper clay because I did not have a kiln at the time. It was for an art competition at a Catholic girl’s school I was attending when I was 7 years old; I won the award over girls much older than myself. I didn’t even think of winning. Competition was nowhere on my radar, I just had this obsessive need to build. After the competition, my school put me into advanced art classes and that became a rigorous focus on mastering the technical aspects of art making. It felt very restrictive for me at that young age. I remember coming home in tears and I still do not feel completely confident when using perspective, shading, and rendering. But importantly, these tools are a means to an end that I still use today in my work and preliminary design sketches of sculptures.
I’ve noticed a repeating concept with the proverbial expression “Si Vis Amari, Ama” – “If you want to be loved, love”. What draws you to this?
Love others, love what you do, and love being grateful for this crazy life… always remembering the reciprocity in love. However, the most important lesson I learned during the isolation of the pandemic is to maintain a kind of “self love”. This sounds so cliché, and even selfish, but what I understand now after all the isolation of lockdowns is that this time has informed a stronger self-knowledge, which can ultimately mean finding peace within ourselves. Resting comfortably within the depths of our being – and a deeper inner peace requires cultivation of a certain way of being within ourselves and our art medium. If we can find that transcendent moment in the quiet spaces within our working, rather than battling ourselves, and instead use a kinder inner dialogue in our mind, we find more peace and flow by simply being with our experiences and emotions, which are ultimately pathways to our creativity. We need these feelings to come through us, particularly when you are making art. In the words of the prophet Justin Bieber, just “Love Yourself”.
I invent art to heal and hopefully inspire. Most my sculptures would be saying this in different ways – with a knowing that we are all going through this shared experience, we call life, together.
The striking contrast of light and dark is a brilliantly juxtaposed visual drama. I could easily get lost in the amount of precision and detail each of your sculptures embodies. Will you unfurl a glimmer of your creative process and help us better understand the amount of time it takes you from conceptualization to completion?
My sculptures usually take quite some time to conceive and build. Before an exhibition deadline, I will have many sculptures at various stages of completion this enables me to move between the different steps of drying clay, kiln firings, glazing steps and even the essential amount of time needed to meditate on the work to ensure it is flowing. There is also a lot of time spent on conceptualization and research. I work every day in the studio and most evenings after dinner. I fire my kilns throughout the night while I sleep. I live on a small island so that I can have my studio beside our home. I pretty much have ceramic sculpture on my mind all the time, and I can go to work any time I need. My twins are the most precious part of my life and being a parent is my work… and being an artist is my work. Trying not to lie to myself is also my work, and everything I do, hopefully, melds all these things together. One day, I hope my kids can come across a piece of my work in a gallery and feel me saying how much I love them through the sculpture.
In the same sense as having your work speak to your children… if your sculptures could speak to your viewers (fans and following), what would they say?
I invent art to heal and hopefully inspire. Most my sculptures would be saying this in different ways – with a knowing that we are all going through this shared experience, we call life, together. Since the Pandemic landed, I find I am negotiating the line between horror and innocence, reality and fantasy, while examining universal concepts such as anxiety, insecurity, pain and loneliness.
From one of my sculptures, I know the viewer will feel and bring their own content to it from their own lives. But I really wish to reach a person’s soul so they may feel that connection we all have to each other. I hope I can make art that fills the ether with an essence of being; to tell a story of our shared existence – from our lives and mythology, literature, religion, poetry and music. Every one of my sculptures knows a lot more than they let on. There are codes and symbols from my life and our shared life together that I am retelling as if a documentation of sorts. I often hide secret pieces inside a sculpture or hidden beneath sections so that no one will ever know they exist… but I know they are saying something or emitting an energy. I use art to hopefully help others feel something deep within as if a shared humanity.
You received a BFA from Emily Carr University and OCAD University. How do you feel that experience has benefitted your art career and what advice would you impart to someone in a similar field of study?
Art school helped define my identity as an art maker. During this time, I was finally learning to explain myself back to myself. I would advise anyone going to art school, be your own advocate for your education, push your teachers to share all their experiences and technical information, and make every second count.
I did not study in the ceramics department; I found it more informative to study in the sculpture department so that I could learn skills using other materials, as well as clay. I loved learning metal work, wood, plastics, and mold making. I apply these skills to what I do now for my sculpture’s bases, exhibition installation, and crating. I also needed these skills to work as a sculptor in the film industry, which was an intensely high pressured environment, this experience taught me even more about materials and honed in on my sculpting skills far more than anything ever had before.
Inside Issue 31, you were asked about the challenges of being an artist so I’m also curious about delving a little deeper into this topic. Similarly, how do you feel about the role of today’s artists in light of the pandemic, and your role within it?
It’s seem after living through the tumult of the last 14 months that we were beginning to learn that we could slowdown, reflect and be kinder… we could give each other more time in which we could put ourselves under less pressure. This could support intellectually unpretentious art, more depth of emotion, and reaching towards an empathy, of sorts, about our shared human condition.
With ceramic sculpture, trying something new is the best feeling in the world, but it’s also the most trouble. Despite clay’s volatile nature, the massive opportunities offered with clay – that ability to create nearly any object imaginable, outweighs its baggage. Failures happen all the time, it’s just learning to accept and try again. There is such a thrill in opening a kiln after a work has been fired. There is so much hope and so much wonder. The material has the final say over who you are as an artist. It can be both humbling and humiliating. Anyone working with ceramics requires a wealth of knowledge, patience and painstaking skills, but also the ability to cope with failure – using it to grow as artists.
Throughout our lives, we turn to many things for creative inspiration, mental health solace, and all the integral parts that help create the many chapters in our personal journey. What do you feel influences your work the most?
Since the pandemic, I find my work moving towards more abstract ideas, embracing even the most painful experiences that there are no words for, and trusting this unknowing. I believe in the healing power of matter, the material work. I use clay as a recording device that somehow processes a situation in our world and then creates a subjective viewpoint as evidence. That, for me, is the artwork. The art object is my way of processing a situation and now more than ever our world needs to express this shared humanity.
When I feel something strongly that’s when I know I need to build. I try to imbed thought into my material by channeling the flow of what I feel is going on in the air or the zeitgeist. If something is swirling in my head and my heart I can trust others are going through something similar, or can relate, and I feel a powerful need to express that, whatever that is.
Passion is the driving force that keeps me making art even when there seems to be no other reason for it. Artistic passion is what inspires us to create. Art is the best way of expressing ourselves to the world and back to ourselves.
How has your artistic brain evolved over the years? What has changed and what remains unmovable?
I have learned that I need to allow myself to channel unrestrained emotion into the material; to transmit the essence of myself as an artist and let that flow into what it is that I am doing, and not always ask myself what it is that I am channeling but to believe in it.
What remains unmovable is that I have always needed to make art and I would be miserable if I couldn’t. I want to keep learning and improving and sharing. I invent art to heal pain and I am happiest when I can help others by giving them something that uplifts, moves, or inspires them.
Susannah, what has been the driving force of this journey… and what do you have planned for the hopeful year ahead?
Passion is the driving force that keeps me making art even when there seems to be no other reason for it. Artistic passion is what inspires us to create. Art is the best way of expressing ourselves to the world and back to ourselves. I feel I have succeeded a little, when I can make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected. Anyone can make art, but not everyone can make you feel something when viewing their art, I will try to keep exploring this ideal, hoping to flesh out the invisible emotions and give them a face, somehow negotiating the inner fears and surreal thoughts. I have a solo exhibition planned for the year ahead in November at Newzones Gallery Of Contemporary Art in Calgary and I am presently packing sculptures for Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco, California, when the travel restrictions lift.
Before we go, let’s chat about the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize… again, huge congratulations on being the 3rd Prize winner of the Yasha Young Projects Sculpture Award. What a wonderfully, optimistic experience for you in 2020! I would love to hear more about why you entered the Beautiful Bizarre Magazine Art Prize, your process and any challenges or anxieties you might have gone through while creating The Golden Fleece?
I was so elated to win the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize. I did a little happy dance around the studio, which felt so great because this news came at a very turbulent time during the beginning days of lockdown.
Beautiful Bizarre Magazine and the Yasha Young Projects Sculpture Award gave me recognition and allowed my work to be seen more widely, which helps my career grow. It also provided the opportunity to work with and exhibit and sell my work at the absolutely gorgeous Modern Eden Gallery (San Francisco) curated by Beautiful Bizarre Magazine. Before I submitted my application, I had a ton of work going on in my studio but nothing was getting finished; it’s like the stress of the pandemic diluted my decision making process. However, because I wanted to submit some newer works, more recently built sculptures, I changed focus and pivoted. I lost myself in the creation process and completed all of my sculptures. It was chaos but I had no time for hesitation over the final building decisions and glaze effects so I tried new things, engaged lateral thinking… and somehow that gave me freedom to take risks and not over think. I hope this process took my work to another level of creative resolve. I read somewhere that creativity loves a crisis, and I do agree.
The Golden Fleece is the sculpture that won the award; it was a sculpture built during a challenging time in my life, I wanted to crawl under a big rock but because I had a solo exhibition deadline looming, I resolved to put the feelings of desperation and channel them into the work. They were more useful to me as an artist than contentment; the frustration stretched my sensibilities. I feel an artist must be nourished by passion and despair. The Golden Fleece is a warrior and symbolizes strength. The warrior also symbolizes protection.
I think the warrior, in this case, symbolizes the willingness to fight for your beliefs.
Would you recommend it and encourage others to enter? If so, why?
Yes, I definitely recommend entering because:
1. No matter the outcome, you always learn something from the process of applying.
2. You have a confirmation of feeling you are moving forward and know you are trying; that is always a win.
3. There are so many opportunities and you will never know until you give it a go.
Thank you so much for taking time to share with us and our loyal readers. Will you send us off with a quote that embodies your vision of the year ahead?
“I know that in my own work, the best things are the things that just happened; images that were suddenly caught and that I hadn’t anticipated. We don’t know what the unconscious is, but every so often something wells up in us. It sounds pompous nowadays to talk about the unconscious, so maybe it’s better to say ‘chance.’ I believe in a deeply ordered chaos and in the rules of chance. I have to hope that my instincts will do the right thing, because I can’t erase what I have done. And if I drew something first, then my paintings would be illustrations of drawings. I want to create images that are a shorthand of sensation.” – Francis Bacon Daily