When you look at Susan Hawkins’s life choices leading up to her becoming a sculptor, it all makes sense. It was a life of movement and body awareness. It was tactile experiences and an appreciation of layers of dimension.
Before Hawkins began college, she had been entrenched in the world of dance since the age of 4 and had indulged her love of fashion by engaging in a great deal of sewing and apparel designing, since the age of 5.
Entering college, she decided to major in art and chose graphic design as a major since that field produced jobs. However, she hated those classes while enjoying her life-drawing courses.
She applied for Cal State Long Beach’s BFA program in drawing and painting and was accepted. “The more I painted, the thicker the paintings got,” she said. “I loved the bulk of thick, juicy paint– the feel of it on the brush and the way it gives the surface of the painting a lush, supple depth.”
It was a trip to France that further “shaped” her into a sculptor. “The summer before my senior year, I was fortunate to be able to go to Europe,” Hawkins said. “I visited a lot of museums and saw a lot of art, but my favorite was the Rodin museum in Paris. I loved how much movement and emotion Rodin captured in his sculptures and how tactile they were. They have a very different quality from classical sculptures.”
Coincidentally, when she returned to school that fall, she was already signed up to take beginning life sculpture, a course required in the BFA program. “From the first moment of working with clay, I knew I had found where I really wanted to be,” she said. “I decided then to pursue the MFA in sculpture, which I completed in 1998. As a graduate student, I was also given the opportunity to teach sculpture and discovered that I really liked it.” Since then, she has taught at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and Fullerton Community College.
Originally from Laguna Niguel, Hawkins moved to Long Beach in 1986, halfway through her sophomore year, when she transferred to Cal State Long Beach. She has lived in Cal Heights since 1995.
When asked whether she’s received any awards for her work, she mentioned one she garnered at a very young age. “I won an award for a painting of an orange in an Orange County regional art exhibit when I was around 8,” she said. “I think I won an honorable mention even though they hung the painting upside-down.” In 1997, she earned the Marylin Werby Memorial scholarship for graduate students in art at Cal State Long Beach.
She has shown her work at various galleries and art events in Southern California throughout the years, including several in Bixby Knolls: Gallery Thor, Gallery Expo, and Freespirit Yoga during the First Fridays Art Walk. She participated in the Long Beach Museum’s Auction XIV in 2011 and was shown in LACMA’s Art Rental and Sales Gallery in 2012. For the last three years, she’s also been one of the artists featured during the Long Beach Open Studio Tour.
For the last seven years, Hawkins has worked full-time for another artist on one sculpture. That project was recently finished, so she is now in her own studio full-time.
She describes her work as “figurative sculpture, all from and inspired by the human form. It’s realistic in that you would have no trouble recognizing it as a human body, but the surface treatments and materials make it more expressionistic.”
What drew you to sculpting?
The feel of the clay. I loved the pliability and being able to mush it around with my hands. It has a nice density also, very similar to the density of muscle. When you are making a figure, it actually feels like you are making a real body. Also, I love being able to work in three dimensions– being able to go around the form instead of just creating an illusion. It’s like making a lot of drawings of the same thing from different views and being able to connect them all into one.
How would you characterize sculpture as an art form in today’s world? Has it changed since you first started?
Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I would say that sculpture is a world of opposites. You see big, shiny and intensely colored pieces alongside those that are small, intimate and earthy. All types of materials are acceptable. The one thing that seems to be consistent, ironically, in the art world is constant change, and that was happening way before I started, so, in a broad sense, I wouldn’t say that it has changed so much since I started. That’s just what it does. Having said that, I see a lot more work that is influenced by animation.
How is sculpting more satisfying than other forms of art you’ve worked with?
I like the tactile quality of three-dimensional materials because I like working directly with my hands. It’s different than painting because you are really pushing and pulling something with your hands. Then there’s the issue of actual dimensional space. In sculpture you are working with actual space, not the illusion of it. Richard Serra’s sculptures are a great example of how form and space interact to define each other. The viewer physically participates in that as opposed to being outside of it as when one looks at a painting.
One of the things that drew me to sculpture was my background in dance. Dance is the physical embodiment of movement as an art form. When you are watching it, it’s like a moving painting– shifting and recomposing itself within a picture plane. But when you are doing it, it becomes a moving sculpture. You are the sculpture-shaping space and being shaped by space, as well as by the other dancers around you.
How do you feel when people ask you to explain the meaning of your art?
Anxious. It’s a very loaded question. The human body as a subject for art is a very loaded image. People have very deeply attached ideas about the human body. Regardless of whatever my intentions are, people are always going to bring their own meaning to the work based on their own experiences with that imagery. But that can be said for any type of artwork, not just figurative.
Do you ever get “sculptor’s block?” If so, how do you combat it?
All the time. It’s terrible. I do everything that is totally unrelated and nonessential, and when I can’t find anything else to procrastinate with, I go into the studio and clean, re-organize or just stare at things. But eventually I pick something up– a tool, a piece of metal or wax– and start playing with it. It eventually generates an idea.
Do you listen to music or engage in any other activity (watching TV, listening to radio, eating, talking, etc.) while you work?
I mostly always listen to music, especially during the creative development/building phase of the work. It almost puts me in a trance state where I become very focused and, weirdly, one with the work. Sometimes when I’m doing certain finishing tasks like sanding or polishing that I find very tedious, I listen to books on tape. I don’t watch TV because I need my eyes on the work. I don’t talk that much because talking requires you to go into a different part of your brain and detracts from my concentration on the work. Generally, the two don’t mix well.
Do you enjoy having company while you work, or do you prefer to be alone?
I enjoy having company, but I do my best work when I’m alone. However, on my last job, I got really used to working with with a team of artists so now it’s a little weird to be totally by myself again. But either way, when you are totally focused on the work, you are really alone in your own head space. You learn to block everything else out. The bigger difference is that now if I want to say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” I have to call someone on the phone or send a photo. But isn’t that just the great thing about technology? When you need them, you friends are really just a phone call, text, or email away.
From where do you typically draw inspiration?
My primary inspiration has always been the human body. It can be from myself, friends and family, or even people I don’t know. Sometimes it’s a movement or gesture. It can also be the shape of something, say the shape of the back where it connects to the hip, for example, or the way the muscles and bones in the hand move.
Who are your favorite artists, or what is your favorite type of art?
I can’t say that I have a favorite type of art. I tend to be partial to three-dimentional artworks, but I also love painting. I am actually partial to a lot of old masters, but I also really love the expressionists too. Some of my favorite artists? Rodin, Degas, Stephen DeStaebler, Deborah Butterfield, Manzù, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon, to name a few.
Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve done?
I can’t say that I have a singular favorite, but “Narcissus” would be one of them. It’s one of the first plaster and shellac pieces I did.
Do you ever use any unconventional materials in your work?
Considering that almost any material is acceptable to use now, it would be hard to call any of my materials unconventional, but I really like razor lathe, also called expanded metal. It has four-way stretch, so it can be expanded or contracted to make really interesting forms. But it’s not like I’m sculpting with ketchup or straight pins. I would say that I use fairly conventional materials compared to that.
What do you think your life would be like if, for some reason, you couldn’t sculpt?
My first response was “sad,” but I think that if I had gone into another field, I would have done so because it was something I loved and was passionate about. For the same reason that I chose not to go into graphic design, I would have chosen something that I could be happy doing even if it wasn’t sculpture or even art. There are times when I still really miss dance, as well as making and designing clothes, but I’m never sorry that I switched. I could never have chosen to do something practical over something that I really loved doing. I would just be miserable and make everyone else around me miserable too.