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Curtains: Susan Lowe at Creative Alliance

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It had been over a year since I’d seen Sue—a year in which she had been diagnosed with and received treatment for lymphoma, spending her days alternately in hospital rooms and her studio when she wasn’t too weak and ill from chemo. If she hadn’t told me, though, I would never have known she’d been sick when I walked through the front door of her Patterson Park row house.

I was greeted as usual by her sweet dog Ralphie, a Lhasa Apso, and by Sue herself, stylish and gregarious as ever, donning bold patterns and one of the strange and fabulous necklaces she makes in spite of the rheumatoid arthritis that has caused her so much pain throughout her life. The signature evil eye seemed to wink at me. We embraced, each apologetic for the long hiatus in our visits.

I met Sue nearly twenty years ago at one of John Waters’ Christmas parties when I was still married to my first husband. He and I used our savings to buy art in those days, and our friendship began in earnest when we purchased a crayon piece she had made of writer Gary Indiana from her show The Nuthouse Drawings at Creative Alliance. The picture hangs in my office, still arresting me every time I look at it: the movement and color capture the author’s snarling demeanor, bloodshot eyes cut from photographs pasted in place. According to Sue, she had originally given the picture to John for Christmas, but he allowed us to purchase it, taking a different one for himself. We paid $300. Even in the early 2000’s, this was a steal. 

 

Susan Lowe: The Crow Show, 40 x 30 in., acrylic on canvas

At age 75, Sue has lived a life rich with varied experiences. She has moved in unconventional circles, but she also found mainstream success as a scholar and teacher, spending years teaching art at MICA (her alma mater) and College Park, among others. And, of course, those familiar with John Waters’ early work likely know Sue, as I had, as Mole McHenry from Desperate Living. But while she is undoubtedly proud of her work in film—which will continue this year with a starring role in a movie by a young director, Wiley Hopkins—her work as an artist is what has always defined her. 

Sue knew she was an artist even in early childhood. She says, “When I entered kindergarten I was not properly socialized. Everyone thought something was wrong with me. I went into my kindergarten class sucking my thumb which I did twenty-four hours a day, and I cried, and I couldn’t talk. People were asking me questions, but I just couldn’t bring myself to answer. And I would hide behind the door when the activities were going on and I was difficult and the teachers are going, ‘What the hell are we going to do with this?’ So they gave me an easel and a whole bunch of paint and a brush and some paper. That’s when I knew I was an artist—in kindergarten. And that’s when I started talking. Because I realized that art is my language.” 

Indeed, painting is a constant through the tragedies and triumphs of Sue’s life. Through December 2nd, Baltimoreans will have the good fortune of seeing the fruits of her most recent labors at Creative Alliance’s Main Gallery in a show she calls, Curtains

 

Susan Lowe: The White Shirt, 40 x 30 in., acrylic on canvas
The name of the exhibition, Curtains, comes out of those drab spaces, those rooms divided by cheap fabric, the sound of the rings scraping against the metal curtain rod announcing each doctor, nurse, and visitor.
Elizabeth Hazen

For Sue to be having this show at Creative Alliance is appropriate. She was a founding member of the organization back in 1995 when it was housed in a Fells Point row house, and she was one of the first artists to show in the space, then known as the Halcyon Gallery. Over the years she has shown her work several times at the Baltimore institution. This show, however, is more personal than her previous exhibits. 

In 2016, Sue’s grandson, Devin McMillion, died from leukemia. He was only twenty-four years old. Handsome and talented, a model and aspiring tattoo artist, Devin spent a year and a half in the hospital. Sue was often with him in his hospital room, and the imagery of that dire place fills the near-100 pieces that comprise her new show. The name of the exhibition, Curtains, comes out of those drab spaces, those rooms divided by cheap fabric, the sound of the rings scraping against the metal curtain rod announcing each doctor, nurse, and visitor. The image of curtains recurs in the series. 

The paintings are rife with other symbols, too: masks, orbs, ravens, windows, elevators, dogs. All of these motifs, according to Sue, represent the idea of passage, an appropriate theme for paintings that grapple with life and death. It’s powerful stuff in a single painting, but the cumulative effect of the workthe intensity of seeing these paintings as a groupknocks the wind out of you. As Sue showed me piece after piece in her makeshift studio, I was overwhelmed. 

 

Susan Lowe: Laps, 40 x 30 in., acrylic on canvas.
Susan Lowe: 36 x 24 in., acrylic on canvas
Orbs are never-ending. We never end. We live on in somebody else. 
Susan Lowe

These recent paintings are distinctly hers, the connection to the crayon portraits that comprised her show nearly twenty years earlier evident. In spite of their subject, they are similarly bursting with movement and life. Much of the series she has been working on over the past three years is rendered in bold jewel tones: sapphire blue waters, ruby skies marbled with amber and gold, bright yellow curtains hanging in the background. 

Even the paintings rendered in black and white, her most recent, are energetic and bold. She explains, “It was freeing to use black and white. I didn’t have to worry about light sources.” And although the work was created out of loss and grief, there is little sadness to be found. Quite surprisingly, the paintings burst with energy and connection, with the promise that everything is a cycle; there isn’t really an end. “Orbs are never-ending. We never end,” Sue told me as we examined a painting in which a woman with lurid green arms holds a large sphere. “We live on in somebody else.” 

 

Susan Lowe: The Tunnel, 36 x 24 in., acrylic on canvas
Susan Lowe: Transformers, 36 x 24 in., acrylic on canvas
Susan Lowe: Orator, 36 x 24 in., acrylic on canvas

“Masks are important, too” she went on. “None of the figures are sad. I was determined not to let them be sad.” Indeed, each painting has at least one mask, most multiple masks, and all are smiling. This, like the other motifs in the collection, has multiple meanings: the literal masks required in hospital rooms, the mask Devin wore to hide his anger and pain, the masks mothers wear to protect their children, the mask Sue has worn to hide her own grief. 

“I started making these paintings as a way to stop grieving. I couldn’t wait to stop, but the painting made it worse. Eventually I felt a little relief, but I also realized I will never get over the grief.” She goes on to describe what she hopes viewers will take from the show: “One thing that really touched me and motivated me was something John [Waters] said. He said that if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you can’t laugh at anything. So even though these works are about a sick boy who died, none of the figures are sad. That’s not exactly laughing at yourself but accepting life and death.”

Indeed, as much as the show is about the loss of Devin, it is also about family and motherhood and the strong connections we forge with one another. Sue, who has herself faced death in the past year, chooses laughter, joy, and life. These paintings show the power of that choice. 

Susan Lowe: Overnight, 40 x 30 in., acrylic on canvas

Images of artwork courtesy of Susan Lowe and Creative Alliance.

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