Though many of Susan Sterber’s watercolors seem as though the viewer has just happened upon the scene, this week’s angular, back-lit cover art, “Winter Trees,” has a dramatic, slightly surreal luminescence. Sterber’s more picturesque wintry landscapes often show reliance on photographic images and feature a figure or two.
“Winter Trees” shows the award-winning artist’s continuing desire to move in new ways, such as her preference for painting only in watercolor which she says she loves for its “spontaneous effects,” the way “it sometimes does things all by itself. You can’t always order it around. And you can’t layer over.” She also likes working on Yupo paper, which she discovered a few years ago. A smooth synthetic paper with a plastic quality that allows her to work on the surface, it also eliminates the need for any soaking, stretching or taping.
Sterber holds a B.A. from C.W. Post and a Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies. When she taught elementary and high school classes, Sterber introduced her students to Eastern watercolor or Sumi-e painting, also known as ink-wash or Japanese brush painting, which calls for particular singular strokes executed with bamboo brushes. She sees Sumi-e as a mental, as much as aesthetic, challenge, though she continues to work in Western watercolor, as exemplified in “Winter Trees.”
You’ve said you “find inspiration in nature” but you also do figures and portraits. Is one more challenging or accessible?
I do portraits but I love to do flowers and the natural world, mainly because both subjects intertwine with my second love after painting—hiking. I admire Charles Burchfield [1893-1967, known especially for his watercolors of natural scenes]. The cover is of a scene across the street from my house [in Farmingdale]. My daughter and I were walking in the nature preserve and those trees just got to me. They seemed to be reaching out, moving, the sun shining behind them, powerful, almost mythical, and the scene reinforced for me what I love about light—how it makes a path of its own.
You taught for 35 years—what grades did you teach?
As a teacher of K–12, I led classes on all genre and media, sometimes moving from grade to grade in one day. The younger kids let it fly and don’t get caught up with realism vs. non-objective art. If students do have a problem with non-objective art, I’ll talk about abstract design. As for getting high school boys to paint flowers, I’d bring in the botanicals I found on my nature walks and it was fine.
What is your take on the new national Every Student Succeeds Act, which singles out music as a designated a stand-alone subject?
There is nothing comparable to NYSSMA [New York State School of Music Association] for K–12 where kids can be rated for performance according to clear criteria. Portfolio review for the visual arts is not the same. Art doesn’t get as much attention, criteria are loose, and kids don’t have designated school time to work on art the way they do music when they join a band or chorus. Kids are always listening to music and parents come to concerts. Kids go to concerts but not often to museums, so their exposure to fine art is limited. Testing takes time away from art but fine art is important to STEM [science, technology, engineering mathematics] in enhancing creative and cognitive development.
Susan Sterber has a piece in the Main Street Gallery in Huntington (huntingtonarts.org) and a piece in the Art League of Long Island (artleagueli.net) show in Dix Hills through this weekend. From February 7–27 she will have two pieces at the Plainview Old Bethpage Library (poblib.org). All pieces are watercolors.