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Interview with Artist Sue Kraft

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Where did you grow up? Were there any early influences that turned you toward art as a career?

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, first West Seattle, with a move to a still-rural Bellevue at the age of seven. Our home was surrounded by woods, and when it was not raining, my siblings and I were free to explore the outdoors, trek down to Lake Washington, bicycle to the then-modest Bellevue Square. The freedom and immersion in nature may have instilled an appreciation for the moments in the outdoors I love and try at times to paint. The rainy weather gave me time indoors to do just that.

While I had little exposure to the grand world of art, I did feel encouraged to draw and paint. In grade school, at least one hour a week was devoted to “art” and I found that if you are in second or third grade and can draw a pretty good horse, you’re a star. Also, around that time a visiting aunt bought me charcoal, a sketchbook and two “how-to-draw” books, one on cats, the other on portraits. I did every exercise.

In high school I took as many art electives as I could. The instructor, Don Simmons, was great and had a wry sense of humor. I had my first experience entering competitions – Scholastic Magazine ran art competitions and I earned “gold keys” and one “gold medal.” Mr. Simmons came on the intercom announcing the award, stating it was “roughly equivalent to winning the gold medal in the Olympics.” Of course I wanted to disappear under my desk, and my friends got a big kick out of it.

Was art your main course of study at the University of Washington? How was your experience there? Were there any strong influences on your direction at this point?

The outcome was a liberal arts degree–my major was painting. While there were many good instructors in the art department I feel most indebted to Alden Mason and Michael Spafford, two dynamic and very different painters. They were encouraging without being dictatorial and it helps to be instructed by teachers whose work you admire.

In my junior year at the university I received a fellowship to the Yale Summer School of Art and Music, held at an estate in Norfolk, Connecticut. It was wonderful – doing art all day in a community of artists from across the United States, mostly outside, with the music students scattered about playing their flutes, violas, etc. It was also my first trip to the East Coast and exposure to the art collections of great museums. To see the originals of work I had seen only in books and slides was exciting and I had a new appreciation for some artists I scarcely looked at before. To see the large Seurats, supremely quiet, and the washes in the Miro paintings, set me, for awhile, on a new track.

Why did you decide to come to Alaska? And why initially to Prince of Wales Island?

Adventure, a change of pace, a degree of isolation. We were living in New Jersey where my husband, a graphic designer at the time, took classes to qualify for a teaching degree and, once obtained, applied to all the school districts in Alaska. The Craig School District on Prince of Wales Island was the first to respond. In our imagination our Alaska experience was going to be a cabin in the challenging wilderness up north somewhere; but, in fact, we found ourselves in teacher housing in a mobile home in a fairly temperate region. It was just as well, as we were ill-equipped to handle the few hardships we faced: frozen pipes, car problems, etc. Fortunately we had mechanically inventive neighbors.

You first established a reputation as an artist in Alaska while you were living in Anchorage. How has your work changed between Anchorage and Juneau?

While I lived in Anchorage I think I used figures more in my paintings–my children were young and often were the subject matter. I have probably painted more landscapes since coming to Juneau, and probably painted more altogether. Now that I am transitioning to acrylic paintings, I expect the changes will be more dramatic.

Going a little further, how would you describe your overall evolution as an artist?

Slow, I think, and somewhat back and forth. I may do a series of tight, controlled, representational paintings and then need to do something loose, often abstract, or abstract and tight. I don’t show many of the latter. I did a lot of abstract work while I was in college and really enjoyed the process. I want to take that direction now with the acrylics, but all of that can change. Whatever the approach, what I most want is to get a sense of a feeling.

I do want to grow and feel excitement and express things which I don’t have words for. I never feel that I have “arrived.”

Do you feel like you romanticize Juneau?

In that my paintings are about feelings, introspection, mystery, etc., I hope so. The paintings in this show are about those things, mostly positive, that I want to hold onto. There are other experiences that just don’t move me to paint.

You modify, and often simplify, your scenes to achieve desired effects (light, composition etc.). What kinds of changes are you most conscious about making, and how does this process work for you?

I relate to simplicity and I hope to go farther with it. I think that explains my attractions to the fog and mist as subjects. (LINKS: Basin Road Fog, Standard Oil Dock). The fog simplifies both image and sound and I love that. Too, I want the landscape to have the impact of my first impression, and that isn’t one of detail. I use larger simpler areas to let the eye rest or to direct movement. (LINKS: Falls at Tracy Arm, Sandy Beach Sunrise, Adrift). My paintings start with much more activity and as I work on them, become more simple.

In Juneau, an artist can be overwhelmed by green and gray. You use a lot of different greens and I notice you often offset the greens in your paintings with violets and even more rosy tones. Your palette often tends toward secondary colors, plus grays. What are your thoughts on using color in a climate/environment that many would describe as tending towards monochromatic?

I love color, and I especially love the warmer colors. If I can’t find them in the scene, (ie. sunsets, fall themes), I try to find a way to put them in. I also think the play between them enhances the overall painting. In some cases, for the more quiet paintings I may stick to a monochromatic scale.

You’ve also frequently depicted Juneau in the winter, and in my mind, some of your winter scenes really stand out. Juneau has a lot of artists, but it strikes me that one doesn’t see many winter scenes painted. Do you have favorite themes or seasons? And a related question: I assume you sometimes work from photographs, especially in the winter scenes. How does this affect your work, do you think?

I don’t think I do as many winter paintings. The winter scene from my house does seem to be one of the most popular of my paintings, but I find myself in winter yearning for the long hours of daylight, the flowers and fresh greens. Spring is my favorite season, followed by fall, which is all too short but brings out the warm palette. Working from photographs awakens whatever it was I felt and gives me an image to start from, but then, because I am comfortably inside, I can work for years if I choose and change, simplify, let the painting tell me what to do.

Sometimes your work has an element of expressionism in it, to me, with a sense of movement in your paint, for instance, and maybe a little extra intensity in the colors. Edvard Munch has sometimes come to mind, but also, at other times, Edward Hopper. Any thoughts on this?

I often think of Edward Hopper as I walk downtown and see the strong shapes of sunlight on the buildings or, at night, see the varied temperatures of light emitting from streetlights, buildings, etc., and I have painted some of these things with him in mind.

My paintings are probably more expressionistic the less I do to them and I often regret the loss of that first intense image, but, for whatever reason, I am compelled to continue.