One might think, if one pored through painter and gallery owner Susan Christian’s biography, that she’s the kind of creative being one might expect to have seen hanging out with Picasso and Hemingway at Gertrude Stein’s salons at the beginning of the 20th century, or later at gatherings of the artistic avant garde in the Chelsea Hotel. But Christian lives in an old oyster factory in Shelton, and she paints on sticks.
“Susan opened up an art gallery,” says artist Lucy Gentry, “that became a true salon. Visual arts graced the walls, poems and stories were spoken, music enlivened our spirits. It was a truly rich experience working with Susan and embracing the arts community.” Gentry’s work recently filled Christian’s gallery, Salon Refu, and she’s helped run that gallery from the beginning.
Fellow artist Kathy Gore Fuss says, “Susan has always been someone who thinks outside of the box. Her paintings and the gallery are beautiful extensions of Susan’s willingness and courage to blaze her own unique trail.”
Collage artist Evan Clayton Horback says, “As an artist, she plays a seminal role in Oly. She’s a straight-shooting gunslinger, too.”
As a young woman, Christian studied physics and zoology and “lots of art history and lots of other stuff” at Wellesley College. From there, she went to Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School for Young Ladies at her parents’ insistence. She says secretarial school was “hideous. They taught you how to dress as well as how to type and take shorthand. We had to wear hats and gloves and high heels walking all over Manhattan.” After that, she pursued studies in art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and earned a bachelor’s degree in painting at Cranbrook Academy of Art. During that time she got married and supported her husband. She taught college for a while, and she lived in a loft in Boston and showed her artwork there, eventually ending up some 20 years later getting a master’s degree in psychology from Antioch University in Seattle. She says, “(I was) bumbling along. Then I moved to Olympia very impetuously. But I got to Olympia, where I had friends and I was utterly charmed and stayed. I bought the oyster factory and got very involved in its well-being. I rented rooms to students.” The oyster factory in Shelton was built as a cannery in the 1940s. Only one wing of the building was livable. The other was a huge shed with a concrete floor and no insulation. She supported herself and worked to make the place livable while teaching part-time at The Evergreen State College and working as an expressive arts therapist, often with children. She ran groups for sexually abused girls and a writers’ workshop for men.
In college she’d studied with a teacher who in turn studied with the great color theorist Josef Albers. She was also influenced by painters Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Ad Reinhardt and other abstract artists. Like Monet with his famous paintings of haystacks and mountains, Christian worked for years on variations of a few simple themes: a single mountain peak, flowers and a series of mysterious paintings of curtains, all painted with simple shapes and few colors. Then a few years back, she decided she wanted to paint sticks. She started asking friends to give her sticks, one-by-twos, shelving planks, lath. She painted these and displayed them in various settings indoor and out, propped against walls and even balanced in tree limbs. She put them together to create rectangular formats that she painted as abstract patterns. She showed them at Batdorf & Bronson in April 2015. Since then she’s had two shows of her stick paintings at Salon Refu. The paintings have become her signature work and have proven to be exceedingly popular.
“The work I’ve been doing for the last five or so years,” she says, “is heavily influenced by my having had Evan Blackwell making art in my garage out here in the country. His sense of how art can be built up out of pieces, especially pieces designed for some other use, has changed my brain … Rick (Christian’s second husband, who died of cancer) and I loved to travel together; what the two of us loved as a couple was landscape. Our voyages produced landscape dreams and I worked with those images. We also loved our house. Every house sheds building materials from time to time. Detritus suits me as an old person. I love making a vision happen out of stuff that’s supposedly not any good anymore. I don’t believe there’s any such thing. Everything’s good.”
Christian says Salon Refu happened by accident. She bought the building with the idea of renting out the small upstairs apartment and using the downstairs storefront as a studio. After a while, local artists began showing up asking if they could have a short weekend show in the space. “I felt I was being very selfish to want all that space for myself,” she says. Thus, she turned it into a dedicated gallery. “People say, ‘You’ve done so much for the community,’ which I think is true, because people meet other people in that space. I’ve gained a lot of wonderful friends through the gallery, notably Lucy Gentry, Valerie Mayo and John Corzine. But generally the people who like the gallery don’t buy art out of it so I feel I don’t serve the artists the way they need to be served.”
Christian says the community that grew up around Salon Refu has been her support system since losing her husband. She adds, “Thomas Architecture Studio will be renting the Salon Refu space for the next two
years while I make more paintings on other people’s cast-off lumber. Ron Thomas has asked me to curate some art shows in his new space, and I look forward to continuing the Salon Refu tradition of presenting local and semi-local work by artists I find magnificent.”
What: Jean Nagai and Peter Scherrer paintings
Where: Salon Refu,
114 Capitol Way N, Olympia
When: 2-6 p.m. Thursday – Sunday and by appointment through May 21
How much: free
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