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Uganda RPCV Susan Sutton Robinson brought back inspiration from voodoo art from travels in Haiti
Uganda RPCV Susan Sutton Robinson brought back inspiration from voodoo art from travels in Haiti
Just 'doo it
By J.C. Lockwood
Friday, March 7, 2003
She's pretty much been everywhere and done everything. She's lived in Russia, Belarus, Finland, Africa and Haiti. She is fluent in Russian, strong in French and can get by in Creole. She's a graduate of the University of London and University of Washington, Seattle, and she's studied art at the Corcoran College of Art and the Monnin Art Gallery in Port-au-Prince, English education at the University of London, Queen Mary College, and African studies at Columbia University. As if that's not enough, she also studied secondary education at Seattle Pacific University and French at the University of Dakar, in Senegal.
She taught English and African history in Uganda in the Peace Corps, and English to bad girls cooling their heels at the Home of the Good Shepherd in Seattle. She also was director of promotions for G. Whizzard Book Publishing Company in London and later wrote and edited the Library of Congress Newsletter for seven years.
Not that easily impressed?
Well, she's also been, in her spare time, assistant cultural affairs officer for the U.S. State Department in Russia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Haiti.
About seven months ago she landed in Marblehead.
Susan Sutton Robinson - an unrepentant hippie with wild hair and scarves and, these days, a jacket plastered with "Stop War" buttons, who marched against the war in November on Boston Common and last week showed her anti-war artwork during an anti-war poetry reading at The White Whale in Beverly - took an early retirement from the State Department to be closer to her daughter Elizabeth.
"I decided to come up here and be a grandmother. Then again, 9/11 might have had something to do with it," says Robinson, who could see the destruction of the Pentagon from her office at the State Department. "I didn't feel safe any more."
Robinson left her Bethesda, Md. home last year on April 1. Her granddaughter Zoe was born on April 22, and already the new grandmother is all over the place: taking jazz improvisation classes in Saugus and teaching at Cape Ann Waldorf School in Beverly Farms.
"This is rewarding work," she says of the teaching job. "Day in and day out it feels like I am making a difference."
But art continues to be the main focus of Robinson's energies these days. One of her paintings, a portrait called "Three Friends," is part of "Inspired by Love," which opened last week at the LynnArts Center. Last month the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa showed 16 of her portraits of Haitian artists, politicians, collectors, gallery owners - people in and around the art scene. She will exhibit her new work locally in May, in a show called "Two Women Under the Influence" at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Marblehead.
Under the influence of what?
"It's an island of incredible poverty and constant political unrest," says Robinson. "And it's a magical island. That's what I discovered. There was never a dull moment for two years. It changed my life and taught me a lot."
The other woman "under the influence" will be Georgia Kenney, a friend from Maryland who "also fell under the voodoo spell," Robinson says, and began making mysterious jeweled boxes.
Robinson - whose son Joel continues the family's State Department tradition, serving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - was born in Yakima, Washington and studied at the University of Washington ("Law," she says. "I hate admitting it.") She practiced in Maryland, focusing on intellectual property law.
She wrote for television in Seattle. She studied Swahili and entered the Peace Corps. She was assigned to Uganda. Her daughter Elizabeth was born there.
The family returned to the United States briefly, but didn't sit still for long. They moved to Senegal, then were assigned to London. She eventually joined the foreign service herself and spent three years in Russia, then opened up an embassy in the post-Soviet republic of Belarus. Then in 1998 she became cultural affairs officer for the State Department in Haiti.
"It's a strange thing to be," she says.
She lived in a luxury apartment in Port-au-Prince with a view of the pool, with bars on the windows and a "safety room" in the back of the apartment - just in case the hordes crashed through the walls and the bars.
She also, as a State Department big shot on that troubled island, had access to the cultural elite. "I was able to meet everyone," says Robinson, who describes herself as "a big fish in a small pond." She was inspired by the faces of artists, sculptors, friends and voodoo priests she met on the job. She studied at Galerie Monnin, a Port-au-Prince studio and gallery run by Pascal Monnin.
There are a variety of painting styles in Haiti, from the Cap Haitian school, a straightforward style that focuses almost exclusively on island history and architecture to capture a glimpse of Haitian life, to the so-called fantasist and voodoo styles, which are intuitive, interior and magical. Although unique to the island, its history and belief system, voodoo art takes on an almost Fauvist character, using bold, vivid colors and often depicting distorted, fantastic and dreamlike subjects. Robinson was inspired by voodoo art.
While cultural affairs officer, she initiated the restoration of five major historical paintings at Musee d'Arte by hosting conservator Thomas Branchick from Williamstown Art Conservation Institute in Massachusetts.
Shake it up
Robinson has taken up shop in a big studio in Beverly - Red Brick Studios at the corner of Rantoul and Fayette - with 33 other artists in an old shoe factory: a beautiful space, she says, with big windows facing south and open brick work.
Her latest work includes constructions and collages and sculpture made from old antique board games such as Chinese checkers and mahjong, and then traditional games such as cribbage, old ebony and ivory dominoes, brass dominoes and about 150 antique dice.
She describes the work as the nexus of three competing philosophical outlooks on life.
"Freud said 'There are no accidents.' Nietzsche said, 'All of life is an archaeology of chance and accident.' Voodoo says, 'Cast your spells and try to make it happen.' So my constructions are all about the tension between these ideas," she says.
One collage shows 18 Barbie dolls jumping around in licentious and good-girl positions, surrounded by action figures such as GI Joe and Dr. Strangelove's cowboy - all of which shows the accident of gender. Others are based on antique risk-taking, from backgammon to cribbage to autonomous bridge, solitaire, poker games and Royal Flush.
The second theme of this work is "Subvert (pervert?) the ordinary." Antique tools and games are given unusual environments. This work is based on the ideas of accident and happenstance - and is the direct result of Robinson's experience on Sept. 11.
"I was watching out of the windows of the State Department annex on Navy Hill when the Pentagon was blown apart," she says. "I was so aware, as were we all, of the 'chance' involved: If you were late to work to your job at the World Trade Center on that day and you worked on the 105th floor, you survived. If you arrived early or on time, you died."
Some of her assemblages have a decidedly anti-war theme, showing broken mirrors and body parts - legs and arms and heads torn off of old dolls. Another shows political leaders as Pinocchio.
The new work incorporates chance, voodoo and game elements. It also has the spirit of Dada, the inter-war art movement that flouted aesthetic conventions and cultural values by creating works seen as nonsense, travesty and incongruity.
"When values are in flux," Robinson says, "Dada art comes out again."
She has made a sculpture out of an old bicycle seat and its nose looks like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It sports a "No War on Iraq" symbol. Is it art or anti-art? Says Robinson, "Dada says, both."
The voodoo influence is seen in the way she has tied up some sculptures with wire or string - "a lot of voodoo sculpture is tormented by wire as a way to restrain evil," she says. The voodoo influence is revealed by the way she uses broken mirrors to reflect the tragedies and losses of war. Mirrors, Robinson explains, play a big part in voodoo as well - symbolizing warding off evil, or loss.
She also uses bocci balls, chopsticks, wooden rings, architectural chunks and other minimalist items in some of the collages.
"While I was cultural attaché in Haiti, I made the acquaintance of voodoo flag-makers who use repetition, rhythm and an almost abstract style of beads and sequins," she says, "so I have woven together dice, beads and billiard balls into those kinds of patterns."
How receptive Marblehead, with its well-established, traditional approach to art, will take the new work remains to be seen.
"I love Marblehead," Robinson says, "but I sense the need for the wild side of art. I think it's time for something different, something a little sexy and dangerous. It's time to shake things up."
E-mail reporter J.C. Lockwood at email@example.com.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.