Artist Profile: Spotlight on Susan Bennerstrom

Bellingham artist Susan Bennerstrom’s distinctive paintings that explore light and shadow on landscapes and everyday objects have been featured on posters for Bellingham Festival of Music, a calendar for Northwest Poets and Artists, and in shows at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, the Tacoma Art Museum, and Bellevue Art Museum.

Awards she has won are too numerous to mention in full, but include a Bellingham’s Mayor’s Arts Award, Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award, and a very cool one for Ireland’s County Mayo’s Ballinglen Art Foundation.

Her painting “Expect to Wait” is on display in the “A Curatorial Perspective: Collection Selections” exhibit at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher. She will give an overview of her work at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16, in the Lightcatcher studio. Learn more about her at susanbennerstrom.com.

Question: What was your childhood like?

Answer: I grew up in Bellevue in the 1950s and ’60s. There is not one scrap of my old neighborhood left, it’s all paved over and skyscrapered. We lived in an old farmhouse, surrounded by acres of woods and fields, a fantastic place at that time for kids with wild imaginations. I drew compulsively from the time I could hold a pencil.

My grandmother in Chicago was a working painter and sculptor and she occasionally sent me stuff — canvas boards, a starter set of oil paints, etc. I think now about what an unusual woman she was for her time; as a young woman she got herself to Florence to study sculpture in the early 1900s, and she never stopped making art even as she raised six kids.

Q: When did you begin serious art studies?

A: In the early 1980s I took a couple of drawing classes from Tom Sherwood. They were challenging, humbling, and very exciting, and led to one of the most important friendships of my life. Also at that time I became friends with John Cole and Tom Wood. I would say it was thanks to those three guys that my art career truly got underway.

Q: And then you pursued art at a university?

A: I studied art at Western Washington University in the late 1960s. I didn’t learn anything about painting, but got started with chalk pastels. Living in Berkeley in the early 1970s, I made abstractions from the Northern California landscape I saw on the biannual commutes to Bellingham.

I loved the hands-on directness of pastel, the richness of color, the matte surface. But eventually the dust got to me, and I had a yearning to learn to paint with oils.

In 1997, I took an oil painting class from Barbara Sternberger at WWU. She is a great and inspiring teacher, but I wasn’t quite ready to make the transition from hand-held color to the distancing of paint on the end of a brush.

Q: How has your art evolved?

A: My next move was to oil pastels. They had lots of advantages over chalk; more portable, so I could travel with them; no dust; no need for tons of fixative to keep the pastel from falling off the paper. I wanted to work larger than was possible with chalk pastel on paper, and I didn’t want to have to frame the paintings behind glass. That presented a whole new set of challenges.

I was using the oil pastels directly on gessoed panel, and since oil pastel never completely dries, I needed to come up with a varnish to protect the surface. With the help of my framer in Seattle, I was able to develop a sequence of spray varnishes that worked adequately, but not always consistently.

I finally went cold-turkey off of pastels, picked up the paintbrush, and haven’t looked back. I love oil paint, and feel I can keep learning new things about it for the rest of my life, and will never get bored.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of your career?

A: My first career break was joining Seattle’s Davidson Galleries in 1989. I’ve been represented by other galleries around the U.S. but Davidson has been my “home” gallery until two years ago, when the painting portion of the gallery closed. Now I am with Linda Hodges Gallery, also in Pioneer Square.

I’ve had a variety of awards, but my favorite has been the Ballinglen Art Foundation Fellowship, a residency in the village of Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland. For two-and-a-half months, I had a little cottage to live in and a beautiful studio, and no responsibilities except to make art and keep myself fed.

Two years later, my now-husband, David Scherrer, was awarded the fellowship, and we got to return to Ballycastle to deepen our experience of the place and the people.

Q: What else do you enjoy?

A: Besides painting, my number one passion is travel; give me a ticket and I’ll go nearly anywhere. It started when I was 20. My best friend and I had each saved up $1,00 with which we bought Icelandair tickets and spent six months hitchhiking in Europe. It was the best life-and-art history-education possible. That trip kindled a flame that has only increased over the years.

Two other great passions are singing and paddling canoe. I’ve sung in the Whatcom Chorale for 40 years, and also enjoy singing in a trio. I can’t imagine life without music, especially singing.

David and I have done the canoe leg of Ski to Sea together for our family team for about eight years, and we also paddle twice a week year-round. I absolutely love getting out on the bay, local lakes, the Nooksack River, in every kind of weather, especially in the snow.

There is a special kind of peace and exhilaration in being close to the water in a human-powered craft.

Q: What’s on the horizon?

A: I’m in the middle of a several-year commission for a group of wineries in southeast Washington. It’s an exciting challenge to return to my landscape-painting “roots,” and to see beyond what could otherwise be typical pictures of vineyards in the sunshine.

I am also making paintings for my show at Linda Hodges in Seattle, opening Sept. 3, many of them inspired by nearly two months on the Greek island of Ithaca last fall.