Drew McKevitt "Anxiety Doily 1" (detail)

Why Residencies? by Susan Hensel

It’s been a long time since I attended one. They do present certain challenges.

Most of my adult life I was either a single parent of a child and/or a dog, neither of whom could attend residencies with me. Residencies are available all over the world. They range from yurts and tree houses to resort like accommodations. You can find residencies on a working farm. You can find residencies in the mountains of somewhere. They can be as basic as pit toilets and tents and more glamorous than anything you live in right now. Many, if not most artists, have day jobs that don’t accommodate the need to get away to attend to your “true career.” And then there is the expense! 

Susan Hensel, Slippage 1, 2021. Polyester thread, polyester felt, acrylic paint, paper, digital embroidery, 22 x 30 inches.

Some residencies are free to the artist. Some residencies are as expensive as a semester of college. Most are somewhere in-between. Depending on the distance from home, the travel costs can add up. Virginia Center for the Creative Arts is decidedly in between, with a beautiful three day’s drive for me with hotels adding to the cost. After a long drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains, I arrived here:

Dawn at VCCA, 2021.

Such beautiful vistas on this old farm…and cows…and osage oranges.. The trees are everywhere, absolutely gravid with pebbly, green “oranges”. The ground is littered with them. A plein-air painter told me that rule one is, “Do not set up your easel under an osage orange tree.” In northern grocery stores these heavy things are sold for “decorative purposes, only.” Some signs say they are inedible. So, of course I had to look up osage oranges on Wikipedia. It is an uber hard tree. It makes great fence posts if used while still green. If you the wood all dried out, your staples and nails will not penetrate the wood.

Osage oranges, 2021.

It is a tree with few pests or predators. While the fruit is edible, few animals or bugs eat it. When the softball-sized fruit is cracked open, it has a faint citrus odor and the seeds have the shape and moist gleam of orange seeds. But there appears to be no “fruit” in there. The interior is all white fuzz and seeds. It doesn’t seem like a good distribution strategy for the tree! FDR planted thousands of them during the Dust Bowl to help change the climate and hold the land in place. AND…if that’s not enough, the wood, ground up to sawdust, makes a natural dye which I have used.

Susan Hensel, Escape Capsule, 2021. Digital embroidery on polyester felt, beads, hand stitching, 24 x 52 x 5 inches.

So, why did I go?

I went to challenge myself. Residencies have a way of taking you out of your usual studio practice, with limited materials and means, fewer opportunities for procrastination, new vistas. This presents a “forced creativity” situation. At Virginia Center for Creative Arts I am provided a fresh, clean studio, 3 meals per day, sheets changed once a week and a private bathroom! During the Covid-19 shut down, VCCA spent a generous donation on upgrading all the studios and residences with air-conditioning, installed private bathrooms for all the bedrooms and bought over 400 acres.

Susan Hensel, Experimental Sculptures, 2021. Digital embroidery on polyester felt, plaster, aluminum screen, left: 30 x 10 x 5 inches, right: 18 x 30 x 4 inches.

Researching a marriage? Prenuptials?

I have been working for the last four months or so on finding ways to marry the digital technology I use for the textile work with the organic nature of my drawing practice. My textile practice has been hard edge sculptures in soft material by using digital technology to design permanent folds that hold their form with minimal support. This residency is a continuation of that with a very specific target.

Studio at VCCA, 2021.

 Just before I was offered this residency, I had barely begun a series of sculptures that combine organic plaster forms with the digital textiles. It is slow going, messy and I don’t really know what I am doing. I have not used plaster in 40 years! So, I have one completed piece, a companion piece in process and couple more pieces planned. Then I was offered any amount of time in October to come to VCCA. I had only a few days to decide, write proposals that came in as soon as I said “yes”, pay bills ahead, arrange mail, hotels, zooms and pack! Paper, muslin, off-cuts, paint, adhesives, a sewing machine, thread, tools…all the possibilities for works-on-paper.

Susan Hensel, Slippage 2, 2021. Polyester thread, polyester felt, acrylic paint, paper, digital embroidery, 22 x 30 inches.

I came to create a new body of works on paper in response to new sculptures that are, themselves, decidedly still in process.

The new series is highlighted by rock forms. I grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state. I have been always influenced by the time-keeping of the rock formations. My personal drawings seem to always devolve into sedimentary rock. So, I began with the idea of rocks somehow in combination with digital embroidery. One of the most amazing things about our earth’s geology is the slippage of tectonic plates that built mountains and separated land masses. So I determined to work with the idea of slippage. I mined the box of “off-cuts” (failed stitch-outs and experiments) that I brought with me for color and form and set to work. 

Susan Hensel, Slippage 4, 2021. Polyester thread, polyester felt, acrylic paint, paper, digital embroidery, 22 x 30 inches.


It was a productive and fulfilling time on so many levels. At 71 years old I had wondered about the long distance driving. I had wondered about “fitting in,” after all these years. I had wondered if I would find in the studio what I was looking for. On all accounts, I must answer with a loud and resounding “yes!” I thoroughly enjoyed the drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The group at the residency was engaging and welcoming, ranging in age from late twenties to late 70’s. And the studio? Well just look at what I did! I came home feeling replete and empowered.

Susan Hensel, Slippage 3, 2021. Polyester thread, polyester felt, acrylic paint, paper, digital embroidery, 30 x 22 inches.

–Susan Hensel received her BFA from University of Michigan in 1972 with a double major in painting and sculpture and a concentration in ceramics. Her continued study includes Haystack Mountain School of Craft, Penland, Christies Education, Praxis Center for Aesthetic studies among others. She has a history, to date, of well over 300 exhibitions. Her work is represented in collecting libraries and museums as disparate as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Getty Research Institute with major holdings at Minnesota Center for Book Arts , University of Washington, Baylor University and University of Colorado at Boulder.

susanhenselprojects.com | @susan_hensel_multimedia_artist 

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