Becky Suss remembers, as a child, looking forward to reading chapter books with her father in the evening. Whether it was Cheaper by the Dozen or Haroun and the Sea of Stories, she would listen along, imagining images in her head—as we all do—of the scenes, spaces, and places described on the page.
When she had her own child, she started putting together a library for him, revisiting the books she so loved growing up. She wanted to find a way to marry her time as an artist and role as a mother, and decided to work on a series depicting the magical and memorable interior spaces from some of those stories.
Whitewall visited the Philadelphia-based artist, who was recently awarded a Pew Fellowship, to learn more about the new paintings that will be on view at Jack Shainman in February.
WHITEWALL: What was the starting point for this new series?
BECKY SUSS: Before I had a kid, I’d be working here 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week. All I did was work. My mind was in my workspace all the time. And I can’t do that anymore.
I was looking for content for new work and at the same time had the idea to build a library for my son—revisiting stories, chapter books, not illustrated picture books. This [gestures to the painting on the wall of her studio] is from a Salman Rushdie children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. My father and I read this together probably when it first came out in 1990. I loved reading chapter books with my parents, and with my dad, in particular. Whenever he was home, because he traveled a lot for work, we would go on to the next chapter. The biggest draw to doing this was just the magical imagery that I remember. This was a magical-feeling book that described beautiful faraway places. I got it on audiobook and listened to it. I remembered the spaces, and I was sure there would be some really wonderful domestic spaces that could be really wonderful paintings.
So this is a scene from when the father and son in the story stay in a houseboat on Dal Lake in the Valley of K. One of them stays in a bedroom with a wooden carved peacock for a bed, and the other in an adjacent room with a wooden carved turtle bed. There are all these descriptions of the houseboats and the room, and that resonated with me. I was like, “What a great weird painting that would be.”
WW: What are the other books you revisited?
BS: I did Cheaper by the Dozen. The Gilbreths were real people—it’s basically not a fictional story at all; it’s a memoir by two of the kids. Frank Gilbreth pioneered the field of efficiency in motion studies. He was a pretty famous consultant, and my dad’s a consultant, and so he really liked reading it to me and my sister.
I read that, and I got to the scene where they visit their beach house, a transformed lighthouse. Frank Gilbreth was always trying to get his children to learn constantly, like when they were in the bathroom they were told to put a record on the Victrola in Italian or French so that they would be learning subliminally all the time. But in the summer, he would say, “I promise, I’m not going to do that to you.” But of course, he couldn’t help himself, and he painted astronomical charts all over the walls of the inside of the lighthouse and hung photographs from the Harvard Observatory two feet off the floor, because his theory was that the kids should always be learning no matter how little they are.
WW: This new work and your past series deal with the domestic space. What attracts you to that?
BS: One of the last shows that I had, I was really thinking about how domestic spaces are these conventionally female-oriented spaces. They are spaces that historically women have designed, that they’ve pieced together, that they composed, that they’ve cleaned and maintained. And they’re completely relied upon by all of us. We spend the majority of our time at home in those environments. Our kids are raised in those environments. They teach us a lot about the world, but they’re completely dismissed. How could something so foundational be so dismissed, right?
And I thought, at the gallery, in this male-dominated space, I can elevate it and put it on the gallery wall. While this is certainly a departure from that, I feel like a lot of things regarding children are pretty similar. It is completely dismissed despite how foundational it is.
One of the things that I always love about making paintings that are of domestic environments is that they’re very familiar—to kids and to people who don’t always look at art. My other thought about this was that it’ll be a magical thing for any kid to come and see these paintings. Imagine some kid gets dragged to the gallery with their parents and they’ve read this book. They see it and there are secrets embedded in the paintings for them. I always love when little kids will run up to a painting—it’s amazing to see what they’re drawn to.
One of the exciting things about visiting this sort of content to me is that when kids are little and they start to be told stories or read narratives, they don’t have an image that’s necessarily attached to it. As adults, we’re pulling from what we’ve already seen. And kids get to completely imagine it for the first time.