Kalamazoo painter Suzanne Siegel is striding past a retrospective of her work hanging on the walls in a hall that leads to Friendship Village’s Kiva Auditorium. Looking at the breadth of the paintings, one might be tempted to think the artist, who turns 70 this month, has reached a point of comfort with her craft, that’s she’s settled in or is on autopilot.
That assumption would be wrong.
“This year, 2014, has been the most productive and creative year of my life actually,” she says. “It’s been kind of the zenith of my career.”
Siegel is probably best known for her interpretive realist urban landscape paintings with their multi-layered images depicting silent urban scenes set against glowing twilight blue backgrounds. They look real, but Siegel warns viewers not to trust their eyes.
“People always tell me my paintings look ‘just like’ the buildings or landscapes they’re of, but I change a lot actually, based on aesthetic,” she explains.
One of the paintings featured in Siegel’s 2015 calendar, which features 12 of her luminous images, depicts a pristine, placid landscape portrait of Portage Creek. And while it is as luminous as her urban nightscapes, the painting is representative of a new direction for Siegel, a series of paintings in which she takes liberties with the “reality” of the image.
Her new “Images for Contemplation” series offers natural landscapes represented in daylight in which Siegel uses opacity in the place of transparency for a softer, layered effect. In Siegel’s Portage Creek painting, light plays off water and sky, illuminating the trees and bushes surrounding the scene. Siegel says someone told her, “Wow! That looks just like that area — I walk past it every day.” But Siegel told her to look again on her next walk.
“Right next to the trees are some ugly warehouses,” says Siegel. “I’m not painting any old, ugly warehouses, thank you very much, so I just moved the trees over to complete a natural look.”
The next time Siegel ran into that person, she said she was amazed that it looked so different because her mind accepted the painting as reality. That’s exactly the type of effect — joining memory and imagination — for which Siegel has been striving.
“I pull together elements from sometimes over 100 different photos to make a painting,” she says. “The end result has a look of credibility, but it’s an eidetic image, which in visual art means that it combines what we see and what we see in our memory.”
Capturing that area between reality and imagination intrigues Siegel because she’s fascinated with how a certain natural or urban landscape feature might be changed by memory, camera lens or paintbrush.
“Think about even eyewitness accounts,” she says as she runs her finger over a line in her painting of the Fifth Third Bank in downtown Kalamazoo to show how she’s straightened it to compensate for the curve of camera distortion. “For every 10 people who witness an event, there are 10 different accounts as each person pieces together their memory.”
For every 10 people who look at one of Siegel’s paintings, there will likely be as many different interactions and memories as well, something Siegel welcomes.
“I’m inviting people to have their own experience,” she says. “These paintings aren’t really about my experience, and that’s the fun of it. These are cheerful, serene spaces that seem safe and inviting — someplace you would want to visit.”
The interaction between painting and viewer drives Siegel’s process. When viewers connect with her art, it’s magic, she says. To illustrate the point, she tells about the time when she hung her graduate exhibition at Western Michigan University and a WMU parking enforcement officer would come in every day at lunch and eat his sandwich in front one of her paintings, a scene in India.
“One day I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she says. “I asked him, ‘What do you like about that painting so much?’ He said, ‘It’s a place I’ve never been to but a place I’ve never left.’ That’s the best way to put it and exactly what I wanted to do for someone. I guess parking meter guys aren’t that bad.”