A Farmer at Heart, a Printmaker at Hand

"Omar the Dane Learns about Personal Space". 18 by 24-inch hand-colored linocut
Photo by S.V. Medaris

“I think we are slowly losing our tie to the land, as the percentage of people who live in the country is much smaller than times past.” Hearing S.V. (Sue) Medaris, you wouldn’t expect her to be a printmaker. She’s so enamored with her muses that you almost miss the way she chooses to honor them. As we talk, Sue spends almost all her time discussing farm life and her animals, or models, as she calls them. She is a person devoutly dedicated to the world she has found with art as both the vessel and vector that has led her here.

Sue was in Southern California before moving to Madison when her father earned a professorship in geology at the university. Art filled fundamental needs for Sue as she grew up. She says, “Sports and art are what got me through high school. I was also very competitive, so when I found [art] wherein I easily experienced success, I ran with it.” After high school, she returned to Southern California to work and then attend University of California–Santa Barbara. “I had some adventures on archaeological digs and focused on ceramic sculpture for my BA in art. After that, I had further adventures living in Central America for a couple years.” When her son was born, Sue came back to the States and settled in Madison. “I realized what a great place it was for kids to grow up in and get an education as opposed to subsistence farming, which is what we left when I decided to return to the States.”

Photograph by S.V. Medaris

These days, Sue works for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical School as a graphic designer and illustrator. Unlike most professionals who frequent metropolitan Madison during the day, Sue returns home to an animal farm outside of Mount Horeb. Her time then is stretched between caring for the animals, printmaking, and planning her next shows.

Despite inhabiting a head space busier than most, Sue’s focus is sharp. She has that crisp type of drive, direct speaking pattern, and long-term ambition you’d encounter in professionals far more corporate than she is. While she has been an artist almost her entire life through, a crucial paradigm shift occurred in the middle of her adulthood that reinvigorated her career as an artist and crystallized her direction and mindset.

The pivot happened in 1997, when Sue purchased the farm near Mount Horeb with her husband. She reflects, “I could surround myself with all of the models I would ever need. Soon after, I got chickens, then turkeys, and then hogs for meat. Now, with the dogs and cats, everyone is engrossed in this life. Now my models and lifestyle are an integral part of the artwork.”

Photograph by Beth McConnell

Moving with the momentum of her new inspiration, Sue brought on another crucial shift when she returned to grad school in 2008 to pursue an MFA in printmaking. Before she completed her MFA, she only showed paintings and pastels; the degree was fundamental is shaping her current vernacular. Sue explains, “I learned how to do what I do now—large-scale woodcuts, linocuts, and relief printmaking. It’s what I show primarily now.”

As for the fruit of the inspiration, five- to eight-foot depictions of chickens of varying breeds encompass perhaps Sue’s most defining collection. A One Chick Show catalyzed her successful career as an artist. Housed in the Central Library in 2004, the compilation filled the second floor and the stairwell leading to it with paintings and pastels, each one a different character and attitude. The tendency to showcase variance in identity between animals is conscious on Sue’s part. She says, “My basic desire in life is to show the truly amazing lives of the animals we surround ourselves with. It’s to communicate visually this intriguing life that each one embodies. For animals raised for meat as well as pets and wildlife around us, I want to treat each one as an individual with a specific purpose.”

As for the scale of the work, aside from the ease it lends to defining each creature as an individual, Sue makes a point of utilizing careful planning to craft work for the particular exhibit locations she’s invited to. For A One Chick Show, Sue measured the landing wall at Central Library far before the show. The result was a 13 by 20-foot painting made to fill the space entirely, “making it so that no one would be able to walk upstairs without seeing that chicken.”

Photograph by S.V. Medaris

For her shows at the Overture Center later on, Sue created a layout comprised of eight-foot cutout figures intended to draw in passersby from the street and engage them with the rest of the work. For Abel Contemporary Gallery, Sue crafted a life-size tunnel book to fit the cooler space for their exhibit, The Tunnel of Mortality. In her words, “All shows are designed for maximum visual arrest.”

Sue’s interest in making large work expands outside of just showing integrity to the identities of the animals—it touches a modern reality affecting interaction with art, one that she is working with already through her post as graphic designer. To that, she says, “Getting people’s attention in this day and age is extremely difficult as more and more people walk around looking down at their phones. My goal is to snap people’s attention up to the wall or exhibit space.”

Despite seemingly meek inspirations, Sue’s work is both prodigious and prolific. She is being featured for the seventh time in the international Birds in Art show at Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. Having just finished a solo show in Chicago at Northdown Taproom, her large-scale woodcuts will be displayed in another solo show at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, Wisconsin, January 20 to April 15 (opening reception on Saturday, February 3, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Biennial). Aside from visiting her exhibits, the best way to see Sue’s work in person is at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Paoli (abelcontemporarygallery.com ). You may also view her work at marketweightpress.com , and on Instagram and Facebook.

Photograph by Olivia Loomis

Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.