Salt Lake City artist Susan Nelson Jarvis’s work overflows with texture, color, and life. Her paintings highlight stories and scenes so vividly that they pull viewers in while allowing them to fill in details for themselves. I enjoyed talking to Susan and learning about her journey to accomplish this unique balance.
Jason: How did you get your start in art?
Susan Jarvis: I have always been an artist! Being raised in a highly competitive family with nine people (I was number six of seven children) creating art of any kind helped me to remain calm and to feel grounded. It was something I could quietly do on my own where I could retreat into a nonlinear world.
J: Are there other artists in your family?
SJ: Although my mother was untrained she was highly adventurous! Her creative expressions came through her explorations of nature, cooking, sewing and physical activities. She started painting at age 63. My oldest sister is an oil painter and my younger sister is a professional calligrapher.
J: Did your family encourage your art?
SJ: Upon hearing that I had decided to major in art at the University of Utah, my father told me that I would be throwing my money away and that I should become a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. Later, as my art income became consistent, he was respectful of my choice.
J: How much art related education do you have?
SJ: I completed two years at the University of Utah then married and moved to Iowa. I figured that being a stay-at-home mom was the perfect goal for the rest of my life! I raised a beautiful family of six children and then suddenly faced a divorce. With five children still at home, I was forced to become a bread earner! I had no college degree and my only financial asset was my art. I had to make it work for me.
I put together a portfolio, printed business cards, letterhead and envelopes, wrote an artist statement and looked for work. I created a website and started using Facebook to make my work visible. A private school hired me and my adventure began! Education? I read every single art book in my library. I took workshops from amazing artists like Jennifer McChristian, C.W. Mundy, Quang Ho, and Sherrie McGraw and I PAINTED! I also studied for one year with Jeff Hein at the Hein Academy of Art.
J: What is your medium?
SJ: Although I use watercolor during the summer with my illustrated journal classes, my medium of choice is oil. It’s creamy and delicious and very forgiving!
J: Describe your style and subject matter.
SJ: I wanted to have a style but in my exploration of painting I found myself copying the styles of other artists until I was confused and frustrated. I decided to paint 100 paintings and then lay them all together on the floor. What did they all have in common? They were colorful, textured, traditional illustrations of where I had lived; people, still life and landscape.
J: How did you develop your style?
SJ: Once I placed several landscape paintings into a tote bag and sneaked them into a museum. I went into one of the back rooms and leaned my paintings up against the wall below some masterful works. Writing on a post-it note, I compared my work to the incredible pieces of the museum. It was eye opening to discover that my colors were too saturated, my edges were too sharp and my compositions were on the edge of being boring! Who knew?
Back in the studio I focused on series work.
For me, my style journey was academic and analytical. I took my weakest areas and completed a series of five paintings (or more) on each subject. I was tree and bush challenged so I began with landscape. I couldn’t paint water to save myself so I completed a water series. Still life was another weak point so I painted still life for several years until I felt like I had mastered it! Recently, I went back to painting people. Figurative is my favorite!
J: What drew you to your subject matter?
SJ: I love people! Painting figurative work is the greatest challenge for me and therefore the most rewarding.
J: What do you feel is unique about your work?
SJ: Perhaps my work is not so much unique as full of personality and passion. I like to select compositions that capture people as they go about their daily activities (I prefer to not have my subject looking out at the viewer). I enjoy playing with a palette knife creating abstraction in the background allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. I love using a knife to create movement and texture.
J: When did you sell your first artwork?
SJ: In junior high school I sold a painting of my grandfather standing on a hay derrick to my Aunt Dorothy. I was so proud!
J: Are you a full-time artist?
SJ: I am happy to be a full-time artist! It’s all I can do to put my brush down every night so that I can address the other responsibilities of adult life.
J: How do you promote and expose your work to potential buyers?
SJ: I am a walking advertisement for me. Everything I do, say and wear reflects who I am – so it had better match my brand! I am careful about what I post on Facebook and Instagram. Being professional and courteous (while maintaining enthusiasm) keeps buyers interested. I enter many local art shows, join national organizations, give lectures, and judicate at expositions. I maintain a mailing list, write a newsletter and a blog. My beautiful work is not going to sell unless it is seen! When an artwork sells – I write a thank you note and invite the buyer to send me an image of the work in its new home (thanks, Jason). I give buyers complimentary greeting cards from my collection (I have an online store). I must say that implementing tips from Jason’s books, “How To Sell Art” and “Starving To Successful”, were major turning points for me.
J: What do you feel has been your greatest challenge in selling your work?
SJ: Keeping up with the demand for paintings has been a huge challenge for me. Now that all the technical details have been entered (website and spreadsheet), and the marketing strategies are in place – I am able to focus more on painting.
J: What do you feel you’ve been most successful at in your art, and in your art business?
SJ: Teaching and giving art demonstrations at public venues has allowed me to inspire and motivate students to jump into the art world. My enthusiasm for my art has been infectious and the quality of my work has definitely been an asset for my business.
J: What other jobs have you held?
SJ: Just for fun: waitress, piano player at restaurant, telephone operator, guitar teacher, piano teacher, swimming and diving instructor, lifeguard, hotel desk clerk, school teacher, and Mom.
J: How much time do you spend in the studio on an average week?
SJ: Usually I spend 58 hours a week in my studio (29 of those hours is spent teaching). At home I usually spend at least 8 hours a week updating my website (posting new works), posting to Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook or entering stats into my spreadsheet (where my paintings are, what was sold, if I paid taxes, etc.).
J: Do you have a daily routine?
SJ: Indeed I do! Being structured is what allows me to release my brain into the creative realms. A written schedule
allows me to focus on the tasks only for that day. I don’t have to worry about the future or the past. I don’t waste time going in circles – I simply stay in the moment and paint! I have written a weekly schedule (posting new work on my website, Facebook and Instagram) and a monthly one (newsletter, blog, mailing list, etc.) The beauty of a routine is that one can depart from it (because life happens) and then fall back into it when you are ready – without missing a beat!
J: How much work do you produce per month on average?
SJ: How much work I produce depends on the size and complexity of the work. Generally, I produce two paintings a week. I dovetail between 3 or 4 works at a time. When one painting is too wet to continue I set it aside and work on another piece.
J: Who is your favorite artist from art history (and why), and which of their works is your favorite (and why)?
SJ: Joaquin Sorolla is my favorite artist. He has the spontaneity of a plein air painter and an expert eye for portraiture. I admire the sunny colors and the lyrical movement in his piece “The Wounded Foot” and his incredible staging and strong contrast in “La Fiesta del Pan.” Sorolla moves gracefully across multiple genres, including plein air, portraiture, people engaged in activities, and landscape. So versatile!
J: What are your interests outside of your art?
SJ: I tickle the ivories (I had 10 years of piano lessons), pluck my guitar, swim, daily workout, hike and spend time with my children and grandchildren, and truth be told – I love to cook!
J: Thank you, Susan. To see more of Susan’s work, visit http://www.susannjarvis.com.
In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.