This post is also available on French Quarter Magazine (English and French)
Californian artist Susan Hannon is known for creating sculptures in the form of human-scale wings out of discarded vintage bibles, which “have their own energy, their own vibration, gathered from all those spirits who came in contact with those pages”.
I came across her work through the BG Gallery in Santa Monica, CA and fell in love with it. Susan kindly answered my questions during a charming conversation about vintage books, art, the place of religion in society and spirituality.
These discarded books get a second life and a new meaning and these sculptures invite us to ponder about life, redemption and our life on earth. The artist aims at sharing her message of respect, love and tolerance beyond any type of religion. I am very happy to share her beautiful and meaningful artwork and her message that we need maybe more than ever.
Tell me about you and your artistic path: how did you become a sculptor?
I inherited my artistic ability from my father – he was a highly talented sketch artist, but he missed the opportunity to go to art school. So he encouraged me to draw when he saw I had some aptitude. I drew and painted in all the various mediums. I loved working with my hands and it was the feel of clay that has been a passionate, in-my-solar-plexus love affair. But I too, due to my own father’s death at 38, also missed the opportunity for an art education. So, I pursued other avenues in life and I tried to keep up with my art. I then had an opportunity to take a job where, if I managed it properly, it would leave me with some personal time to be able to pursue my artwork. One of the first things I created, was a hand sculpted jewelry line in polymer clay, I’m always excited by new materials and “Hearts and Flowers” was a very successful jewelry line when Victoriana came back into style. Since my pieces were being collected at that time, I decided to create something larger and more significant so I let them evolve into the floral sculptures that gave me entry into my first art galleries.
When and how did you start the series of the Angel Wings?
After the floral’s, I decided to start with a project that I’d had in mind for years that really spiritually and emotionally moved me. And why it did, I had no idea. I created a sculpture of a nude man diving through the air. It’s three, fully formed figures in the different positions that you need in order to perform a dive. It’s titled, “Front Dive, Half Twist.” I had an entire series of these dives planned out and was adamant that I would not stop until I had finished all of them. But things changed. In ‘08, like any artist, I wanted to multipurpose these first set of three diving figurative sculptures.
I decided to use one of them as a representation of Jesus and wanted to put wings on his back. But really interesting wings. It was also a time when I was dismayed and disappointed with people and society in general. I saw so much lack: lack of tolerance, lack of kindness, and lack of humanity in people. Especially with those who advertised themselves and crowed about being devout and good Christians. I had also watched the growing trend of the reinterpretation of God’s word for self serving purposes. So I decided to use the Bible. I thought “who’s going to care?” since no one was putting action or deed behind the words of the Bible – let’s see if wings made of the word of God will fly you a little closer to heaven. It spoke to me with shades of Icarus to it, another idea I’m still very taken with. When I finished that first pair and saw them hanging on the wall, I realized, this is a work in it’s very own right. And people reacted very strongly to it. No one was without opinion. I took the title of the series “You Get Me Closer To God” from a lyric in the song “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.
You create the wings with antique Bible books, which of course give them a special meaning. Can you tell me more about your message / goal with this body of work?
That first pair of wings I made was from a vintage, beat-up, pages missing, Catholic teaching Bible owned by a woman named Lettie. As I prepped the pages for the making of the feathers, I saw that every phrase, and every reference to adultery was underlined in pen and or pencil. That stopped me cold. And it changed me. From that experience alone, this paper, these Bibles took on a whole new meaning for me. These books I was handling were the repositories of people’s lives. In fact, generations of peoples lives.
These antique and vintage Bibles come with pressed field flowers, four leaf clovers and long forgotten Church announcements. I find little scraps, little pieces of paper with a verse or two, and how many magical times it should be said so they can find relief or resolution from a problem they were dealing with.
In the middle of the Bible, there are the “Family “ pages, with the dates of births, marriages and deaths written with ink dipped pen in lovely loopy hand writing. Then you see there are no new entries and this is when my mind races with what scenarios, what stories happened to this particular family whose so very important book has fallen into my hands.
It’s this human experience, it’s this connection, and my appreciation of human history of everyday, ordinary souls. These books have their own energy, their own vibration, gathered from all those spirits who came in contact with those pages. Even if it was only their name written hastily in pencil so as not to be forgotten.
You also create sculptures of diving men… are they the angels who lost their wings?
Well I never thought of them that way before, but now that you mention it – probably so! I want to thank you for pointing that out for me, you’ve gifted me with more insight to my own work!
What do you like the most about your work as an artist?
That I take these castoffs, these ready for the garbage books and give them a new life as something beautiful and iconic. I always hope that any person looking at my work recognizes the “second chance.” That nothing in this life can be overlooked because someone else judged it to have no value. I love the resurrection concept, and these wings are like beautiful phoenix’s that rise from the ashes.
Do you have an anecdote that you’d like to share?
I was sitting one day working, cutting out feathers and listening to Dr Brian Weiss, a psychiatrist who is a renowned expert in past life regression therapy . He was talking about how some people have a fear of heights and that it may relate back to a past life. “You could have been pushed from a parapet” he said. Right then, I looked up at my walls of wings and my diving nude male sculptures and thought, air, air is in everything I do right now, air, flight, flying, the body suspended in air. I thought, maybe I make these wings because in a past life I was pushed off a parapet and I’m trying to save myself. Then it occurred to me, no; I was the one who was pushing people off the parapet. And I’m making wings for all those victims of mine. I’m redeeming myself in this life.
What is the question you’re asked you the most? Where do you get these bibles from?
What is the question you’d like to be asked? What religion are you?
What are your projects for the coming months / year? I just completed a pair of folded wings from a bible published in 1851. It’s vertical shape, is the first of it’s kind that I’ve done. It’s four feet long and 3 feet wide with a subtitle of “Guardian”. And among other projects this year I will make, there is a favorite that’s waiting to be assembled. It’s a large scale set of wings from a 1952 Spanish Bible (which contained in it’s pages the 1998 results of a woman’s mammogram!) This pair for me is a tribute to any and all of those who were harmed, abused, jailed, tortured and put to death during the Spanish Inquisition.
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