Susan Williams, painter

words TODD BROSS  | photography LYNN KARLIN

a lakeside studio
where daydreams
keep appointments
with an artist’s hand

“I view my works as visual haikus,” says the painter Susan Williams, in the Camden studio she recently converted from an old garage. Natural light streams in where two windows meet above a rustic wooden table strewn with paints and brushes and other tools of the trade. The space is airy and bright, with plenty of headroom. It feels like a place where creativity happens, where sense and imagination collide.

Along white walls: a precisely spaced series of same-size dreamscapes in purposefully limited palettes reflective of the natural world. In each painting, Williams’ bold, confident brushwork conveys the dynamic energy of the world as she sees it, along with its ever-present potential for chaos, danger and desolation. In some, she fashions windows into the landscapes and seascapes that inspire her. Here, a stand of pines along a cove; there, masts and buoys buffeted about in a dark harbor. Variations on a theme.

Where floor meets wall she has placed a number of good-sized sketches. Each is a record of process in preparing for the cycles of paintings she calls “crops.” She explains that the sketches function as points of departure to trigger memory and further exploration. Rarely does she copy or quote literally to create a painting.

A native of New York City, Williams first came to Maine to attend Bowdoin College, where she double-majored in art history and visual (applied) art. In her senior year, she became smitten with a self-portrait by Maine artist Rufus Williams—and, soon, by the artist himself. “Like the painting, love the artist,” she says. The couple married in 1985. Today, they share a waterfront home in Camden, where idyllic panoramas offer limitless inspiration for their work.

While Williams now works exclusively in oils, her canvases reflect more than just paint. These days she often applies layers of Mylar as a substrate that provides mystery, depth and translucence. Working, she arranges and rearranges the strips of Mylar—inverting, rotating and exchanging until the balance feels right. She works intuitively. “My hand is connected to my heart,” she says. Indeed, ideas seem to flow with ease from brain to hand to brush to canvas, and also from one painting to the next.

Williams calls painting an illusion. She says the more personal she can make the process, the more pathways she can open to express the elements of life we can feel, but not observe. She talks about her need to be “all in” as an artist—which, to her, means the freedom to explore, make mistakes and move “at different speeds, in forward and reverse.” Her field of dreams is her imagination. If she doesn’t like where she is at any given time, she’ll “invent a space” to inhabit.

“I live in the space, fully occupying moments in which time disappears,” she explains, as if this were something we all do now and then.

Her paintings honor the canon of American landscape art. In them, she pays tribute to the artists who came before her, while forging a personal path between the actual and the imaginary. Her presence can be felt in her bold application of dreamy blends of colors from the natural world and in finished works that evoke sense, memory and dream.

Susan Williams’ hands are calloused from decades of plowing the fields of imagination in cycles of planting, harvesting and renewal. Out the window, the white winter landscape provides a clean slate—inviting mind and spirit to get ready to sow the seeds of next season’s crops.

Next Story