Photography Into Sculpture: Susanna Gaunt
I have been following the artwork of Susanna Gaunt for almost thirty years and have witnessed her transformation from straight photographer to an installation artist working with a variety of mediums. Her love of natural history and specimen collecting is at the core of her work, all the while chasing themes of curiosity and awe. “I want to subject humans and beasts to equal scrutiny, control and wonder to reveal the many layers of our relationship to the natural world and to ourselves.”
Susanna’s practice continues to surprise me as she constantly challenges herself with new materials wrapped around strong concepts. Her highly detailed art pieces demand that you lean in and look close, as things aren’t quite what they initially seem. Human figures cut from natural history illustrations are pinned like specimens in a box. Text is literally woven into her art pieces asking more questions rather than providing answers. Her recent projects are community based, working with diverse audiences to create unique collaborative objects and installations. Susanna is a deep thinker with an inclusive view of the world. She lures us with beauty and asks that we pay attention.
Elizabeth Stone: I know that you first trained as a photographer, has this shaped what you are making now?
Susanna Gaunt: It certainly does. There are small things, like the fact that I am still working mostly with paper after all of those years making my own prints in the traditional and digital darkrooms. And I still use photography in my works when it is the best medium for the job. Most importantly, photography has given me the gift of observation. It opened my eyes to seeing things more closely and deeply, so I pay attention even when I don’t have a camera. This practice has driven a lot of my recent works, especially since the pandemic when I would go on forced hikes with my kids. I captured a lot of natural transitions occurring around me and turned them into two works in particular: “Disperse” is a collection of hand-made seeds that include photographs taken on these walks. In the second, outdoor adventures led to short anecdotes that were interlaced into a large paper weaving called “Almanac.” While “Almanac” does not contain any photographs, it results from that practice of “recording” a moment or interaction with the natural world around me. And it has evolved into new and larger projects, such as Great Lakes Almanac, where I have gathered anecdotes from visitors to the Great Lakes Aquarium and turned them into artwork. That exhibit is now up and on view for the summer at the Aquarium in Duluth, MN. The show includes the piece “November” which is about the joy of collecting sea glass, represented in this case by cut scraps from the photographs used to make “Disperse.”
Elizabeth Stone: When did you decide to go three dimensional with your work and come off the wall? Was there a catalyst?
Susanna Gaunt: Honestly, it was long before I decided to transition to other mediums beyond photography. I was always interested in unique ways of displaying photographs – the white mat and black frame started to bore me – and I wanted the presentation to be a more important part of the overall artwork. The first time I recall trying this was during a solo show at Gallery Saintonge in Missoula, Montana in 2004. I hung a series of photographs in a vertical line from the ceiling in the window. Instead of frames, each photo was sandwiched between plexiglass and attached to the next with fishing line. Each image was printed twice and faced out on both sides so the pieces were viewable from on the street and from the gallery.
The progression from there was subtle until I entered the studio art program at University of Minnesota Duluth in 2013. I knew I wanted to learn other mediums and found myself drawn to drawing, printmaking and installation art. I’d say the final catalyst was in a mixed-media class where my instructor gave me free reign to play with material and design. The resulting piece, “Specimen,” began to reveal the challenges and joys of installation art – there are so many puzzles to figure out and I both love and dread (but mostly love) that aspect of the process. Having to incorporate an artwork’s aesthetic all the way through to the presentation is super satisfying. My senior exhibit was an evolution of “Specimen,” with three large dimensional and interactive pieces that incorporated drawing, photography, sewing and more.
Elizabeth Stone: Does your degree in philosophy influence your work? If yes, how?
Susanna Gaunt: Absolutely, though I would say it isn’t front and center. It is more a part of who I am and how I navigate the world in all aspects of my life. What I love about philosophy is that it is about asking questions – what makes us human? What is intelligence? Why is beauty so important to being human? In recent years, I have especially thought about how we relate to our world, both natural and manmade. I don’t need to have answers, I just explore questions through my art making. Plus, in my lifetime, our understanding of these questions has shifted, and so my own perspective has changed, which just gives new content to the work I make. I have found that while the broader questions are still interesting to me, I’ve narrowed down the ones I ask with regards to the art I make. For instance, I like your question: what is one beautiful thing I noticed today that I didn’t yesterday? I strive to constantly observe details. Where do I find wonder? A lot of photographers strive to make the ordinary look extraordinary. I like the idea of making the ordinary look ordinary. It’s all about perspective.
Elizabeth Stone: What keeps you working?
Susanna Gaunt: Well, after so many years of making art, I just know it is what I do, it is part of who I am. The creative process is both energizing and exhausting but I am grateful I get to use it to help make sense of the world. And it is a gift to be able to share my perspective with others.
On a more practical level, I give myself carrots to chase. I am constantly juggling the actual making with finding and submitting to new exhibition venues and grant opportunities. I also am addicted to trying new things, so I take classes, experiment with old and new materials and at times look to mix things up in my practice. For instance, shifting from photography to mixed-media installation and currently looking to expand my audience through non-art venues and community-based art.
Elizabeth Stone: Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?
Susanna Gaunt: Obviously dark
Elizabeth Stone: Where do you find the most joy in your practice?
Susanna Gaunt: I love those moments when a new idea begins to take shape and my mind dumps iterations of how it will manifest faster than I can write them down. Of course, most of these ideas get thrown out but the initial excitement is always a rush. I also love those puzzles of pushing through a problem when making and installing art. My studio is full of prototypes of all those iterations that didn’t quite work but did lead to a different and better solution.
Elizabeth Stone: What is one beautiful thing today that you didn’t notice yesterday?
Susanna Gaunt: It is spring in Duluth, so every day there is something new and beautiful to wonder at. Just this past weekend, my son and I planted new pollinator seedlings in our garden. The next day, a monarch visited and we watched her deposit at least 10 eggs on the young milkweed. These small actions always fill me up.
Working with a variety of mediums such as drawing, photography and printmaking, Susanna Gaunt analyzes the human condition through a philosophical and scientific lens. Inspired by historic European curiosity cabinets, natural history museums and personal specimen collections, she tangles human anatomy with animal taxonomy, creating works that encourage curiosity and reflection.
A recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Duluth, Susanna received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, Drawing and Printmaking. She also holds a BA degree in Philosophy from Boston College. Susanna has exhibited her work in galleries and museums throughout the country. Regionally, this includes the Duluth Art Institute, Tweed Art Museum and Prøve Gallery in Duluth, as well as Minnesota Center for the Book Arts in Minneapolis, MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, MN and the Kruk Gallery at UWS in Superior, Wisconsin. Her work has been published in literary journals and trade publications, such as De Correspondent, Permafrost and View Camera Magazine. Susanna Gaunt lives and works in Duluth, MN.
Susanna Gaunt was awarded an Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Projects grant in spring 2022 to complete a new community-based project called Great Lakes Almanac. She also received a Projects grant in 2020 to produce her Integument exhibit that was on view at Duluth Art Institute in fall 2020. She is a 2019 fiscal year recipient of the Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Susanna also received an Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Career Development grant in 2018 to produce her exhibit, Reconfigure, at the Kruk Gallery in Superior, Wisconsin.
You can follow Susanna on Instagram: @susannagauntartist
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