Suesan Stovall


Suesan Stovall sits on a stool in her art gallery, surrounded by her artwork, talking about a CD of songs she recorded ten years ago but never promoted. “I didn’t have confidence in it then,” she says, “but now I’ve listened to it again, and I think I’m going to sing some of those songs onstage this summer.”

The Oak Bluffs branch of the Groovy Sue Gallery occupies half of the two-car garage in Stovall’s parents’ home. (There are also online and Los Angeles gallery branches.) The room is crowded not only with art, but also with objects the artist considers meaningful or visually appealing — Santeria candles, buckets of flowers, a rusting sewing machine, a collection of antique suitcases. When Stovall exhibits her visual art pieces — assemblages that incorporate her own painting and photography as well as found objects and images — the work tends to sell out. But, she says somewhat ruefully, she’s not getting any younger, and she wants to be onstage. A graduate of New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, now called the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and of Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in theater and economics, Stovall is also currently at work on a one-woman show and a screenplay.

“It’s like being schizophrenic,” she says of being drawn to both the performing and visual arts. “Artwork is like my secret lover, and I’ve neglected my husband, which is my stage career. I can’t get away from the fact that I like being in front of people; I like what happens in an audience. I really thought last year that I was going to have to stop making art, but I find I can’t stop, because this work is a part of me.” She places both hands on her chest and adds, “My pieces live with me all the time, in my head, my hands, my heart.”

Yet, despite the importance — both spiritual and financial — of Stovall’s artwork (“It pays my bills,” she acknowledges, shrugging apologetically, “and that’s major”), it was not a part of her original life plan. After graduating from college, Stovall and a close friend would send each other handmade collages. She then started making presents for friends by collaging onto and inside little plastic boxes. At first, she fashioned them to be worn as brooches; later she made them as refrigerator magnets. She found that she could sell the magnet boxes, and she began taking them with her everywhere — on the subway, to meetings — and selling them for $5 a pop. “I didn’t like having a day job,” she says, “punching in, punching out.” Selling homemade magnets seemed like more fun.

From the magnets, Stovall moved on to cards and small collage pieces, but still, she says, “I never had any intention of having a serious art career.” She was in her early twenties, living in Los Angeles, singing in a band, and working a day job at Galerie Lakaye — an art space specializing in Haitian art. After a difficult breakup, Stovall threw her energy into creating larger, altar-like art pieces to decorate her house — “I was trying not to be sad, but to be victorious,” she explains. Friends who saw the work suggested that she should start showing it, but Stovall was hesitant. Then one night, her gallery employers came to dinner, saw her work, and offered her a show. “I almost canceled that show at the last minute because I was so attached to my work,” she says. “I didn’t want to see it go.” The show sold out at the opening, and Stovall quit her day job and began working on her art full-time.

Now, more than twenty years later, Stovall’s assemblages have a large and loyal following on the Vineyard and elsewhere. Her pieces are soulful and spiritual, sometimes political, and often historical, exploring both her own personal journey and the journeys of others. “Found objects have energy in them,” she says. “I have to be very respectful of images and other things I use in my work, because they’re part of the histories of living people.” The daughter of the civil rights pioneer and newswoman Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Stovall frequently incorporates themes from the African-American experience into her work. “I’m like a refractive lens,” she says. “My work is a reflection of what I’m seeing.”

At times for Stovall, making art is like channeling voices from elsewhere, or recording her frequently prophetic dreams. “I have dreams about people,” she says, “and they literally come true. It’s very intense for me to handle sometimes.” She points to an image of a man in one of her pieces and explains that he is a South African sangoma — a traditional healer of both mind and body who works by connecting to the spirits of his ancestors. “Every sangoma I’ve ever met has said that this is something they would never have chosen to be. None of them said it was easy. But this path was chosen for people like us. I think that when my work is done, this energy comes through it.”

stovall1Partly because it’s complicated to define where her pieces come from, Stovall dislikes explaining her art. “I can’t control what other people see in my work,” she says. “I let the images I’m using dictate to me where a piece is going. I’m just sometimes at the behest of my muses.”

But Stovall’s muses are also calling her to the stage now, and she isn’t certain that she can do both kinds of work simultaneously. She has always enjoyed the ways in which her art reflected her other life as a performer. Sometimes, for example, she thinks of a given piece as being like a stage set, and she notes that creating a piece of art can be like getting inside of a character in a play. Once, a friend remarked to her that her pieces are like moments, like stills from a performance. “That meant a lot to me,” she says, “because it kind of brought it all together.”

Regardless of where Stovall chooses to focus her creative energy next, she knows this: that her purpose in life is “to bring light into a room, to show what somebody’s soul can do with what they see and what they dream.” Regarding the choices she’s facing, she adds, “I’m just trying to stay steady, and to be guided. My work is a reflection of what happens when my guardian angels tell me what to do.”

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