Briefly describe the work you do.
I’m primarily a photographer, interested in the relationships between human life and wildlife, and the boundaries between our habitats and pathways and theirs. In my current work, I create dream-like photographs of taxidermied animals, comfortable in human spaces. I push the content of these images so they verge on the anthropomorphic, thus challenging the viewer to decide whether the subjects are alive or dead.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I’ve lived in the rural west for nearly my entire life, with ready access to deserts, forests, mountains, rivers, and the Pacific Ocean. From my earliest memories, I’ve had an affinity for animals, whether pets, strays, wild, or mounted in a museum diorama. This has all led to a life-long amateur study of natural science. I navigate these studies through the lenses of cameras and the pages of sketchbooks.
I took the scenic route through my undergraduate studies, eventually latching onto Art History as having the balance between academics and studio practice I was searching for. In both undergraduate and graduate school, I spent a lot of time researching Northern European Still Life traditions. Along the way, I developed side interests in cabinets of curiosities, early museums, and the history of taxidermy.
There is a wonderful call and response between art and science that fuels my imagination. I have more ideas than I think I’ll ever be able to follow through on, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in my work.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio is my refuge, my secret clubhouse, a room of my own. It is essential to my mental well-being, and I’m very protective of what and who I allow to cross the threshold. This is my thinking space, my sketching and planning space, and the place where I can spread out projects, make a mess, and do whatever work needs to be done.
My studio has flat white walls with plenty of linear feet for pinning up work in progress. I have the best work table ever, gifted to me by a friend. A window gives copious amounts of natural light and a street view, which I can block with blinds if I need to cocoon myself off from the outside world. I prefer working alone, but do like to have natural light and a sense of connection with the outside world.
I’m fortunate to have studio space within a brisk ten minute walk from home. My studio space is a nice size, allowing me to have several zones, each dedicated to a specific activity. In addition to photography, I paint, draw, and work in book arts. If I get stuck while working on a project, turning my attention to something completely different helps me work through to a solution. The key is to show up, and I try to do that at least five days per week.
The outdoors also serves as a studio, and exploring the natural world is essential for me. I use game cameras to follow the movements of the bobcats, deer, foxes, and other critters that inhabit the woods near where I live. I take walks to look for tracks, and to seek inspiration in natural materials. Skeletons, rocks, plants, and moss covered sticks find their way into my interior studio space, often ending up in images or providing raw materials for my work.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I used to view my art as the end point–the image in the frame was the goal. Now, I hope my work causes people to pause, to look closely, and then go out into the real world and do the same.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I teach full time, so I have to fit my studio schedule in around my teaching schedule. I try to get into the studio at least five days per week. I love working in the morning–there’s so much promise in the light and in the time that stretches before me. But if work and other obligations keep me away until evening, I’ll take that time. It’s wonderful whenever it occurs. Because my studio is so close, it’s easy to grab several brief bits of time over the course of a day. All those little pieces add up.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Moving my studio from home to a separate space has had the biggest impact on my work. Paying money for that space and having to make a point of going to it has made me more disciplined and more productive. My work has become bigger, and I think my ideas have likewise become more expansive.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
I’m a constant, voracious reader, especially nature/environmental writers such as Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, David Quammen, David Roberts, Marc Reisner. Naturalists, especially those with an eye towards illustration, also inspire me. Hannah Hinchman is amazing for her ability evoke a sense of place. The interplay between text and image is perfection in her work.
Keeping a sketchbook is essential to my practice, and I love to see other artists’ sketchbooks. I’m in awe of those kept by artists such as Gwen Diehn, Tommy Kane, Andrea Joseph, and Danny Gregory. Whenever I’m feeling uninspired, I am revived by looking at the way these talented folks get to work, every day, and can create magical images from the quotidian world.
My husband and extended family are supportive to a fault, although sometimes I don’t know that they always understand my fascination with dead creatures. And, of course, I’m inspired by the critters in my life, from my cats and horses, to those just passing through.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
LIfe is too short to do all the things I dream of doing! First of all, I have a great gig as a full time art professor. If I had to choose something else, I think I would be happiest as a naturalist, or a paleontologist. Or an explorer of the desert regions of the world, which hold immense fascination for me. I’d love to train horses and rescue animals and write books and make maps. I enjoy a great deal of autonomy in my life right now, so any alternative occupation would need to ensure I could maintain my independence.
Born in the Los Angeles area, Susan Rochester moved to Oregon with her family as a child. Rochester has been a photographer for most of her life, and worked commercially before turning exclusively to fine art pursuits fifteen years ago.
She received both her Bachelor and Master of Art degrees (Art History) from the University of Oregon. These studies helped refine her vision, and are an integral part of her studio practice today. While her work is primarily based in photography, including historic and alternative processes, Rochester also works in mixed media and book arts.
Rochester is an Associate Professor of Art, Gallery Curator, and Chair of Fine and Performing Arts at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. She teaches analogue, digital, and historic photographic processes, Art History, film history, and painting at UCC, and is active in the local art community.
Rochester is the recipient of several grants and fellowships. She was named a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar in 2012, traveling to New Mexico to participate in studies of Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico landscape tradition. In 2013, Rochesterwas granted a sabbatical during which she traveled to Ukraine and Eastern Europe to concentrate on personal photography projects. In 2014 she was an Artist in Residence in Nova Scotia. Her most recent body of work, Trespasses, has been exhibited regionally and in New York City, Colorado, and San Francisco.
Rochester lives in the small community of Sutherlin, Oregon with her husband, two cats, an Icelandic horse, and a Shetland pony who is smarter than all of the other five, combined.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.