Artist Interview: Susan Almazol

Can you explain the title, “Saying Yes,” as it relates to your work?
“Saying Yes” means being receptive to and curious about anything that can happen when one gets older.

I have learned to accept with the same welcoming attitude both the predictable markers of aging, such as health problems, and the possibilities of transformation still within my reach. The transformed walkers and giant collage in my “Saying Yes” installation celebrate the sculpture I create, the dances I dance, the clothes I sew, and the weight lifting I continue to do—despite the deaths of my best friend and father, despite undergoing major surgery, and despite now having a fistula in my brain.

What do the walkers in your installation symbolize?
The walkers by themselves symbolize the losses we all experience as we grow older—our health, our independence, our loved ones, our very identity.  The transformed walkers playfully symbolize the new worlds that can still open up to us even as we grow older.  For example, I became a sculptor at age 52, and I danced on stage for the first time at age 66.  Both were unexpected possibilities that opened up after losses in my life.

By the way, these walkers belong to my family. The walker transformed with papier mache and stones was used by my stalwart father, a World War II prisoner of war who died in 2006. The pink walker festooned with flowers belongs to my fashionista mother, now bedridden at age 95. The walker wearing sexy red fabric was mine. I used it when I recovered from double hip replacement five years ago. The red fabric alludes to my unusual healing process. Three months after my surgery, my physical therapist insisted I dance salsa again to speed up my healing. I did, and it did.

Transformation seems to be a theme in your work. How has your personal experience influenced the way you explore transformation in your artwork.
Yes, I explore transformation in much of my work, both in clay and now mixed media. My artistic career originated from sorrow transformed. Only when I sunk my hands in damp clay was I able to fully express and poetically discharge seemingly endless grief over the death of my best friend.

My personal experience continues to inform much of my work, but not in a deliberate way. I give free rein to whatever my hands want to create. For example, after limping from my car to the de Young Museum for a month during an artist residency in 2009, I decided I would use art as therapy. I envisioned meditatively making miniature legs and hips in clay and then cathartically piling them into huge heaps.

Instead, my hands longed to work big. I ended up creating large scale papier mache legs, upside down with toes in the air and strung with guitar strings. What emerged from my experience of unrelenting pain was musical leg instruments, a grand and unexpected symbol for renewal. “Rebirth” below is one example. Now, with a fistula in my brain, I am working on ceramic musical legs that will actually play music. Stay tuned!

Susan Almazol is an Oakland-based artist whose media include clay, cloth, and conversation.  Her ceramic sculptures plumb inner realities.  Her textile creations are over the top.  Her dance and words reach out to others. Historic times have marked her life.  She was born in Manila that was devastated by World War II.  Then she lived in Tokyo, as Japan struggled with defeat. She went to a white high school in New Orleans during school desegregation.  She attended Galileo High School in San Francisco when Chinese and Black students gained ascendency over the previously Italian-dominated student body.  Her freshman year at UC Berkeley was interrupted by the Free Speech Movement.  Coming of age in the 1960s, she was the first Filipina newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Now she is one of the first baby boomers facing their final chapter(s). You can see more of her work at: susanalmazolsculpture.com

About the Interviewer
Carolina Quintanilla serves as Interim Gallery Creative Partnerships Manager for SOMArts Cultural Center. She has a B.A. in Asian American Studies and is an Ethnic Studies MA candidate at San Francisco State University.

The exhibition:  A Place of Her Own is opening November 19th and on view from November 19th – December 11th, 2015.

Images from top to bottom: “Saying Yes”, mixed media, 2015; courtesy of Susan Almazol photograph by Reiko Fujii; image courtesy of Susan Almazol