Interview with Suzy Farren

by Roxanne Phillips, MFA
Printmaker and Master Printer, Pele Prints

Suzy Farren. “Art Wall.” 2019. Eco-Dyed, Hand-Printed Paper and Cloth Scraps, Handmade Books and Baskets, 3’x4’.

Roxanne Phillips: What was it that first prompted your career/activity as an artist?
Suzy Farren: I was a writer for my entire career and cared deeply about finding the best and simplest words to express something. About 20 years ago, I began taking a variety of classes and workshops and learned that I LOVED making stuff with my hands. For about 10 years, I took classes either after work or on weekends, always trying new things that involved paper or fabric.

In 2011, I took a class with Fran Skiles at Craft Alliance. Fran’s process included making marks and covering them up, gluing something down and painting over it. More marks, more collage, more paint until the layers built up and the piece was finished.

Nancy Kurten, a St. Louis artist, was in that class and invited me to create a piece for the biennial "13-Squared" show that raises money for local arts organizations. My reaction was: “But I’m not an artist; I’m a student.” But because it was for a good cause, I agreed. I’ll never forget looking at that 8”x8” blank canvas thinking it was the biggest empty space I’d ever seen. But I managed to create a piece and it did sell (albeit to a good friend!).   

Making the shift from seeing myself as a student, who basically created what I was told to create (with my own spin, of course), to thinking that I could create something from within me was huge. And the thought of being an artist? Let’s just say there was a lot of “Gee, I hope no one finds out I’m a fraud” thinking.

But I gamely began entering shows and meeting artists who generously mentored me and helped me navigate this world that was so new to me. And my pieces began getting in shows. Now I’m so busy making a wide variety of things that I don’t even think about it anymore.

Suzy Farren. “We Covet What We See Everyday, Clarice.” 2020. Cardboard Boxes Covered with Printed Paper and Hand Stitched and Printed Cloth, 19”x16”x11”.

RP: What is the biggest challenge with being an artist and juggling all life throws at you?
SF: I’m really fortunate to be retired and to have a studio in the recreated garage adjacent to our house. The Covid-19 pandemic has handed me a rare opportunity: every day in the studio.

Suzy Farren in her studio, stitching.

RP: Do you have a studio routine? Most creative time of day to work? Process of thinking or setting up before you begin?
SF: I’m usually in the studio from around 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (when it’s time to feed the cats) every day. I work on a broad range of projects – collage, painting, print making, eco-printing, stitching, making books. I always come back to books; they’re such a part of me.

The artist Ann Coddington said something that resonates with me: “Work leads to work.” So every day, I sit down and start something. Often I am all over the place and very unfocused when I enter the studio, but I start something and on some days something clicks and I’m on it ceaselessly for days or weeks. The days where nothing clicks are important because seeds are constantly germinating even though I may be unaware. And even if I don’t like something, I tear it up and use it for collage. Lots of scraps in my studio!

RP: Is there another artist that has influenced your art? How?
SF: Two artists come to mind: Sandy Webster and Fran Skiles.

I took a week-long class with Sandy Webster in Brasstown, North Carolina in maybe 2010. On day one – a rainy cold day – the first thing we did was forage cast-off rusty bits that we used to rust cloth. That activity – coupled with Sandy’s attitude of “Why ever not?” in response to my many questions of “Do you think I could (fill in the blank)?” – was exactly the inspiration I needed.

And Fran Skiles opened me to a creative process that’s both intuitive and physical. The tearing of cloth or paper and then the layering and gluing and painting and rubbing away to reveal what’s underneath. It’s very physical. It also takes the preciousness out of creating. “Oh I love that mark. I can’t bear to cover it up!” But it doesn’t work in the piece, so you cover it up.  

The other artist I should mention is India Flint, the mother of the natural dye movement. India taught at Craft Alliance, and one day she told us to hand stitch our eco-dyed scraps together. I had had sewing trauma in high school and was not about to do that. I told India I’d do it when I got home. She replied, “You’ll do it now!” and I haven’t stopped stitching pieces together since.

Suzy Farren. “Cosmic Harmony.” 2019. Mixed Media, 17”x25”.

RP: What is the best advice you have been given?
: When I was maybe 12, I competed in an area Junior Olympics. All the girls competing in the 50-yard dash met before the race to hear the rules, etc. One of the girls told us she trained with the boys high school track team and she was sure to win. When I went back to my father, I dejectedly told him about the girl who was going to win. “Just run the race,” he told me. “Just focus on what you’re doing and do your best.” In retrospect, it was great advice for life…and for art. (And yes, I did win that race.)

Suzy Farren writes “I was raised in the New Jersey countryside and New York City before moving to St. Louis in 1979. I spent my career as a writer, retiring in 2013 as vice president-corporate communications from SSM Health Care. About 20 years ago, I began exploring new forms of self-expression, a journey that has led to a career as a fiber and collage artist. If writing demanded careful thinking to find the right words, art was all about intuition. My artwork has been in more than 50 shows locally and nationally. I live in Webster Groves, MO, and my studio is in my garage loft.“ Suzy's work is available at Green Door Gallery, Webster Groves, Missouri. You can also see her work August 1-September 10 in Art Saint Louis' "Storytellers" exhibition. Learn more about Suzy Farren:

Roxanne Phillips is an artist and art educator based in St. Louis since 2001. She earned a MFA in Printmaking & Drawing from Washington University in St. Louis and BFA in Painting & Drawing from University of North Texas. She has worked with Art Saint Louis since 2017 as Administrative Assistant and Installer and since 2018 as Master Printer for Pele Prints. She also works as adjunct art instructor at Washington University in St. Louis. Her works have been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout the St. Louis region including at Art Saint Louis, Crossroads Art Studio & Gallery, and St. Louis Artists’ Guild. Her work is currently available at Union Studio in St. Louis. She has served as exhibit Juror for several regional exhibits & art fairs. Roxanne is past Board member of St. Louis Women’s Caucus for Art.