A constant theme of Susan Easton Burns’ art is connection. She puts an emphasis both on the mind-body-heart connection that flows through her unique method of painting and in the connection she creates between people and nature through her work. Primarily portraying horses and other wildlife, Susan uses a range of non-traditional methods to get the paint onto the canvas. Utilizing different tools, including her body, rakes, and imprints, Susan creates movement across the canvas that freely allows the story of each piece of art to unfold layer by layer. In the midst of a seemingly chaotic background, her subjects emerge. According to Susan, if we can fall in love with our imperfect selves, we can see that nature. All life, like the process of Susan’s art, might be messy, but it always works itself out into something unique and beautiful.
NoelleFloyd.com: I’ll start with the obvious question. Why do horses feature so prominently in your art? Have you always been compelled to paint horses and other animals?
Susan Easton Burns: My horses are retired now. I don’t ride any longer, but I do take care of horses every day. Even as a child, I was always drawing horses, or always trying to draw horses. My father also took me to art galleries. Sixty years later, those galleries still have the same art that inspired me as a child. The art I liked then, I still love. Children have a deep sense, even though they might not be able to make a great work of art yet. To really do that, like training a horse, you have to know the classical [methods]. You learn those, and then you go back to discover yourself.
"It is our fatal flaw of humanity, thinking that we are different from each other or different from nature."
I guess it is because of the power and the close relationship you can have with nature through a horse. For human beings, I think that is the closest you can get to nature because you have to work with the horse in order to communicate what you want. You have to understand its nature. That’s what kept me coming back to horses; it was intriguing to learn about nature and myself. I was really learning about how I was, through the horse.
I rode every day and painted every day, so they have evolved together. Now that I don’t ride, I just watch my horses be animals. I don’t really want anything from them, other than for them to just be there. It is really beautiful.
NF: You were trained with more orthodox techniques. When did you start moving away from that? Was it a sudden shift or more of a process?
SEB: Well, I hadn’t painted in awhile, and I was very anxious. I needed to quickly get started. I was experiencing something similar to writer’s block, like painter’s block or creative block. One day, I just put a lot of paint down quickly. I noticed right away that I felt better. I noticed the physical response of my body to that action, so that keeps repeating itself. It was an important part of the evolution of my painting.
NF: You’ve said before that you begin a piece by throwing paint and end when there’s a balanced composition and a story told. Can you explain more about what happens in between?
SEB: A lot of paint is applied. Oftentimes my canvases are square, so I’ll just spin the canvas around looking at the abstract painting of just paint. Some part of my brain is looking at the paint and the abstract compositions and thinking, ‘Oh, now it’s like a crow or a horse’. The canvas evolves, and in order for me to be happy with a piece of art, it has to really look spontaneous. It can’t look contrived, like I’ve overworked it. I think for most artists, that is a constant goal, to make it look like it just happens. It should look like it wasn’t work, and a lot of times it really wasn’t work at all. It just comes from constant practice and doing it every day.
Our relationship with a horse is very similar. Really, our relationship with any other human being or an animal or nature is a relationship with ourselves. People think that it takes a strong person to be a trainer, but it doesn’t. It takes an intuitive person who can look inside to be a good trainer. You reward good behavior, and you have to do that to yourself, too. With painting, when I have a good experience, I repeat it. I wake up the next morning and repeat it.
NF: What determines the elements of the story and its unfolding?
SEB: I don’t assign a personality of the subject. That is up to the viewer. My job as an artist is just to paint what I see. The whole point is to decrease the sense of separation between human beings.
NF: That really speaks to the power of art as a continual conversation over time. A piece can be created during a particular time and still, years later, inspire a response from someone who maybe wasn’t even alive when it was created.
SEB: Right! All the critics and viewers have their own opinion of the piece, and it doesn’t really matter what that is; the main point is that we all come together. It doesn’t matter if the art is figurative, contemporary, or representational; it is all important. We aren’t all quite sure what it says, therefore, nature would say to look inside yourself. What does it say to you?
"I don’t necessarily need you to see the horse. I need you to see something that moves you."
NF: Your technique is very physical. How does that mind-body connection you have developed as an artist affect your relationship with your horses? Does it go both ways?
SEB: Definitely. Some people like yoga and some people like workouts where the trainer is constantly yelling at you. I think we are all physical. We all need physical connection in the natural world. Mine was with horses; it’s with paint now. There is a certain amount of release of the hormones and toxins that your body doesn’t really need when you are physical. It’s a healthy exercise, whether it is painting or riding.
NF: When someone looks at a piece you have created, what do you want them to feel or think about?
SEB: I want people to see themselves. The object of my art is not really to paint a horse. It starts out abstract, but I always end up seeing something in there. I don’t necessarily need you to see the horse. I need you to see something that moves you to look into yourself.
SEB: It dissolves the sense of dualism, that I’m different from you. It is our fatal flaw of humanity, thinking that we are different from each other or different from nature. When we get over that, we can work together for a higher purpose. We never get to know our real reason for being on earth, but we have to live a principled life of compassion and love to be happy. If we have a life full of anger – those things that separate ourselves from others – we carry that wherever we go. Horses taught me that in a big way. If you are not totally present when you are with a horse, you are going to miss all your opportunities for connection and communication.
NF: What drives you to continually create new pieces? What inspires you?
SEB: An empty canvas. There is a name for that: horror vacui, a fear of empty space. I have to be able to accept that there can be empty spaces. It is always a challenge, and I never get tired of it. Painting is a reward for myself, and it is never completed.
NF: What’s next?
SEB: Who knows? Everything can change in a minute. We might move into the city, and if we do, my painting will change. I don’t know what it is, maybe like when you hear an old song you haven’t heard in a long time, but I’ll never not picture horses. I’ll never not see them. Our memory is deep, and it is important to go into that to create.
All paintings by Susan Easton Burns. Feature is "Perception".
Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo
Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.