How would you describe the work that you do?
My work is very socially driven. My current body of work, that I’m working on right now for the show, is really about addressing beauty and promoting self acceptance through body acceptance within the human figure. And so, I draw these women to be larger than life as a way to . . . confront the viewer to look at these women. . . . I draw them realistically so I can show the beauty that they have within all their flaws and imperfections and all of that lovely stuff, . . . to really have them see themselves as beautiful as well. . . . I’m drawing these women to empower them, [to] show them they are beautiful and natural people.
Is this a project you’ve always been working towards?
I started this project in 2013. This idea, though, with the relationship between society and beauty and the larger women, specifically, started around 2010. It started out as . . . a printmaking project, as a satire, and . . . over the years, I’ve kept rehashing this idea and fleshing it out before it got to this stage.
Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
The women I’ve been drawing are people who have been body shamed and lessened as human because of the media and other people imposing their own self ideals on them. . . . I want to challenge the viewer by having them actually look at these people, to see the natural body forms, but see that it’s really beautiful.
Is there something that you’re currently working on that you are particularly excited about?
I do have a fun photo set that I do. . . . It’s a series I’ve started called So Many Susans. It’s basically these standard, 3x5 photos . . . and I’ll take a background image from the Internet . . . then I took weird photos of myself doing weird poses. I shoved a beanbag in my clothes to emphasize different body parts. One of them gave me a big Buddha belly and another one gave me a really big butt. Then I put . . . a million of me of all different sizes on this photo. . . . They make me laugh. I did this project while I was working on my large drawings. The drawings are serious and you get very stuck in the same thing . . . so I started the photo project as something fun.
What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?
One of my hurdles I’m going through is just time, . . . trying to find a balance between work and life. . . . I graduated from College of Visual Arts in 2013 and time has always been a big factor. . . . Art takes a lot of time.
How do you make the time to get to the drawings and studio work?
Weekends. Always the weekends.
What advice has influenced you or your art making?
There’s really two pieces of advice that really come to mind, both of which I heard often while I was at the College of Visual Arts (CVA).
One of them was the question “What do you want the viewer to take away from this work?” For me that takes me out of my head and see what I’m making with fresh eyes and to actually see what’s working, what’s not working. How do I want my message to come across? Am I fine if it does this or that? Is my message getting across? If not, what can I change to make it work? For me that’s really important so I can actually look at my work and not just be stuck in my own head.
The second one . . . was “In order to make good work, you have to look at good work.” . . . You have to be involved. You have to go out, actually look at work and not just be holed up in your studio . . . to know what’s going on around you.
How do you know when you have been successful?
Honestly, . . . having recently graduated, me being asked to be part of this show makes me feel like I’m being successful. For me, just being recognized for my work. . . . People who I don’t know personally at all will go up and look at my work in a show and they might be like, “Oh, hey! That’s Susan Ahlfs’ drawing!”. . . . For me, I feel like I’m successful if people who I’m not acquainted with know me.
Why did you choose to pursue the life of a professional artist?
I went to CVA with hopes to be more involved in museum/gallery studies and not as a professional artist . . . . Then they [my instructors] kept asking me questions about what I want the viewer to take from [the artwork]. And they really pushed the concepts and thinking about art and the relationship between thinking and artwork. I really liked that; it’s like a puzzle, for me, and I like puzzles. And then I had my artwork show in galleries and it was a lot of fun. I basically stumbled into it.
Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?
In 2010, I started this idea of beauty and the relationship between society and what really sparked that was my sister . . . who is actually one of my models for one of my other drawings. I wanted to make a utopia for her and me. . . . I started with a printmaking satire, . . . a triptych where I took a magazine and changed it so the fatter you are, the more beautiful you are. I evolved that into focusing on the fleshiness of the human body and then turned it into these colossal women. . . . I want to address the multiple factors that make people who they are. . . . I made these drawings to remind myself that I’m still beautiful.
Are there certain ways in which you identify yourself as a feminist artist?
I’m for equality. Equality with different body shapes, equality with men and women. . . . I promote equality for all people.
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