'Dune Shack Summer'
Finding her muse on old Cape Cod
Summer gets many Texans thinking of the beach, but for at least one Texan, the beach in mind is more than a thousand miles from her home state. Last year, Suzanne Lewis was one of the few individuals selected for an annual residence program that allows artists to spend three weeks living and making works in one of the 17 historic dune shacks scattered across three miles of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The shacks were built in the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, often with lumber that had washed ashore, and the living conditions in them now are as bare-bones as when they were cobbled together: no electricity, no running water, the closest paved road 30 minutes by foot over soft sand. Still, for Lewis, the dune shack was "heaven," a getaway in which she was splendidly productive as both a photographer and a painter of abstracts. The work she generated there has resulted in the exhibition "Dune Shack Summer," opening July 2 in Wally Workman Gallery's upstairs space, and a book by the same title, available at the gallery and at BookPeople. The Chronicle asked Lewis what made this beach and her time there so special.
Austin Chronicle: What draws someone born and reared in Austin to old Cape Cod?
Suzanne Lewis: I am a fifth-generation Texan. However, I must've been misplaced, because I adore and hope to live on Cape Cod someday. It's the ocean, the New Englanders, and the weather. Need I say more in this 100-plus degree heat? Bring on the bitter cold, snow, fog, and gray days.
AC: On the one hand, you're capturing the landscape in realistic photographic images, and on the other, drawing on it as inspiration for largely nonrepresentational paintings, which would strike some folks as moving in opposite directions simultaneously. What appeals to you about taking such different approaches at the same time?
SL: I like it that way. I work very spontaneously and intuitively. The camera allows for this, as does the nonrep painting. I get bored easily and am constantly having to entertain my creative muse. I would shoot like a madwoman early in the morning and paint by music from NPR in the afternoon on my battery-operated weather radio. I produced about 30 paintings and more photo images than I've ever shot in one place.
The most inspiring thing about the shack was knowing the history of those who had gone before me. Over the years, notable artists and writers have called these shacks home for weeks, months, even years. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Mary Oliver, e.e. cummings, Eugene O'Neill, Jack Kerouac, Annie Dillard, Norman Mailer – all spent time out there creating in the dune shacks. The light, the colors in this environment were magnificent. The weather was so inspiring – storms rumbled, the shack shook. Every morning after I photographed, I'd walk the 100 or so yards to the ocean with my coffee, journal, and binoculars to watch the finback whales.
The solitude was very regenerative for me. Even when I was not working, I was gathering the quiet to use when I got back to my studio. I discovered it's not only about creating; it's about preparing to create. I realized I could survive without so much stuff. I was captured emotionally as if put under a spell. Being tuned in to things like the wind's direction is really about staying alive in the moment. It's easy for me to be unconscious of how much water I use at home. But at the shack, I maybe used a gallon a day. I was so much more cognizant of it. I was mindful of every sound. And just being more aware of the impact of my actions is an important balance for me to have. When we forget that, we're disconnected from ourselves and disconnected from one another. It was a sacred experience.
"Suzanne Lewis: Dune Shack Summer" runs July 2-Aug. 5 in the upstairs gallery of Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 W. Sixth. For more information, call 472-7428 or visit www.wallyworkmangallery.com.
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