When Susan Lenz was 42, she shook up life as she knew it.
Owner at that time of a large, independent picture framing company, she was working around the clock.
“I fired my head mat cutter, downsized the business and declared I wanted to be an artist when I grew up,” says Lenz.
Eleven years later, the South Carolina artist is still on familiar terms with big decisions, thanks to a powerful show on display at Vision Gallery in downtown Chandler.
Titled “Decision Portraits,” it’s made up of 108 fabric panels Lenz stitched together after collecting the stories, in person and via telephone, email, Facebook and her blog, of men and women whose choices, from homeschooling their youngsters to donating their bodies to science, impacted their lives.
“I liked the idea of focusing on decisions that changed lives — bittersweet decisions, options that meant one thing is left as another is gained ...,” she writes on her blog.
In a telephone conversation with the East Valley Tribune, Lenz shares more about the arresting images and stories in the show.
Q: Before Decision Portraits, you had never used images of people in your art. How were human beings critical to this idea?
A: When I started thinking about how to express decisions in art work, to me the figure was the best way to do it. And before I even started, I knew I wanted viewers to be looking at the figures face to face, life size or larger, so that it was like confronting another person, so that you would have that experience where, facing someone who had made a decision — particularly one you wouldn’t have made yourself — what would your reaction be?
Q: The people in your portraits are real. Why did you choose to focus on average men and women, versus famous figures everyone would recognize?
A: The people you know are infinitely more interesting than dead famous people. And there is more to people than they generally let on. You don’t know what trauma, what choices, what guilt, what fear someone is carrying around with them every day. This series certainly let me know that on a regular basis, even with people I thought I knew.
Q: Portraits like “Behind on the Mortgage,” “Cheater” and “Boomerang Child” draw immediate attention, but tell us about one or two that really stick in your mind.
A: The very, very brave lady who shared the decision she made to cheat on her husband — she suggested wearing her wedding dress for the picture, which shocked me, but of course it was perfectly fitting. She had come to a point in her life where she was ready to share what she had done with her sons, and her son took that picture, as a matter of fact.
To me that was just amazing, and that brought a dimension to all of this that I didn’t suspect in the beginning: that sharing their decision could be a catalyst for people in their lives, to do something maybe they were ready to do.
Another one like that was the person who overcame childhood sexual abuse. She and her husband were in the process of adopting a high-schooler who had been through the same trauma, and she was going to have to face it. I guess it was easier to stare at a blank computer screen and tell me about it first.
Q: Are there decisions you didn’t get to stitch that you’d still like to?
A: The decision to be a high school drop out. That goes back to my younger son, Alex. He was the catalyst for the whole series and the piece that started it, Personal Grounds.
When Alex was in eleventh grade, we were going through a lot of issues with him. I was looking at that time for answers. I was hoping I could find the key to good grades and no more lying and all of those things you go through sometimes with a child, but unfortunately we lost that one. My son left home, and we had to come to terms with his decision — a decision someone else made that you don’t like, that you can’t control, made by someone you love. His is the one I never got to stitch that I’d love to.
Q: Did living and breathing the circumstances, decisions and consequences of so many other people affect the way you approach your own choices, past or present?
A: It allowed me to let myself off the hook. When your child leaves, like mine did, your immediate instinct is ‘I must have been the worst parent in the world. I did something wrong.’ It’s easy to wallow in self pity and blame. This series allowed me to see that I didn’t choose this. It allowed me to be more gentle with myself and remember when there are things I don’t like, someone probably has a really good reason for making the choice they’re making. It’s given me more tolerance.
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