Author & Artist: Susan A. Sternau
Publisher: Sausalito Press
Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest today, author & artist Susan A. Sternau who has recently published the Easter Island Sketchbook: An Artist's Journey to the Mysterious Land of Giant Stone Statutes.
Norm: Good day Susan and thanks for participating in our interview.
Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.
Susan: Hi Norm, thanks for having me here today. On the personal side, I used to be a New Yorker – I grew upon the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but for the last 20 years I’ve been living in the San Francisco Bay Area with my spouse of 25 years. Professionally, I’m a painter and art teacher, as well as a writer and illustrator. I’ve written four other books on art and architecture, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Matisse, and Museums. Easter Island Sketchbook is the fourth book that I’ve illustrated.
Norm: How long have you been an artist and what do you think over the years has driven you as an artist?
Susan: I’m glad you asked. I’ve been a full-time artist since the early 1990s, but I felt a calling for art when I was 15 or 16. Since that time art has been a constant in my life. When I go for a little while without painting I start feeling out of balance and art restores that balance. I guess it’s not surprising that I’m a Libra.
Art for me has also been about creating an emotional connection with other people, whether it is through people enjoying my paintings or through sharing the experience of creating art with my students. At this point, I feel like “I’m paying it forward” with art for the next generation by teaching.
Norm: There are a lot of watercolors on the market these days, how do you differentiate yours from the rest? In other words, what do you feel makes your work unique and truly your own?
Susan: Well, Norm, I think that every artist brings a unique vision to the world through their eyes and their hands working together. I’m always amazed when I teach classes where everyone is working on the same subject how uniquely individual each painting looks.
I’ve always felt a special affinity to landscapes and the natural world. I think I’ve brought that connection to my paintings of Easter Island. Forty years of looking at the world as an artist, and the skills I’ve acquired from those years of painting all contribute to making my work unique.
Norm: What is the most challenging part of being an artist?
Susan: Good question, Norm! There are a lot of challenges to being an artist these days. I think especially now with digital media and devices it’s difficult to compete with things that constantly move, flash, and entertain. Making a painting that keeps someone interested and engaged is a challenge. I try to create paintings that are interesting and complex enough to hold attention and entice the viewer into entering and exploring that visual world at a more leisurely pace.
Norm: What is your creative process like?
Susan: Well, my creative process is not always predictable. Sometimes I surprise myself. Generally, though, the process starts with a kind of itch to create something new. A lot of times I’ll visualize possibilities when I’m walking or when I’m even half-awake. I kind of flip through images and colors in my head. Sometimes, especially if I’m doing something relaxing, visual ideas and images will just pop up. I can usually get myself started on a project by looking through photos or books of paintings for inspiration, or looking at one of my own paintings that I have begun to feel is leading me somewhere new. It’s also helpful to have fresh canvases in various sizes and watercolor paper ready to go. Sometimes just looking at a blank canvas or piece of paper will be enough to prompt me to visualize a new piece.
Norm: Why were you attracted to Easter Island and what motivated you to write and illustrate Easter Island Sketchbook?
Susan: Easter Island had always existed in my mind as a mysterious far-away place. I never really imagined I would travel there. When my mother suggested the trip, though, I know it was someplace I felt drawn to and excited by. I’ve always been fascinated by the achievements left by previous civilizations – usually the stones are what remain. I’ve seen Roman and Greek ruins, I’ve been to Stonehenge, I’ve seen the Mayan ruins at Copan and the pyramids of Monte Alban in Oaxaca. Easter Island is a uniquely monumental site. I didn’t feel I had enough time when I was there to do all the drawing and painting I could have wished. Easter Island Sketchbook was a way for me to take all the time I wanted on the island and to truly assimilate the visual experience. In order to fully process the wonders I’d seen, I got the idea of creating this book. The idea just popped into my head a few months after the trip during one of my walks along San Francisco Bay.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your book serves and what matters to you about the book?
Susan: Norm, I think the book serves as a way for people who have made the long trip to Easter Island to revisit that experience, and also as a wonderful introduction to the island for those who are curious about the monumental moai and this remote and mysterious place. I tried to keep the text short and accessible so that anyone can discover the wonders and mystery of Easter Island and I’ve tried to make the island come alive on the page with images.
Norm: Did you have some kind of a set plan when you put together your book?
Susan: When I started out with the book idea, I just began by creating a large group of paintings. I knew I wanted to scan them–I like the intimate look of scanned watercolors because they reveal the texture of the paper—so I kept the scale of the paintings small. I gave myself a goal of creating about six paintings per week for two months. After a few months I had a good stack of paintings which I showed to my sister, Cynthia Sternau, when she came to visit. Cynthia has many years of editorial experience (she did a wonderful job of guiding me and editing my writing when I wrote my other books). She suggested grouping the images by creating an outline of chapters, then writing an introduction and captions. Once I had the chapters established, the book began to take shape. I was also inspired to create more paintings to fill out the book, and to find quotes for the chapter headings from the writings of earlier travelers to Easter Island.
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
Susan: I guess I was most surprised by the process of working with a professional designer on the book cover and interior. I didn’t have any experience working with a designer but at the same time I had very clear ideas about what I wanted visually. Mary Ann Casler is a wonderful designer and she really helped me realize my vision as a book design. I think the biggest challenge was coming up with the right cover image. I ended up creating an extra group of paintings for the cover because the ones I’d had in mind originally weren’t working. The cover image I used almost didn’t get painted. It was the last in a series of cover images I was working on – it was already sketched out and I painted it very freely because I was thinking “well, I guess I’ll just do this one, too, as long as I’ve already sketched it out.”
Norm: Do you hear from
your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Susan: I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback from my readers. Many people have said that a travel book of paintings is a wonderful and refreshing change from a book of travel photos. Also, they have said that the paintings bring back the experience of Easter Island more vividly then their own travel photos. A number of people have also noticed the unique personalities of the moai statues—that they appear to represent unique individuals. I’ve been heartened at how warmly the book has been received.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your art work?
Susan: Please tell your readers they can read my bio and see more of my art, as well as get personally inscribed copies of Easter Island Sketchbook, at SusanSternau.com, where there is also a link to my blog, Art Thoughts, which has posts about painting, teaching art, travel and being a painter, as well as reviews of art exhibits. There’s also more about the book at Easterislandsketchbook.co and on Facebook
Norm: What is next for Susan Sternau?
Susan: I’ve been thinking about what’s next for me—a lot of people have been asking me that question! I’ve recently pulled out three children’s books and an ABC book I wrote and illustrated for my nephew when he was little. The stories and the drawings are still fresh and delightful and I think these books may be ready for more young readers soon.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Susan: Norm, I think you’ve asked all the right questions today, and I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you about my art and about Easter Island Sketchbook.
I guess the “missing” question would be “Why did you choose this format for your book?”
The reason is I’ve been in the habit of keeping journals since the sixth grade. I’ve kept journals on every trip I’ve ever taken. I’ve also always been in the habit of painting and sketching when I travel, especially with the watercolor and ink technique I’ve used in Easter Island Sketchbook. I kept a personal journal of the Easter Island Trip that helped me when I was trying to recreate the experience. And since I’m an artist, the idea of a visual journal (or sketchbook) seemed like a very natural undertaking for me, although I must admit, nothing can really prepare a person for the adventure that is self-publishing. All along the way, though, I have had a wonderful advisor and guide in my sister, Cynthia, who has shepherded many books into creation over the years. I couldn’t have completed the project without her, or without the support of my spouse, Nancy Welsh. No one ever said being an artist was a practical profession, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Follow Here To Purchase Easter Island Sketchbook: An Artist's Journey to the Mysterious Land of Giant Stone Statues