Tampa artist Susanne Nielsen talked recently with Times staff writer Jackie Ripley about growing up all over the world and how it influenced her art.
I was groomed to be the same kind of woman my mother and grandmother are: tending to their husbands' every need. I don't believe they minded because they were raised in a very traditional setting. Interestingly, I was raised the same way, but for some reason, it didn't completely take. But I believe artists look at life differently.
I'm fortunate my parents recognized my artistic abilities early and encouraged them. Because my father, a German diplomat, was in the foreign service, I grew up all over the world. I was born in Germany but we moved to San Francisco when I was 4. By the time I was 7, we were living in Iceland, but I returned to Germany for high school and college. My family is still stretched all over the globe, with my parents in Paris and my brother in Switzerland.
When you move around as much as I have, you learn very quickly to adapt. First you must learn the language and then you have to master the cultural differences, which can be even more difficult because they're less obvious.
I remember living in North Carolina and going to a cocktail party with my husband. I was conservatively dressed except for my red stockings and red shoes. The lighting is so drab in Europe that I got into the habit of adding a spot of color. I've since learned that's not always the right thing to do in a conservative setting.
It seems as if I have spent my entire life bridging one gap or another. When I was a child, the hardest part about moving around so much was trying to fit in. I remember our first Thanksgiving in this country and how all the kids in the neighborhood came over to see our Thanksgiving fish. Because of their international roles, my parents lived in a world where everybody was different so everybody was accepted. Unfortunately, children are not nearly so tolerant.
I think that's one reason so much of what I do today is about communication, either through language or art.
My show, Kultur Spiegel, or Culture Mirror, on WIVU (1470-AM) radio, probably best illustrates that. We discuss the arts and entertainment in the Tampa Bay area, but in German.
I also think a lot about roots, probably because mine are so fluid. My aunt's house in Wiesbaden is what I think of as home because my aunt and uncle don't move around. It's the most stable place I have in Germany.
I'm still not sure just how good a thing roots are. Sometimes I wonder if they are limiting. But at the same time, I feel almost as if I am without a country. When I moved back to Germany, I looked at it more as an outsider than as a German. I remember a woman telling me I looked German but I talked like an American. Now I am a German living in America.
No matter the culture, people are my stimulus. They have such fabulous stories in their lives, and I find myself retelling them through writing and art. My art, which started out traditionally enough, has become more conceptual. And while I still do silk painting, watercolors and portraits, much of what I do now centers mostly around women.
Growing up, I was influenced by my mother and grandmother and in college by women writers. It was a woman art history professor who taught me to combine the traditional art I loved with the whole new world of conceptual art _ work I like to show in unconventional places. For instance, my soft sculpture of a pregnant woman is something that would show well in an obstetrician's office.
I also like trying out my more conceptual art on my parents, using them as a conservative sounding board. After I moved to the states, I sent them pictures and slides of my work. My silk painting was no problem. But other projects, such as the one I did using tiny coffins to commemorate dead celebrities, didn't go over too well. We've reached a truce, however. I've stopped trying to conform to their standards, and they tell their friends I'm a watercolorist. Now everyone is happy.
Interestingly, my husband, like my parents, is very conservative, but he's extremely gentle in his tolerance. We met in Germany when I was in my 20s. I was teaching school, and he was an American fighter pilot. He is honest, trustworthy and reliable, qualities I knew I needed in a partner. I guess you could say he provides the stability in our lives, and I provide the color.
Jackie Ripley can be reached at 226-3342.
Susanne Nielsen, 38, artist, writer
Husband: Glenn Nielsen, 47, critical-support analyst with GTE