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Montana was a land still being broken when I was growing up there, populated by frontier people whose lives were stamped on their bodies. My great uncle was a bow-legged ranch hand with one frost-bite withered hand missing a finger above the knuckle from a rope accident. My father’s best friend was almost comically skinny, a leather-faced steelworker with sloped shoulders, crooked, cigarette-stained teeth, and a mischievous glint in his eye that could not be resisted. My grandmother on my father’s side was a neat farm-wife, always in a wash-softened apron covering clothes she invariably tugged, embarrassed to be looked at with her flying-away hair. She came from an educated and well-to-do family, and she always had a certain shy awareness of how ragged she would look by their standards—her smile was notable for how she tried to conceal her missing teeth—and yet her fierce intelligence and competent grace were spellbinding. I was mesmerized just watching her work.
My father entertained us at the dinner table with Brer Rabbit-style tales of the characters he worked with in the Anaconda Company copper refinery, stories of the underdog wit and cultural naiveté of the raw Irish, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Mexican and Croatian immigrants new to this country—some of them our relatives—mixing with homesteaders driven to industry by turns of fate. His stories were a means of accepting the vagaries of a harsh and beautiful place of limited opportunity, and his skill mimicking various dialects and cultural attitudes provided comedy and an idea of common ground in our modest melting pot.
Consequently, portraiture was a natural extension of the world I came from, as well as the work I did for many years in Theater, and the work I’ve done in order to make my real work possible. In the course of my education and life in art, I’ve taken a wide range of jobs, through which I’ve encountered a colorful and truly diverse cast of characters: actors, teachers, fishermen & women, ranchers, transsexual ex-prostitutes, physicians, barge captains and scientists, to name a few. All of my subjects, to date, are friends, family or former colleagues. Some are recognized professionals, others are anonymous but to their own small circles; some are leaders or pioneers in their communities, some in the larger world.
Usually I start my portraits with an interview of sorts, inviting my subjects to write extensively in response to prompts about such things as their recurring dreams, influences, symbols, the locations they are happiest, life philosophies, colors and elements they are drawn to . Occasionally I impose my own perspective, starting from a gesture or posture I have observed which reveals something about my subject’s character, building a story around it with setting and symbolism.
My portraits have a bit of the Brer Rabbit tale to them as well. I’m interested in my subjects’ surprises, the foundations of their character, their quirks, their sources of strength and accomplishment. I’m attracted to qualities not much acknowledged in consumer culture, like the integrity of heart-felt choices, beauty that springs from intelligent humanity, or a sense of self that doesn’t come from displaying oneself. The latter alone is a radical departure from the way we expect people of interest in our culture to be camera-ready at all times. I attempt to get to a different, more interesting truth about my subjects than the one we are accustomed to.
In observing the human race, the question of what makes us civilized versus what helps us survive continues to play out for me. Cultural phenomena like “post-feminism” and “neo-conservatism” and “political correctness” battle across the contemporary landscape, seeming to mean everything and nothing at the same time. I find myself going back to the perspective of the strong, independent-thinking, funny, straightforward people I grew up with…for whom cultural politics was an over-statement of things that simply are…and I try to use that perspective to capture the truths of a few individual and admirable characters.
These works are a few of a much larger series, always in progress.
— Susana Montana