November '03 Cover Story


Forest Meets Fairy Tales

Susan O'Dell's Studio 16 exhibit
In the Forest Reconstructs Childhood Tales

Susan O'Dell was a child of fairy tales and dark secret places.

In a nineteenth-century three-story Victorian house in London, she curled up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and turned the magically cruel pages of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales of Grimm, finding herself drawn to the cleanly inked lines and bright watercolors. Her imagination wandered through thick twisting forests, stirred by wicked witches, poisoned apples, and children alone in the dark.

This was inspiration. According to O'Dell, "when you read the books, you construct the images in your head." And then, if you are O'Dell, you take the next step: painting the fairy tale forests or erecting them on three-dimensional canvas of fine organza silk and clay, creating fantastic dark-wooded worlds evoking secrecy and identity-searching.

The sinister themes O'Dell finds compelling in fairy tales - "Nasty people and a poor little innocent who gets buffeted around and may or may not come out the other end" - find a place in her most striking work: in both her dense, symbolic thickets and her recurring clay figure of a sleeping woman distanced from the viewer by the tangling woods and a silken layer of fabric.

O'Dell's latest collection of artwork will appear in an exhibit entitled "In the Forest," opening November 14 at Studio 16 in Harrison West. Intimidating forestscapes dressed in melancholy tones of blue, ochre, and yellow, as well as pastel drawings of billowing ball dresses and explosive renditions of summer storms will be featured in the exhibit.

The artistic theme of the work coalesced shortly after O'Dell's childhood friend recently took her own life; O'Dell recalls fondly the time the two spent exploring the woods of Hampstead Heath in London. The impact of her friend's death found its way into O'Dell's work, which took on a decidedly darker tone, moving away from bright pastel colors to heavier more subdued shades. The curled figure seen in several of the paintings is a representation of her friend, a talented artist struggling to find herself, lost in the forest.

"The forests are sort of a metaphor for life; it's about trying to find your way," O'Dell said.

The forests also draw on Francis Spufford's book published last year, The Child That Books Built, in their representation of a wild, strange place, a world, said O'Dell, of "extraordinary people doing magical things." Densely packed trees and limbs alternate in color, suggesting a dull filtered light breaking through the foliage. There is an almost impenetrable quality to O'Dell's woods, a figurative wall between civilization and a wild, fantastic world of imagination.

The 36-year-old Short North resident, American-born but raised in England, is soft-spoken yet unabashed in her description of her life and work, and excited to be seeing the fruits of her labor.

"When I was younger I always said that I wanted to be an artist, but it was a fuzzy distant dream this is more than I ever thought would happen in this short a period of time."

The imprints of a creative adolescence and early adulthood in London spent reading fairy tales, stitching high society ball gowns, and campaigning for nuclear disarmament are visible in the work of the budding artist. The forests loom dark and wild as something out of Hansel and Gretel; the stitched constructions mark her time as a seamstress; and the ominous skies of Cold War London brood over her forests, dangerous and suffocating.

O'Dell's life is in many respects extraordinary. When her head wasn't in a book, her parents, Robert and Elizabeth O'Dell, history professor and social worker, took her to art museums and architectural wonders across Europe.

"Our vacations involved museums in cities, not much in the way of beaches," O'Dell said.

She learned at a young age the difference between works of Van Gogh and Monet. The surrealist art of Salvador Dali amazed her. She fell in love with the curved shapes, stitched fabric, and polished bronzed wood creations of Barbara Hepworth. O'Dell didn't know it at age nine, but Hepworth's work would leave a lasting impression and influence her stylistically for years to come.

"It had very much a sense of line to it, and a careful sort of form," she said.

O'Dell refers to her father and mother as "nurturing parents." In her home could be found curious art keepsakes like Japanese ceramics and prints. They cultivated her artistic appreciation, while exposing her to the paradoxes of '70s London, a city wedged between nuclear proliferation and the slapstick hilarity of Monty Python.

Strange world. Strange time. O'Dell remembers a flourishing punk rock and anarchy movement and recalls hearing bands like the Sex Pistols, Killing Joke, and Siouxsie and the Banshees lashing out against war. Feeling the libertine spirit, she once tried on her brother David's bondage pants in front of a mirror.

She was an artist in waiting. She built papier-mâché creations, paper models, and Christmas decorations. She sewed long layered gray-and-black skirts in the spirit of Vivian Westwood. And underneath a sky lit with police helicopters, she marched defiantly with hundreds of thousands on Trafalger Square, a frenzied mass of outstretched arms, unfurled banners, and raised signs in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

"We thought the bomb could drop any day. Living in London, it was a main target," O'Dell said.

She traveled widely with her family and vividly recalls a trip to Scandinavia at the age of twelve. She stayed in a quaint wooded cottage with her friend's parents and took trips to town, ambling through clean streets adorned with open markets piled high with food. Their cottage was nestled among beautiful silver birch trees and wild blueberry plants, and in July, when the family took the trip, night only lasted two hours in Scandinavia.

O'Dell said her parents were determined for her and her brother to have rich experiences and a "good academic grounding." They always purchased picture books with substance and well-crafted illustrations. And while touring art museums, O'Dell recalls her mother lingering with her at exhibits, "wanting to read every little thing."

But even with their encouragement and guidance, O'Dell had to make some crucial life decisions on her own. In England, academic determinism comes early; secondary students make life-altering choices American students wouldn't have to confront until college. At age fourteen, O'Dell faced a pivotal moment, forced to narrow her secondary school focus to eight subjects of study.

O'Dell recalls looking through the window of a French class while weighing her options and then heading upstairs. "I think I was asking myself what direction this was going to take me and where did I want to go, and I went to the art room. I felt a very strong pull upstairs," O'Dell said.

Her artistic verve stayed strong. After gradating from high school, O'Dell enrolled in an art foundations course in print making, sculpture, and painting at the East Ham College and took a job at a photography agency, Tony Stone Worldwide, juggling framing and filing duties. If anything, it kept her dreaming.

"I saw photographs of places all over the world. It made my list of places I wanted to go longer," O'Dell said.

After saving money from a year of work, she glided across Europe, traveling with a friend to Spain and France, visiting art museums, cathedrals and gardens, and admiring architectural works such as the Sagrada Familia. While the tour was enriching, it did little to cement her life's path. As in her art, O'Dell's life was a wilderness; it required boring through the dark, uncertain places.

Taking advice from a friend, she enrolled in the London College of Fashion in 1989 to pursue a pioneering interest in handmade women's formal wear. After graduating, she soon started working for a small business run by John Cahill, designing and fashioning dresses, ball gowns, and couture for "high society" women. The business captured a largely unexplored market in London, because although a good percentage of men's clothes were handmade, most women's clothes were, and still are, made by machine.

O'Dell stitched dresses for such elegant and ostentatious functions as the Rothschild's ball where dresses could cost upwards of $6000, only to be worn once. Even an order as simple as a long blue dress would take hours and hours of behind-the-scenes work, as O'Dell would layer the heavy silks and perform the careful nips and tucks to make the seams invisible.

"A lot of it was like when you look at the dress, you'd want it to appear as if it had grown on them," O'Dell said.

Boning, padding, and the occasional strictures of a supportive corset helped hoist and shrink, working to "keep everything in its right place," O'Dell added. But as much as she liked the work she harbored no envy for the customers.

"I knew I had no aspirations to live in that kind of world," she said.

Opting for art over outrageous fortune, she continued to carry with her the woven stuffs of the seamstress: the beautiful silken fabrics which survive in her art, bringing porous shadings and delicate textures to her rich canvas.

O'Dell also bears an appreciation for the modern works of artists in the 1970s who used stitched-and-slashed fabric on canvas. Her latest love is black &endash; as in the almost exclusively black pieces of Russian-born artist Louise Nevellson, whose intricate three-dimensional pieces resemble the inner workings of a clock. O'Dell mirrors this intricate line structure in her forests.

O'Dell migrated to the United States a decade ago in 1993 after her work in London slowed and she was "beginning to feel claustrophobic, not heading in any particular direction." Having visited Chicago, New York, Boston, and other major cities, she settled on Columbus and is happy she did.

But it wasn't an auspicious beginning.

In her first job, contracted through Victoria's Secret, her hands flitted and raced to sew "thongs, robes and nasty synthetic underwear." After many consecutive and grueling seventy-hour weeks, she decided she'd seen enough underwear and quit to pursue graphic design and digital print.

O'Dell now freelances for Dragonfly Design Company, which has painted murals for Galyans, COSI, The Columbus Zoo, and the recently unveiled mural of Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night in the Short North. The job has helped her prove to herself that she can make it as a professional artist.

"When you work eight hours a day, your technique gets pretty good- and the emotional aspect, I don't pine over mistakes as much!" she laughed.

These days O'Dell is a very happy person. She just earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, mastering eight movement sequences and breaking boards with her bare hands. She supplements a light load of design work at Dragonfly Design with independent clothing projects commissioned from her home. This helps her earn a living and affords her time to spend with her cat and boyfriend Paul Coriell, also an artist, but currently in graduate school at Ohio State University pursuing a career as a city planner.

O'Dell excitedly awaits her mother's arrival from England in time for the opening of her first solo show at Studio 16. The child of London and the forests of Hampstead Heath will see her mother again in the wider open skies of the Midwest where the family first lived.

Perhaps the two will remember the quiet home in Pella, Iowa, where Susan spent her first eight years. They'll almost certainly share the remembrance of the whirlwind move to London when Susan was told, at age eight, she could take with her only a single toy.

Maybe its better her head was left to fairy tales.



"In the Forest," new works by Susan O'Dell will show at Studio 16, located in Harrison West at 431 West Third Avenue, from November 14 thru December 6, 2003. An opening reception will be held on Friday, November 14 from 7 &endash; 10pm. Hours are Tuesday thru Saturday, Noon -6pm. Call 297-5909 for more information.