An Interview with Artist and Writer Susan Hoffman Fishman

I hope you and your loved ones are having a peaceful beginning of the year. 

This month, I’m thrilled to share a fascinating interview. Meet Susan Hoffman Fishman, an artist, painter, and writer whose work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States. Her latest projects focus on the threat of sea-level rise, the plastic in our oceans, and predicted wars over access to clean water. In 2018, her work was as resonate as ever.

You work with several different kind of materials. Please tell us about why and how you choose the materials you work with.

The materials I have used in my mixed media paintings have included: acrylic, pieces of documentary and original photographs, plastic, graphite, oil stick, charcoal, mesh, rags, cords, handmade papers, wallpaper, pieces of my old paintings that have been cut into sections and numerous others. For our collaborative installations and public art projects, my co-artist, Elena Kalman, and I have used polycarbonate film, parachute cord, corrugated cardboard, crayons, colored pencils, decorative papers and lengths of 2 x 4 lumber.

Because all of my work addresses social, cultural or political issues, I choose the materials for a given painting or installation that will enhance the content of and emotional reaction to the piece. For example, as part of my recent body of work entitled, Plastic Seas/Rising Tides, I completed a painting measuring 4 feet x 6.5 feet that is meant to pair the rising tides of plastic in our oceans with the rising tides of refugees seeking safety from drought, famine, violence and other environmental or political disasters. For that painting, entitled Rising Tides, #3, I used pieces of multi-colored plastic shopping bags from local stores that are swirling around and between waves of small World War II and contemporary photographs of refugees from all backgrounds and geographic locations (as well as graphite and oil stick). The result is a powerful, large-scale image of a roiling, abstract, plastic-refugee sea referencing the two critical rising tides currently impacting our world.

Much of your work addresses climate change and ecological disaster. What draws you to these topics?

For all of my career, I have focused my work on major events and situations that provide an insight into human behavior under duress. Early on, I completed a large body of work on the Holocaust (a catastrophe that has no precedent for the evil that was perpetrated against a single religious group) and its impact on 6 million victims. Later, in a series of paintings that I called Waiting Rooms, I addressed the intense fear and isolation that occurs during the process of waiting as disaster looms.

Then, in 2011, as I watched the waves caused by the tsunami originating in Japan travel throughout the world and reach even the shorelines of the western United States, it struck me in a visceral way that all of us are connected to one another, regardless of our religion, economic status, geographic location or culture, by what happens throughout the world to the air, water and land. That event was the catalyst for developing The Wave, a national, interactive public art project on water, a series of paintings and other work related to climate change, which ultimately became my primary focus.

Do you participate in climate activism beyond your artistic work?

Yes, I do, though primarily with groups that are concerned with water issues. Most recently, I participated in efforts by Save Our Water CT to prevent the Niagara Bottling Company from extracting 1.8 million gallons of water a day from the reservoir in my home town that supplies water to the Greater Hartford (CT) area. The deal, made in secret between the Metropolitan District Commission and Niagara, was done without regard to the needs of the local population in times of drought and will provide the bottling company with massive amounts of water at a marked discount from consumer prices.

The ultimate goal of Save Our Water CT, which has grown from a local group of volunteers to a statewide presence, is to “(1) support passage of the State’s first-ever State Water Plan; (2) prohibit discounted water rates and clean water project charges for water bottlers; (3) establish a permitting system for large commercial water bottling; and (4) prohibit the export of bottled water out of state when a Drought Warning is in effect.” I am participating in this effort to safeguard our water because I see it not only as an issue of local import but one, which in this time of climate change and its impact on global water reserves, that is playing out in many ways all over the world. At its core are three fundamental questions: Who ultimately owns the public’s water supply? Who gets to decide how that water is allocated? And what is our moral and civic responsibility to protect this vital public resource?

I was especially struck by Genesis Redux, your artist’s book on climate change. How did this project come about?

I undertook this project at this time primarily because of personal circumstances. In August of this year, I tripped over a concrete parking barrier and broke my kneecap, arm and nose just two days before I was to attend a retreat with the other four core artists/writers for Artists and Climate Change. Although very disappointed that I couldn’t attend the retreat, in pain and totally immobilized, I was determined to use my enforced convalescence in a constructive way. I normally work on large-scale paintings and installations but had been contemplating an artist’s book on climate change for a while and since I needed to work on a project that would accommodate my limitations, this was the time to do it. For those who are interested, I’ve written a post about the making of the book that was published on November 15, 2018.   

What do you hope viewers/readers take away from Genesis Redux?

I purposely left the ending of the story unfinished because I want readers/viewers to realize that each and every one of us needs to participate in solutions that limit the effects of climate change. We cannot leave it to political leaders who have their own political agendas to fulfill (most of which do not coincide with environmental reality). By using biblical language to describe the apocalypse that will come should we do nothing, I am suggesting that this new catastrophic “flood” will have been caused by the same evil, greed and lust that precipitated the flood in the story of Noah and his ark. Using simple images and text, my goal was to provide readers with a poetic and visual version of how we got in this mess in the first place. 

What’s next for you?

I have three projects in the works. The first is a major series of large-scale paintings that depict an abstract, chronological history of water from the origin of the planet to the present day, including references to water in various cultures and religions. The second project is a new interactive public art project on climate change and the third is another artist’s book. I’m also continuing to write a monthly series of posts for Artists and Climate Change, entitled, Imagining Waterwhich highlights artists of all genres who are working with the topic of water as a focus of their work and I’m researching publishing opportunities for Genesis Redux.

Read more about Susan Hoffman Fishman at her website.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.comand follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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