Published July 31st, 2023 by Nicole Thomas
In a new series of interviews focusing on the creative similarities between a green thumb and a productive studio, Nicole Thomas talks to painter Sara Suppan about plants, tchotchkes, and the "ugly phase"
This is my third year of gardening and I have an appreciation for how much it contributes to my artistic practice. There are so many similarities to the ethereal experience of making art, or the routines during peak growing seasons. There is a flow to it involving patience and effort. There’s a mixture of method and experimentation. Much like studio work, gardening is handiwork that gets a little messy and leads to something beautiful.
I’ve also been connecting with other creatives on a more personal level about their gardens. Some artists have utilitarian purposes for their gardens such as harvesting for their kitchen tables or to use in the studio. Other artists focus on revitalizing cultural roots and restoring land. Behind each garden in this series is an artist. So put on some bug spray and sunscreen – follow me beyond the artist’s studio, and into their plantie paradises!
Sara Suppan, Prty, 2022. Oil on panel, 24 x 18". Image courtesy of the artist.
Sara Suppan is a painter based in Minneapolis who shows work nationally and internationally. When I met with her she was preparing for a residency in the United Kingdom and she recently received the Next Step Fund from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council to create new paintings.
She currently lives in an apartment that offers an outdoor garden plot to tenants. She’s been gardening for almost ten years and adapts her plants to her lifestyle.
Nicole Thomas: Tell us about your outdoor garden.
Sara Suppan: I’m leaving in August for a residency, so I’m keeping it simple and from seed this year. There’s a steady harvest of arugula. There’s lettuce, but the bunnies have been really into that. They don’t like the arugula as much. The one thing I do that helps the garden look nice is making little signs. I planned a zig-zag of marigold and nasturtium. There's cilantro that I’ve been picking away at. I will have one or two zinnias. I have bee’s friend that will flower eventually. Usually I have basil from my parents, but not this year.
I’d say it’s 50% edible, 50% flowers. Or, when I have somewhat higher budget gardens, I’ve gone out and bought semi-exotic foliage. I just like things that are funky looking. Every year it’s pretty different. I think during the first pandemic summer, plant stores were mostly closed, so I got these Mexican sunflower seeds and mostly filled the garden bed with them. Through June and July, it just looked like giant weeds without flowers. But as soon as they started to flower it looked spectacular! They were the brightest flowers I’ve ever seen.
Sara Suppan’s outdoor garden plot with hand painted signs. Photo by the author.
NT: Is this dog also yours?
SP: Yeah, I got that from a thrift store. I wanted some garden tchotchkes. I really, really like kitschy lawn art. If I had a house, I would definitely have a flamingo and stuff like that.
NT: I know you have paintings with indoor potted plants in them, but do you paint any outdoor plants?
SP: All the plants in my paintings are houseplants, with the exception of the two paintings I’m working on right now. And I have some paintings with trees. I take reference photos for my paintings, so I’m thinking of ideas with the frame of reference of my home. A lot of the paintings I make during winter are usually of things that are indoors.
NT: If we’re comparing the indoor and outdoor garden, functionally they’re a little different.
SP: Yeah, my indoor plants are almost all just interesting foliage. I have one flowering plant indoors. Cool plants, no flowers. So outdoors is my only time to have flowers. The indoors plants require less constant care. I water them once a week. While I water the outdoor plants almost every other day and weeding is more of an actual participatory activity. There’s a little more sense of pride–like you’re actually doing something–because I start the plants from seed and they start popping up. There’s usually a long period of time where my garden looks terrible, nothing really happening, and then…all the sudden you do have flowers.
Maybe there’s a parallel there with painting, because I often have a long “ugly phase,” or phase where the painting is not there at all and I know where it’s going. Then all of a sudden, you get the painting going at some point.
Windowsill garden inside Sara Suppan’s apartment with hand painted terra cotta pots. Photo by the author.
NT: Tell us about your indoor plants.
SP: I don’t get direct light in my apartment, so most of the plants are shade-tolerant. Some of the succulents and cacti need more direct sunlight, so they get placed on the windowsill. A lot of the plants are propagated from each other, like the pothos and spider plants. There are also plants from Ikea that I’ve had for 4-6 years, so they just keep getting bigger.
I’ve also gotten really into painting terra cotta pots. I don’t treat them quite the same way that I treat my paintings. They are more decorative. I wanted them to be something more than you could just buy at a store.
The next evolution of this space would be to start incorporating hanging plants from the ceiling.
NT: There are parallels between art-making and gardening. How do you balance both practices?
SP: Maybe it’s disappointing, but I don’t think gardening and having plants is in direct relationship to my painting practice. The process of making my paintings is really intense. Very long hours and hard on my body. I’m mostly in the studio many hours a day, so the plants are more of a release. A way to touch soil, grow, and eat something. Rest that keeps the spirits up.
The houseplants are in my paintings, but I’m always interested in painting things that are in my life. Everything I paint is local to my experience. I’m interested in taking the familiar and making it strange, or taking something ordinary and making it extraordinary.
I reflect on this conversation with Sara Suppan quite often as I have a collection of gnomes and tiny sculptures scattered around my house with their own stories. Art, at whatever size, can add a pop of wonder and excitement to almost any environment. Sure, art is usually presented in sterile scenes of white walls with perfect lighting, but once it lives in a home it melds into a space curated by you. There's a possibility for the story to change. ◼︎
Sara Suppan, Wild Lemons, 2023. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72". Image courtesy of the artist.
Banner image: Sara Suppan, Untitled (detail), 2020. Oil on panel, 16 x 20".
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
Help keep independent arts journalism alive in the Twin Cities.