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When most people walk by heaps of wooden crates or metal scraps, they tend to just keep on walking. When Susan Szenes passes such roadside detritus however, she’s more likely to pluck something out, haul it home and transform it into something beautiful.
It’s a habit the Toronto artist has carried forth from childhood. “I was pretty much always picking stuff out of the garbage and making use of it,” she chuckles.
Like her tendency to rescue discarded wood, Szenes’ artistic talent also hearkens back to elementary school, when she was creating colourful mosaics while other kids were still painting-by-numbers. Szenes didn’t immediately pursue a career as an artist though and after high school, she studied and worked in graphic design. “I did it to satisfy my parents’ idea of a vocation,” she says grinning.
When her father passed away five years ago however, Szenes felt compelled to make a life change. “I didn’t want to be stuck behind a computer,” she says. “You have one life to live and I decided to do my passion.”
At that time, Szenes had recently given birth to her daughter and so she became what she calls “a mom by day, painter by night.” Today, her work still sometimes keeps her up until five or six in the morning. “It can be crazy hours,” she says good-naturedly. “It doesn’t leave for a lot of sleep.”
Szenes’ paintings, often depicting cars trundling across muted landscapes, recall those childhood road trips we’ve all once taken. The wood finds its way into her work by acting as Szenes’ canvas, thus lending her art its own sense of history and time. Because she does so often use wood and steel in her art (her carpentry skills were gleaned from her dad, who was a tradesman), people sometimes assume her work to be done by a man. “Sometimes I’ll be on the porch hammering and my neighbours will walk by and be like, ‘What are you doing?’” she laughs. “I just say, ‘Um… I’m making art.’”
Her paintings also seem to strike a particular chord with Torontonians. One of her pieces was chosen for the cover of the second volume of uTOpia, a collection of essays on Toronto’s arts scene, and more recently, Szenes won the Mayor’s Purchase Award at the 2007 Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. Her winning piece will hang on David Miller’s chamber wall before eventually joining Toronto’s permanent art collection.
While some of her work is explicitly Canadian, Szenes feels her themes can resonate with anybody. It’s not just Torontonians who buy her work either and some of her paintings (and the slabs of Canadian wood upon which they’re painted) can be found hanging on walls anywhere from Great Britain to Eastern Europe.
“There’s a commonality of familiarity in my work,” she says. “They bring you into your childhood and cocoon you in a place where you feel safe.”