94 yr old self taught portrait artist uses her talent to find answers...

 

I am pleased and honored to be able to feature this talented local artist as my 1st featured artist on my Art Barn Blog.

Susan Jane Dillon was born in 1924 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of three, when her beloved mother was diagnosed with Tubercluosis. Forced to leave her home due to risk of contagion, Susan and her sister were sent to live with their grandparents in Missouri. Here, Susan stayed for the next three years of her life. Although it was a loving environment, Susan yearned for her mother and father. At the age of six, she was able to move back to them in Boulder, Colorado where her parents had relocated to give her mother access to drier air to remedy symptoms of the awful disease she continued to be plagued with...

(Photographed here: Susan Jane on the left, with her older sister, Martha)

ART BARN: Susan, at what age did you become interested in art?

SUSAN: I remember being 10 yrs old, sitting at the kitchen table in our Boulder home. My mother was at the sink. I was noticing her facial features captured by the sunlight streaming in thru the window. I started to sketch her. “Hold still mother”, I said, “I am trying to draw you...”

ART BARN: Was there a certain individual or experience that inspired your artistic talent?

SUSAN: Yes. I missed my mother and father so much when I was separated from them. I wanted to draw them- so that they would always be with me. I was earnest in wanting to capture their faces in time as my way of holding them close forever. It was from this that I became interested in drawing people. I was never interested in drawing landscapes...just people.
(Watercolor sketch by Susan Jane in her younger years)

ART BARN: How did you learn portrait art; how to draw faces?

SUSAN: I taught myself. I never had any extracurricular art classes as a child or teenager. My interest led me to notice people’s facial features as shadows and lines. I noticed how the light would highlight the face and I started to translate this onto my sketch pad by using shading techniques. I soon realized how by simply blending the charcoal on the paper, the cheek bones would come towards me, the forehead would round out and the nose would become pronounced. Soon, I would be staring at a 3-dimensional face on my 2-dimensional flat sheet of paper simply by emphasizing the shadows and light thru shading and blending.

ART BARN: How did your interest in portrait art progress? What direction(s) did it take you in?

SUSAN: I was always drawing in my free time as a young person. I became passionate about drawing people. My parents recognized my interest and supported it. They encouraged me to apply to art school after graduating from Boulder High School in 1942. I was in Boulder High Schools 1st graduating class.

ART BARN: Where did you go to art school?

SUSAN: I applied to the Kansas City Missouri Art Institute and was accepted.

ART BARN: What was the application process like?

SUSAN: I sent them five portrait drawings I had done. They accepted me after receiving the drawings and offered me a full ride scholarship! 
(Oil pastel portrait by Susan Jane of her daughter, Leslie)

ART BARN: Impressive! Did you graduate from The Kansas City Missouri Art Institute?

SUSAN: No. I transferred to The Chicago Art Institute as a Sophmore. I was accepted and continued my portrait study there, graduating in 1947 with a degree in Fine Art and a second degree in Commercial Art.

 

(Photograph shows Susan Jane front & center, on the steps of The Chicago Art Institute in 1945 with classmates)

 

 

ART BARN: Any notable moments during your college experience as a portrait artist at some of the finest art schools in the country? 

SUSAN: Yes. I was surrounded by eccentric individuals in art school. It was 1943 and my upbringing was proper and formal, so it was a real eye opener for me! <chuckle> I remember one experience, where a French man was our model for a semester. He was my first nude. We became good friends and often went to lunch. It was never a romantic interest; just friends. But quite the experience to be in a class drawing his anatomy and then hanging out as friends <laughter>!

ART BARN: That’s quite the mental image! <LOL> Anything else?

SUSAN: I remember my art instructors being very strict. They would walk around and slap the pencil out of our hand if they didn’t think we were doing a good job; or, grab our pencil and make changes on our drawing...

ART BARN: Did you ever sell your artwork? Any commissions? Was your artwork ever on display?

SUSAN: Yes, during my time at The Chicago Art Institute, I drew my greatest masterpiece. It was of an Eastern Indian man. He was my model every day for one week. My finished masterpiece of him was displayed in The Chicago Art Institute for several years following.

(Oil painting done by Susan Jane in 1946 at The Chicago Art Institute)

...I remember a commissioned request I got from a man to paint an oil portrait of his wife (life-sized full body). He asked what I would charge. I quickly thought of the most I could justify charging and blurted out: “$50!” ...He agreed to the price (and at that moment I knew I should have charged him more!) and asked me to finish the piece in 3 days. I had to ask some of my fellow art school students to help me to get it done in his time frame! For three days we stayed up all night finishing the portrait of his wife. He loved it, and I was exhausted!

...After I graduated college, I moved back to Boulder and would put ads in the newspaper and at The University of Colorado at Boulder to get jobs doing portraits for people. I got more business than I could accept and this is how I made a living for years. I painted hundreds of portraits for people.

 

(Oil painting by Susan Jane. This is Susan’s oldest granddaughter with her mother in 1976)

ART BARN: What is your favorite portrait you ever did?

SUSAN: A portrait of my sister.

ART BARN: Do you still have it?

SUSAN: No. It hung in my sister’s home after she married and had children. I don’t know where it is now. <sigh>

ART BARN: You have had quite the life, Susan. You mentioned in our ‘behind the scenes interview’ that you lost your sister, mother and father all within three years when you were in your 30’s?

SUSAN: Yes, my sister passed away when she was in her early 40’s. My mother died one year later. Tuberculosis finally took her life. Then, my father died from a broken heart a year after my mother’s passing. It was a tremendous loss in a short time.

ART BARN: Indeed. That must have been so difficult to cope thru.

SUSAN: It was.

ART BARN: How did you manage to cope thru that devastating loss and also raise your three children?

 

(Photographed here: Susan Jane with her son, Charles jr. in 1952)


SUSAN: I put one foot in front of the other, got up early every morning and dressed nicely for the day, never felt sorry for myself, surrounded myself by neighbors and friends, and I kept painting. I did a portrait of each of my children, amongst other paintings.

(Oil painting by Susan Jane of her daughter, Thama)



ART BARN: From learning about your life, it sounds as if your drawing and painting have been a valuable outlet for you from your childhood on?

SUSAN: Yes, creating art has been an answer for me in life when there were no answers otherwise.
(Susan Jane next to one of her oil paintings)

ART BARN: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

SUSAN: Through the eyes of an artist, life takes on a richness.

ART BARN: Final question, Susan: what piece of advice can you offer as the key to longevity?

SUSAN: I would tell people to live to their potential no matter what their age is, stay active (always keep moving), be self-sufficient, be independent and to not say, “I can’t” but rather to say, “I can” more often than not! 
 . 
(Pictured here: Susan Jane, age 94 and still drawing. She is currently working on a portrait of her oldest great grandchild, Adelyn)
Susan Jane Dillon currently resides in Denver, Colorado. She lives independently and is in perfect health. Don’t be surprised if you see her walking around Whole Foods, in 2-inch heels and dressed to the nines. Go up and hug her and she will embrace you as if you’re related...and, she may ask you to “hold still” so that she can sketch your face...or invite you over for coffee to see her beautiful antique collection...

 

Written by: Anna Dillon Wall, oldest grandchild of Susan Jane Dillon

 

(Photographed here: Susan Jane and Anna)

 


4 comments

  • Just happened to come across this while looking for Sue’s current phone number. Have known Sue (as we called her…Mrs. Dillon) since 1965 as our parents were dear friends way back then. Over the years we became close (1970-1980’s). Sue was a major influence in my life at that time and also Charles Senior. However, I did not know until now after reading her background of what a fine talented artist she was and still is. Anna…such a incredible and worthy profile interview of your Grandmother! A BEAUTIFUL TRIBUTE to Susan Jane Dillon. Kate E. Vess

    Kate (Kathy Mitchell) Vess
  • This is such a nice story. Thanks for the inspiration…

    Charles M
  • What a wonderful story about Charlie, Leslie and Thama’s mother!!

    Sue Lilly
  • We loved reading this! Susan is such an inspiration!

    Tripp and WIllow

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