Souvenirs from a Month in Key West

June 18, 2019

Suzanna Fields ’97 (left) at the Studios at Key West, working on a piece inspired by ivory bush coral, native to the Keys. “Steady Seep” (right), 2019, ink and acrylic on synthetic paper, 24 by 24 inches.

Each year, hundreds of creative artists from around the world apply for a residency at the Studios of Key West.   

There they are given a one-month stay in an artist’s cottage, studio space, and a bicycle, but most importantly, the time and space to create new work and ways of working amidst the rich culture of America’s southernmost island city.

Thirty-eight artists were chosen for the 2018–19 season, and one of them was painter Suzanna Fields ’97.    

Suzanna Fields ’97 (left) at the Studios at Key West, working on a piece inspired by ivory bush coral, native to the Keys. “Steady Seep” (right), 2019, ink and acrylic on synthetic paper, 24 by 24 inches.

“It was definitely a thrill to be chosen,” said Fields. “Being granted a residency when there are only a handful of spaces per year feels like you won the lottery. You don’t take it for granted.”

Fields’ residency ran from February to March and included a two-day workshop, “Painting Possibility,” that she gave to a full studio of artists ranging in age from 10 to 80. The experience is designed to be interdisciplinary; her companion artists in residence were a playwright/director and a duo of musicians.

“There was loads of time to just paint, work out new ideas, and soak in the natural and cultural anomaly that is the Keys,” she said.

The cottage from the early 20th century and studio where Fields worked and stayed as a Key West artist in residence.

“Being granted a residency when there are only a handful of spaces per year feels like you won the lottery. You don't take it for granted.”
Artist Suzanna Fields '97

Exploring the possibilities of artistic inspiration is something that takes Fields back to her days as a studio art and English major at Mary Baldwin.

“Mary Baldwin is the reason I make art,” she said. “I didn’t think I had any artistic ability until I was a junior.”

It was an art history class with Associate Professor Emerita of Art History Marlena Hobson during her sophomore year that sparked her interest and led her to take a studio art class.

“I signed up for Basic Drawing and was terrified I would humiliate myself and tank my GPA,” she said. “I made a gesture drawing of my hand in [Professor Emeritus of Art] Paul Ryan’s class and was stunned I could draw.”

Fields examines one of her inspirations up close: the ancient coral (oolitic limestone) of the Coral Castle in Florida City.

“Mary Baldwin is the reason I make art. I didn’t think I had any artistic ability until I was a junior.”
Artist Suzanna Fields '97

That revelation was the beginning of her career as a painter. She decided to pursue a studio art major in addition to her English degree, and received the Ulysse Desportes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Studio Art when she was a senior. After graduation, she built her portfolio for two years before attending graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned a master of fine arts in painting, summa cum laude, in 2001.

“I had the two perfect professors for me at that moment in my life, Marlena and Paul,” she said. “I keep in touch with both, 22 years on. I feel very grateful for that.”

Spotted during Fields’ Key West travels

Now back in her Richmond studio finishing the pieces inspired during her residency, Fields is putting her own artistic lens on the natural environment of the Keys.

“The months following my return is when those Key West experiences really start to bubble up in the work,” she said. “That is one of the most elusive parts of the creative process, but also one of my favorites.”                

One piece is “Steady Seep,” which she worked on in Key West and finished back in her home studio. Part of a series of four, the painting’s lozenge-like forms relate to coral as well as diatoms or small sea organisms.

She’s also starting a series inspired by ideas about adaptation and invasion among plant and animal species, themes in which she became interested while in the Keys.

“That is the thing about being immersed in a new place. It is always a bit of surprise what comes to the surface that you didn’t expect.”

Fields often plays with scale in her work. “Steady Seep” (detail, left) is at the micro level while “Red Tide” (working title, right), 24 x 24 inches, is macro/micro. “Red Tide” is the first work from Suzanna’s adaptation and invasion series, inspired by aerial images of the red tide and the scales of a tegu lizard.

“That is the thing about being immersed in a new place. It is always a bit of surprise what comes to the surface that you didn't expect.”
Artist Suzanna Fields '97

Fields is participating in a group exhibition The Summer Swan Invitational this summer at the Swan Coach House Gallery in Atlanta, and she has a solo exhibition opening in 2020 at the Quirk Gallery in Richmond.

She has been recognized with a Bethesda Painting Award, a Liquitex Purchase Prize, and a Virginia Center for the Arts Fellowship, among others, and her work is in private and public collections including the Eleanor Wilson Museum, Capital One, Bill and Pam Royall, Phillip Morris, and Shepard and Amanda Fairey. For more about Fields, please visit suzannafields.com.

"Red Tide" (detail), Fields' most recently completed painting