Sudie Rakusin is two things: a renowned feminist artist and ardent animal lover.
In fact, animals are a major influence in Rakusin’s work and the best-selling artist feels “closer to them than most humans.”
“They are in almost every piece of work I do. I draw, paint, and sculpt them and when I do, it feels like I am running my hands over the contours of their muzzles and bodies.”
But Rakusin is perhaps most well known for her portraits of goddesses and female saints, black-and-white illustrations and vibrant paintings which feature womyn–beautiful and strong, courageous and sensual. Her work is a visual feast of female luminosity and grace, with a non-traditional feminist iconography; each portrait thoughtful and inspiring.
Her pen-and-ink illustrations have been featured in the interiors and on the covers of best-selling feminist books, including Wickedary by the late Mary Daly and The Spindle and Other Lesbian Fairy Tales by feminist playwright Carolyn Gage. Her newest project features 19 full-color Imagined Saints and 36 pen-and-ink Multicultural Goddesses in Journey Cards: Multicultural Goddesses and Imagined Saints for Guidance, Epiphanies and Revelations.
Sudie Rakusin is much like her art– passionate, beautiful, strong. In my interview with Rakusin, the celebrated artist shared her thoughts on success in the art world, why she has a strong connection to animals, and the three words she says each time she steps up to her easel.
Sudie, you are a successful painter, sculptor, writer, and publisher. How do you define yourself?
I’m an artist and lover of animals.
At what age did you realize you had a passion for art?
I have always known I was an artist. It has been the one sure thing I have known since I was a child. My parents gave me an easel that was waiting for me when I came back from my half-day at kindergarten.
I do believe I came into this life an artist and it was a given this would be my path.
What does “living as an artist” mean for you?
“Living as an artist” is not something I think about on a conscious plane.
Doing art in some form or fashion is a constant. I have awakened in the middle of the night with ideas for chandeliers and sconces made of copper plumbing pipe and crystals and drawn them on the pad I keep by my bedside.
I mix colors in my mind as I drive—what hues, tints, and shades would make the color of those leaves, that sunset? I see light and shadow as it falls on a person’s face to whom I am speaking. Waiting for a movie to begin, I sketch on napkins. In my mind I resolve problems in the painting I am doing—to add or erase and start anew.
I write lists of things to change or complete in the present work. I put down ideas in my sketch book that months later I discover. My sketch book is a trove of thoughts and ideas for present and future work. Not only are there visual images, there are words: quotes from books, movies, poems, songs, interviews.
A few examples: “I wake up curious every morning”—Diane Sawyer; “We die only once and for a very long time”—Moliere; “Go wherever you are drawn to go and dance on your way”—Rumi; “I am not afraid. This is what I am born to do”—Joan of Arc.
So, to answer your question, I know no other way to live or to be.
When you’re in the moment of creating art, what is your creative process like? Do you begin with an end-result in mind or does it happen spontaneously?
Something sparks me.
For example, when the magazine Of a Like Mind was being published, it would feature a theme for each issue and have a number of goddesses that spoke to the theme. I would read about those goddesses and images would come. I would start to draw.
I submitted so many drawings that the editors, Lynnie Levy and Jade River, started sending me the goddess list months ahead of time and I’d draw six to ten goddesses. Soon thereafter they honored me with my own “centerfold” titled “Sudie Rakusin’s Gallery”!
Images inspire me, as well. I saw a large, twisted fuschia-colored tree in a magazine advertisement and it became the inspiration for the center of my last big painting. The painting grew into a huge endeavor, for which I created and incorporated a shelf with a working drawer, a sculpted frog, a sculpted and beaded iguana, and a sculpted bald eagle that swings on fishing line hung from a hook at the top of the canvas.
I do a lot of drawing before the image that feels right emerges. For my large paintings, there are pages of drawings before the placement of designs, humans, and animals coalesces. Then there are pages of detailed color drawings of the patterns.
I come initially to the canvas with a clear idea, but within this structure, things change and shift and the final work is similar, but never exactly as it was first imagined.
My sculpting starts similarly with a sketch idea. But with all my work, something kicks in that is completely out of my conscious control, where my hands are moving, usually very fast. Time passes and I step back to see what has been created.
I have come to believe I was given a gift from the Divine. My job has been to hone this skill and then to keep myself, as the vessel or conduit, as clear as possible, so whatever is coming through has a debris-free passage. Each time, I step up to my table or easel with my art supplies at the ready and pray, “Bring it on.”
What was it like to have worked with some of our country’s greatest radical feminists, including Carolyn Gage and the late Mary Daly? Are there feminists today that you’d love to work with, but haven’t yet?
Each womon afforded me a different experience.
For the most part, the way it has worked is that I am sent the manuscript and once again images emerge from the words. I draw and submit the work.
For the Wickedary, I did 40 drawings from which Mary Daly chose 30, plus the end sheet, frontispiece, and cover. I did drawings for other Mary Daly books: Amazon Grace, Quintessence and its Italian-language edition Quintessenza, and Outercourse. She was a brilliant philosopher—a prophet—but an extremely difficult person to work with. Still, her writing inspired art that she considered proficient and appropriate enough to accompany her words, and for this I am grateful.
In the 80’s, for Patricia Monaghan’s book of poetry, Season of the Witch, I did 13 drawings. Carolyn Gage sent me the manuscript for her short story “The Princess of Pain” that she published in The Spindle & Other Lesbian Fairy Tales, and I did ten drawings of the goddesses the princess met along her journey. This felt like a true collaboration. I was not working for her, but with her.
I am hoping to work with Annie Finch on a future book. What must happen for me to be able to work with writers is that their words must conjure up images in me. I really do need to love their work, but I am always open to the possibility of working with other womyn interested in this sort of collaboration.
You also write and illustrate your own children’s book series based on your Great Dane, Savannah Blue (The Dear Calla Roo…Love, Savannah Blue series). When did you first decide to write and illustrate for children?
When my sister’s daughter, Calla Ruth, was about seven years old, she came to visit me. Savannah Blue, my Great Dane, and she really bonded. I started writing letters to Calla as Savannah, sending drawings, photos, Valentines. My sister kept all of the letters in a binder and read them to Calla as a bedtime story. Finally my sister said I needed to make a children’s book.
Savannah Blue is a character with a big personality. It was easy to imagine this. After several stops and starts, the format wouldn’t come. I became discouraged and put it all away.
Then one day, I got stung by a wasp. Being allergic, my leg swelled up and I had to take an antihistamine. For some reason, this shut down the reasoning part of my brain and I awoke the next day knowing that each book would be one letter written by Savannah Blue with a drawing on every page.
Truthfully, this was not something I saw myself doing. It didn’t come out of a need to create a commercially viable, money-making success. It came out of a love for my niece and beloved dog.
How does Savannah Blue like her celebrity status?
Savannah Blue is quite smitten with her own fame. She travels nationally on book tours and is currently under contract for a Saturday morning cartoon series, a comic strip, a full-length blockbuster movie, and a Beanie Baby in her image.
I love that you created two Coloring Books for Big Girls. What inspired you to create these whimsical books for grown women? How have women responded?
In the early and mid 80’s, I did two 8 1/2” x 11” blank journals. Each had 50 black and white drawings interspersed throughout 225 pages. Womyn would tell me they wanted to color the drawings, but were hesitant.
The thought came to make coloring books where I could give womyn “permission” to color. Plus I didn’t know of any coloring books specifically targeted towards womyn that had actual images of us.
The captions came from my love of words and my love of combining words with images. Womyn appreciate these books for the positive reflections of themselves and the life-affirming, self-loving words.
What words of advice do you have for young artists and writers today?
Stay open, curious; work all the time; fill sketch books, journals; learn new techniques; read all the time; accept that rejection (and acceptance) will be a constant.
Come to understand that rejection hurts no matter what individual, bookstore, juror, gallery, book publisher, magazine, or publication is doing the rejecting. Then, understand this is one person’s or one publication’s opinion and it doesn’t change the intrinsic quality or value of your work.
Plus, when you are rejected, there is always a reason. When you see what that publication, magazine, bookstore, gallery, or juror has chosen, you will know why you were not. And it is okay. You are okay. Keep submitting. Keep doing your work, honing your craft. No one can take this away from you.
For more information: SudieRakusin.com
[This interview is excerpted from N. E. Francis’s new book, In Her Words: 25 Interviews with Kick-Ass Women in Arts & Entertainment, now available on Amazon.com. © All Rights Reserved.]