Five Questions for SUSAN SORRELL HILL

An interview with painter and illustrator Susan Sorrell Hill.
When I was little, the illustrations in certain books gave me so much pleasure I would pore over them for hours, and the characters became almost as real as friends. Did you have books like that? What were they? Which artists have inspired your work?
Head Tossing
There weren’t many picture books around when I was growing up, so my exposure to imagery and stories came from comic books, the Sunday funnies, a dry encyclopedic set of folk tales illustrated with line drawings, and magazine features like National Geographic’s spreads on Egyptian artifacts and the Bayeux Tapestry. I did love libraries though, and I was a huge fan of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. It wasn’t until college that I discovered—a revelation!—the world of picture books, where words and pictures are so delightfully intertwined. Much later, because of an interest in Jungian psychology, I began reading folk and fairy tales and understanding that they were much more than simple entertainment. I have stories that I pore over now as an adult, and the majority of artists that I admire are from what has been called the Golden Age of Illustration: Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Beatrix Potter, Aubrey Beardsley and others. There are contemporary illustrators that I am in awe of too, including Lisbeth Zwerger, Gennady Spirin, Angela Barrett, Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey. On the Fine Art side of influences, I’m drawn to artists who have used line, color and composition masterfully to tell stories on a larger scale, including Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Gustaf Klimt, and Andrew Wyeth. There are so many past and present narrative-inspired artists working in both intimate and large scale…truly a feast for an artist’s soul.

Demons to Tea

You’ve written and illustrated two story books which are seeking publication: “The Emperor’s Pear Tree” and “The Teapot’s Tale.” But all of your pictures tell stories, and I’m curious about the characters in these works. Do you imagine a character and then put them in a situation? Are there certain types of characters you’re drawn to in art and life? Do you find yourself featuring certain characters again and again?

My usual way of making images is to immerse myself in a story, dream, or feeling, and then to “take a line for a walk,” as Paul Klee once said. It is so much more fun and surprising to see what happens on the paper when I work without an agenda, letting imagination have its say. My strongest images happen this way. The challenge is always to open to the flow of creativity and not let my head get in the way too much. Except in my two books, I don’t think I use the same characters repeatedly. I definitely favor characters, whether animal or human, who are experiencing an inner or outer journey of some sort, but seeing that focus in my work has only come from making the work spontaneously first, not from a considered approach.

 Last Night in My Dream
I love myths and fairy tales because although they seem bright and innocent, they often have a dark side, and they help us to explore our fears and demons. Is this something that informs your work? How do you use your art to explore the darkness?
No Rest no. 1
The older I become, the more clearly I see that everything boils down to a wrestle between fear and trust. That is probably why I love folk and fairytales, Jungian psychology and the Tarot. They are all exploring the universal challenges that come up for humans in life. Someone once said that the most important choice a person could make was whether to believe that it’s a friendly universe or a hostile universe, and in fairy tales there is often a mysterious helper and things working out in the end, no matter how difficult the journey gets along the way. This theme does seem to point to the idea of a friendly universe, despite the obstacles and impediments. Although the Grimm’s tales have been largely sanitized for contemporary readers, the original tales were quite a bit grittier and played up this dark-light balance more dramatically. The current de-emphasis on folk and fairy tales as ‘learning tales’ for Life is a loss, in many scholars’ opinions, perhaps leaving us unprepared for just how hard it can get before the end. From a Jungian point of view, folktales, fairy tales and myths are finely-honed examples of archetypes and universal patterns. The characters and situations are portrayed with such clarity that it is much easier to see the pattern in the story than to see the same sort of universal pattern going on in our own life or the lives of those around us. But it is there, nonetheless, and dropping down into feeling is, for me, the quickest way to tap into this story and make images that evoke that journey. Whether I am reading and thinking about a fairy tale or about my own life, I am always interested in the obstacles and the learning that is taking place. That’s also what I hope will show in my images.

Dancing with the Devil

I love all the creatures in your work, the dragons and goblins and near-humans. Are they entirely from your imagination? Are you inspired by stories of mythical creatures from around the world? What are your favorite unreal creatures?

Drawing creatures and unusual characters from imagination is one of my favorite things, and I only use reference for tricky things like “Which way do thorns point…up or down on the stem?” Working from imagination, there’s no pressure to make it look exactly like something ‘real’ and I like to think that work sourced in the imagination often speaks to much deeper levels than a strictly realistic approach. Reptile sorts of creatures and things with scales and wings seem to show up rather a lot in my work…dragons especially…but wings and animal features on humans are wonderful too. I also love gryphons, gargoyles and demons . I believe that imaginary life is just as—or maybe more—‘real’ as Real Life, and perhaps the same things could be said for dreams?

Demons no. 3

Everyone gets one question from the Proust questionnaire, and here is yours: What natural talent would you like to be gifted with? (besides artistic talent, of course!)

I would like to remember (and understand) all of my dreams. And I’d like to be able to fly too!

First Flight

6 thoughts on “Five Questions for SUSAN SORRELL HILL

  1. Pingback: 5 Questions: artist interview on the Artspan blog | Dream & Vision

  2. Always enjoy your writing and illustrations. I live in an area of landscape painters and sometimes I’m tempted to paint to “sell” what tourists want. Only when I come back to using my imagination and creating stories do I feel like I’m following my heart and I’m finally realizing that I will find an audience and tourists will appreciate the fact that I have something different to say. Hope you’re stories find a publisher!


    • “Painting to suit the marketplace” is so tempting for an artist, especially when the success comparison demon kicks in. I’ve been there, and it’s a dark place! You are absolutely right though, Catherine, following your artist’s heart is the surest way to your *own* audience, one that will love exactly what you – uniquely – do. I believe that…but I confess I do get wiggly sometimes because it can take a while for your kin to find you. Thank you for visiting and commenting here!


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