Arts & Culture · Fine Art · Lifestyle

CHANGE: Suzanne Russell’s Response to Our March Challenge

This is our frequent contributor Suzanne Russell‘s response to our March Challenge, in which we urge our readers to bring some change—however minimal—into their lives.

wvfc suzanne painting 2 20130121_SRussell-41_1240pxWinter Knowledge (for Delmore Schwartz), by Suzanne Russell, 2012, 50.8 x 70.9 x 2.75 in., acrylic and oil paint on canvas. (Photo: Paul Takeuchi)


“Today I am challenging myself to pursue my international art world ambitions, despite my age. But it’s not a small change! I am going to need a lot of help from my inner lioness.”

I think of my life as unpredictable, dynamic, and spontaneous. I work on art projects with other artists, do legal and social work for refugees (which I also call my artwork), dabble in writing, and make artwork alone in my studio in Copenhagen. No two days are the same, and I appreciate the freedom I have to create whatever I want to create. But I have recently discovered an important area in my life in which I have become stuck. Not nail-polish-color or hairstyle stuck. Seriously stuck in a way that could cause me to have regrets about what I have accomplished in my life.

I have always been very ambitious. When I moved to Denmark in 1988, there was no international art scene here. I was not part of the Danish art system, so I did my own work and waited for my big break to come. But I will be turning 54 soon, and I am still waiting. Despite taking advantage of the opportunities around me, I have not succeeded in having the international art career that I always dreamed of. I wish I were satisfied with what I have accomplished, but I’m not.

How did I get stuck? And is it too late to get unstuck? Is it ridiculous of me to even think that I could still have an international art career at this point in my life? These questions have caused me anxiety and unhappiness, and a loss of self-confidence. I haven’t lived up to my own expectations.

In January of this year, I went to see MOMA’s first large painting-only survey since 1958. In The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, I experienced work by artists who are thinking about painting in many of the same ways that I am thinking about painting. Most of them are younger than I am, but a couple of the artists are middle-aged, like me. The big difference between them and me is that they have spent the past ten to thirty-odd years working hard to promote their work and build professional, international careers. Their work is hanging at MOMA, while mine is hanging in homes and offices in Denmark.

As I looked carefully at each artist’s work, I had a dialog with the artist in my head. I examined how each artist approaches the idea of making a painting. I felt as if I were talking to good friends, and it was exhilarating. Later, I read and reread Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the show in The New Yorker. I agreed with most of Schjeldahl’s assessments, but I wanted to talk to him about the artists whose work he didn’t write about. I even made my own list of the many relevant painters who weren’t included in the show. It was then that I realized how much I still want to be part of the conversation about what painting is and means today.

I am back in my beautiful studio in Copenhagen now, working with new energy and determination. My work may never be in MOMA, but I am committed to trying to get my artwork seen by a larger, more diverse art audience. I have challenged myself to make a real effort to break out of my relative isolation in Denmark so that I can participate in meaningful discussions about the role of painting in today’s international world.

To do this, I have to get in touch with my inner lioness and allow myself to roar. I know that I am brave and fierce. I am aware of all the practical steps that I need to take in order to create opportunities to develop my art career. Sure, I fear rejection and failure. But I have gotten to a point in my life where I feel that I have very little to lose and everything to gain. It is my personality and my habit to be low-key, even self-effacing, so it is going to be a big challenge for me to be self-promoting. But in years to come, it is important for me that I know that I did my best to achieve my dreams. And I am not going to give up now because of my age!

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  • Elizabeth Titus March 24, 2015 at 9:01 am

    Dear Suzanne,

    How I admire your pluck and courage! Of course, striving for more in one’s life and career is never easy, but you have taken a deep breath and made the first step. I’m inspired by your story, and will think of it as I, too, attempt to go to the next step as a writer, a decade older than you are!


  • Diane Dettmann March 23, 2015 at 10:45 am

    You’re so welcome, Suzanne! Thanks so much for the congrats on the book. It took three years of research and rewriting. I’ll be happy to see it in print. Let’s inspire each other! We have to keep our dreams alive. 🙂 Diane

  • Suzanne March 23, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Dear Diane, Congratulations on your upcoming book! I look forward to reading it when it comes out it May. If you don’t mind, I will use you as inspiration whenever I feel that it’s silly to keep dreaming. Thank you for sharing your experience. All my best, Suzanne

  • Diane Dettmann March 23, 2015 at 9:20 am

    I started following my writing dream in my late forties, but work and other responsibilities got in the way. After retiring from teaching in 2006, I finally had the time and energy to devote to my writing. My first novel, Courageous Footsteps, set in a WWII Japanese internment camp will be released in May. I fear rejection too, but heck at sixty-seven, what do I have to lose? Follow your dream, Suzanne, and keep going! Wishing you the best.

  • Susanna Gaertner March 23, 2015 at 7:39 am

    I kept nodding my head in recognition of the push-pull in wanting/needing to promote oneself while keeping in tune with one’s innate self-effacer. You’ve so beautifully stated what I am sure many more than just me feel about our still unrecognized ambitions as we approach–or are already in–out middle years.