Suellen Johnson Cupp
A young boy seems to gesticulate wildly, his hands spinning like the wheels of the racecars on his T-shirt, his mouth open wide with happy, frantic energy. But the movement of his hands is not some random, wild gesture. It’s a very deliberate motion: the American Sign Language sign for the word “excited.”
The boy, named Joe, is a Deaf student at a Carson City school, and, as depicted in “Excited-Joe,” an oil painting portrait by Reno artist Suellen Johnson Cupp, everything about him conveys excitement.
Cupp conscientiously points out that many members of the Deaf community prefer the word to be capitalized, in defiance of traditional newspaper style, but a preference worth abiding. Cupp herself is not Deaf, though she’s fascinated by the culture and the language of ASL, which she calls, “a silent but powerful language”—a description that could also be readily applied to her own artwork. “It’s not just in the hands. It’s also in the face and in the body.”
“Excited-Joe” is one of a quartet of portraits that form the heart of Cupp’s exhibition Signs & Spheres, currently on display at the Northwest Reno Library, 2325 Robb Drive. Each of the four portraits depicts a Deaf Nevadan youth, mostly high school aged, though Joe is a little younger. Each youth is depicted forming a sign, most of which are circular in motion, and have a meaning that references some kind of circle, like “bubble” or “included,” and each word conveys something about the personality of the speaker—none quite as clearly as the can’t-wait-to-go-to-Disneyland-tomorrow expression of Joe.
Cupp currently teaches a variety of art classes at Oxbow Press, Truckee Meadows Community College, and Very Special Arts of Nevada. The artworks in Signs & Spheres are eclectic, and cover a 10-year period. There are earlier paintings of adult Deaf speakers, slightly more academic in tone than the portraits of the teenagers, and paintings of circular Scandinavian medallions.
“The circle has always been a powerful symbol for me,” she says. Circles and spheres appear throughout her work.
In addition to the paintings, there are mixed media sculptures and prints, like “Tumbleweed in Orbit,” a linoleum engraving that depicts the famous Western symbol of desolation floating in outer space.
“I find solace in the vastness of space,” says Cupp. It’s a ponderous statement, but she says it with a self-deprecating laugh.
Though the work covers a variety of media and subjects, Cupp says the unifying theme is a sense of “quietness and a love of individuals.” The artworks, like sign language, are silent, meaningful gestures.
Cupp says that, for portraits, she likes working with children, because, “Kids are so unaffected and so direct.”
She adds that one benefit of having her work on display at a public library is that it’s seen by a lot of children.
“Kids see the artwork, and they just get so excited,” she says.