Painted dream

Susan J. Silvester

photo by cody drabble

Find out more about Susan J. Silvester at

Sacramento artist Susan J. Silvester's current show at Gallery 21Ten—a series of paintings, digital illustrations and felt figures—leaves the viewer feeling lost in the woods of a dream, wondering who or what is watching over his or her shoulder. See Silvester's work at the gallery, located at 2110 K Street, through August 3.

How was it working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse?

I started in the first year, when they got all the awards [in 1986]. I met [Paul Reubens] many times. … I worked on the “Penny” cartoons with Nick Park and, specifically, the opening credits. All the animals you see there are things I sculpted: the beaver, the deer, the birds, the monkeys, the little squirrels and the Pee-wee that walked under the little house. Pee-wee's Playhouse was a great experience. It's one of the best jobs I ever had.

Tell me about working on the Back to the Future: The Ride at Universal Studios Florida.

I created more toxic waste than anyone could ever imagine. I was feeling guilty at the time: The man who came [to work on it] was wheezing, he had bad skin, while he sprayed this stuff onto the tree forms that we made. There's a set that had a dinosaur in it, and I built that set. I think it was 30 feet by 70 feet. It was huge, with these forms painted with this disgusting material. I filled a Hudson sprayer with paint—it was so much fun spraying it all.

Describe the first time you went to a gallery and it changed your perspective.

I was about 16. My dad brought us to see the [Marcel] Duchamp exhibit. We drove from New York to Pennsylvania to see “Étant donnés.” It's this one where you're a peeping Tom. You actually look through a little hole and see a woman that's naked. It's a sculpture that has pig skin, so it's very realistic. It was shocking, and I didn't realize that was art.

Where do your ideas come from?

I think of a story in my head, and it just unfolds. I don't plan it. These are places that I live in, and I go there in my head until I become part of that place.

What about medieval painting excites you?

It's so alien, so different from the way we see things. But it's also beautiful at the same time. The colors were very jewel-like when they painted; they used really pure blues and reds and golds.

Which contemporary artists do you follow?

In Sacramento, I love Gale Hart's work. She shows at the Elliott Fouts Gallery. Outside of Sacramento, Laura Owens is who I looked at when I was in school. She's a printmaker and a painter. She did this giant monkey thing that showed me I could do whatever I wanted. Peter Doig is an amazing painter; I love his work, too.

What musical mixtape should people listen to while looking at your work?

Cat Power. I listen to Lily Allen and Kate Nash. A lot of women singers. I like the female voice.

Why is the subject wearing faux fur in “Faux Furry Things”?

I'm vegetarian, and I like to think of [the child's costume] as faux. I don't want to think of the idea of skinning anything. I wanted to imply that they're not, since I'm vegetarian; I just wanted to spout my own views about these things.

Before starting a painting or series, do you follow a ritual?

I have to clean up and start fresh. When I'm starting a new series, everything has to be organized. I clean my space and think about the piece. I have to get into a quiet place, and if there's chaos, [it distracts me]. I'm very visual.

Where do you begin with a new painting?

I work the whole painting. When I bring stuff up, there's a point where everything is sort of blocked in, and then I start going into some detail, then more detail, and then finally, I'll do the face. If you finish [an element] too soon, you may change it a million times. As a painter, you really should, to me, work the whole painting. Pull back, get a whole feel for it, make sure the structure is working.

How does the felt sculpture fit into your series?

These felt sculptures are the outcome of all this painting. I was laid up with my back, and I couldn't paint. I was just so frustrated. You take the felt off a big skein, and then you fold it, roll it and start pouncing on it with this barbed needle. It really hurts when you stab yourself. It's very strange, and I'm very new to it, but I love it. It's so much fun—a great contrast to painting. It's scalable, too: I have visions of working on pieces that are half-life-sized. I like the idea of setting them up in an environment with digital pieces behind it for a diorama effect.