WTP Artist: Susan Malmstrom

WTP Artist: Susan Malmstrom

The Deserted Toy Shop

Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor

Susan Malmstrom
Susan Malmstrom

Susan Malmstrom attended California State University, Long Beach, where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a specialization in Printmaking. She was awarded a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts from the University of California at Irvine. Since 2011, she has been installing her cabinet of curiosities, The Repository of Wonders, wherever and whenever possible—most recently at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Malmstrom recently left the east coast of Canada to return to Southern California, and now resides in Pasadena.

Jaeger: Your photographs, appearing in our last issue, feature miniature staged images of different toys, in the tradition of a Victorian-era diorama. What was your artistic process to arrive at this compositional choice, one that also appears in your other photographic series? 

Malmstrom: The first time I received accolades because of an art project was in the fifth grade, for a diorama I created depicting a South American jungle scene. It had a realistic (to my eyes) tapir made of Play-Doh, and a strip of foil represented the Amazon River. I have been addicted to dioramas since then, both experiencing them in museums and creating them myself. My fantasy job would be “Early 20th Century Dioramist.”

"Luck or the Rewards of Labour" from Design for Divination
Susan Malmstrom, “Luck or the Rewards of Labour” from Design for Divination

Jaeger: This composition is also reminiscent of religious art: friezes and tympanums, especially in your series Design for Divination. How conscious a choice was this allusion to the religious in both series?

Malmstrom: Like many of us, I have a complicated history with institutionalized religion. As a child, I attended a Catholic church with my mother and sister. I liked the ritual comfort of it, and the antiquity of the physical surroundings. Eventually I rejected what they were espousing, although the seeds of superstition that continue to dog me were probably born there. When I was around 12, my mom decided we were not Catholic (or even Christian) anymore, and we started going to a local Spiritualist church. This place mostly existed as an excuse for a weekly psychic fair—the most fun form of religion a pre-teen could possibly have access to—in fact, I am still a fairly adept tarot card reader as a direct result. My Design for Divination series, which is an exploration of spirituality, uses images from art history, found objects, and portraits to create works in the style of the cards used in an old German game that became a popular fortune-telling system (Petit Lenormand) in France in the 1800s. I try to give each of these images a veneer of religiosity to them—essentially combining the exposure to the two forms of religion that I had growing up.

As for the Deserted Toyshop series, I would say that whenever we interact with toys we become directors of plays that we improvise or even gods of our own created miniature universes. Which is really what any artist is doing when they fill whatever matrix they have chosen to work on (canvas, paper, etc.) as they see fit.

Susan Malmstrom, "Lucky Rabbit," photograph on paper
Susan Malmstrom, Lucky Rabbit, photograph on paper

Jaeger: Where do you find the materials to create these pieces? Could you walk us through how you took interest in the objects in, for example, “Lucky Rabbit?”

Malmstrom: I love odd objects, and using them to create art gives me an excuse to collect them. The earliest memory I have is that of being in a junk shop, where I was allowed to pick two items. I chose a non-working antique box camera, without any clue as to what it was, and a small suitcase with a felt tiger glued to the front. From then on, flea markets, swap meets, and other purveyors of junk were a major source of pleasure and have remained so throughout my life. The only challenge is letting things go. As a result, I have a mass of crazy stuff that constantly thwarts attempts at organization.

There is a saying that all artwork is a self-portrait. Specific to “Lucky Rabbit,” alligators turn up in a lot of my work; I collected toys and statues of them growing up in Florida. For me they represent a threat of brute force hiding just below the surface, ready to pull you under at any moment. The happy, forward-looking rabbit in this image is as superstitious as I am. He is relying on a good luck charm in the guise of a compatriot’s severed foot to keep him safe from any dangers that lurk nearby. His parasol shields the gators from his sight; what he can’t see can’t hurt him, so he continues on his jaunty way.

Susan Malmstrom, "Bottom of the Pool," photograph on paper
Susan Malmstrom, Bottom of the Pool, photograph on paper

Jaeger: One of the great joys of your work is the weird and surprising combinations of different materials. Could you talk about some of the compositional choices that you make, for instance, in “Bottom of the Pool?”

Malmstrom: The poor little dehydrated blowfish with glued-on google eyes and straw hat, along with her nemeses, again a pair of alligators (actually one alligator made from garishly painted seashells) were found in a tiny but incredibly well-organized shop that sold thousands of shells and various souvenirs on a strip of beach in Cocoa, Florida. My husband and I vacationed there several years ago, and I couldn’t believe a beloved shop of my youth was still in business, so I had to buy something.

Behind the toys is a photograph that I took of a diorama backdrop that is part of a presentation on the evolution of sea life in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. It’s beautiful and very antique looking, but slightly disturbing. It reminds me of swimming in the ocean — always a creepy prospect, as you don’t know what’s really down there beneath you.

Jaeger: You write: “Toys have served as anthropomorphized symbols and stand-ins for childhood, growth, and memory throughout the spectrum of Western contemporary culture.” While the youthful element is present in your work, it is also contrasted with the vintage or Victorian feel of the pieces. Why did you choose to create this juxtaposition in your work?

Malmstrom: Although I was employing children’s toys as the actors in each created scene, I was making work aimed at an adult sensibility. The works were also physically tiny. The images were produced as 3” x 3” prints, and each one had a custom frame that was ornate and elaborate but very small, with outside dimensions of 6” x 6”. So the built-in cute factor of the props and the final presentation had to be overcome if the work was going to be taken seriously by a mature audience. That was the biggest challenge of the series.

Susan Malmstrom, "Preferring Cans to Carrots," photograph on paper
Susan Malmstrom, Preferring Cans to Carrots, photograph on paper

Jaeger: In your artist’s statement you write that your photographs “transform real objects existing in time and space into non-reality based, allegorical imagery; exploring personal and collective memory.” Could you talk about the process of creating allegorical imagery, for instance, in “Preferring Cans to Carrots”?

Malmstrom: The goat in “Preferring Cans to Carrots” represents the approach of Western modern culture to the things that should sustain us. We seem to prefer canned junk that’s devoid of nutritive value but is easy, fast and requires little skill of preparation or understanding. That’s my take, anyway. When viewers look at my images and read into them something completely different from the original intention, I feel that their own interpretation is just as valid.

Jaeger: You completed your undergraduate studies at California State University, Long Beach, with a specialization in printmaking. Could you talk about your artistic journey from printmaking to your current your work? 

Malmstrom: I was always fascinated with photography. I’m one of those people that always had cameras with them, even though they were little plastic cheap ones until I went to college. When I was attending Cal State, they were transitioning the photography department out of the technical education department and into the art department, so they allowed me to pursue a printmaking degree while I concentrated on photo processes. I went on to get my MFA at the University of California at Irvine, where I worked strictly in photography. This was still before the digital age, so it was all old school style film and darkroom work.

When my husband and I immigrated to Canada in 2004, we were living in a beautiful but rural, remote area, and I was unable to get the chemicals and papers that I used without great expense and bother. My husband had used Photoshop during his career as a commercial art director, and he convinced me that I could get the effects I wanted with much more accuracy and ease with digital technology; with the bonus that I wouldn’t need the paper and chemicals that were eluding me. After resisting the digital alternative for years, I never went back once I gave it a try. All of my old equipment, including a 1940s-era 4×5 enlarger that a camera shop in California had specially built for me, was given away. It was a good trade-off, though—digital editing is a joy, vastly preferable to splashing around in a darkroom.

Installation of Susan Malmstrom's The Repository of Wonders at Arcadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Installation of Susan Malmstrom’s The Repository of Wonders at Arcadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia

Jaeger: You have created your own traveling exhibit of curiosities, The Repository of Wonders. Could you talk about this exhibit and its influence on/connection with your current project?

Malmstrom: The Repository began as a bit of a performance art sort of prank. I was given the opportunity to exhibit in a walled-off space within an artists’ run center in Nova Scotia that measured exactly 9 feet by 9 feet.  Most artists that exhibited in this former closet would just hang a few small pieces or works in progress, but I wanted the odd space itself to dictate the overall installation. The solution for me was a Victorian/Edwardian-style museum with as much stuff as could possibly be crammed into it. It was so much fun and was so well received that it took on a life of its own. It has had many formal showings since then (albeit in much larger spaces) with several sub-series emerging from the original installation.

For instance, in 2013 the provincial artistic funding agency, Arts Nova Scotia, awarded The Repository a grant to create work which backed my claim that the mammal and bird specimens housed at the Natural History Museum of Halifax once belonged to my museum. Another aspect of The Repository is that my artistic collaborator, photographer Elizabeth Kenneday, has worked with me to create a fictitious Edwardian-era staff that originally founded the collection that we eventually inherited, so there has been a lot of spin-off work from that as well.

I’d have to say that my work with The Repository is very consuming, as it relies on a lot of writing and research, which means there is a spillover of Edwardian-era sensibility into everything else that I work on, including other series such as The Deserted Toyshop.

Jaeger: What are some of your influences, artistic or otherwise? 

Malmstrom: My biggest influences have been writers because growing up I always had access to books, but not to art. My favorite authors as a young person were H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Conan Doyle. I now mostly read writers such as Angela Carter, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Waters—those whose work is very evocative with a strong female sensibility. 

Probably the biggest influences on my work, though, are the artist friends that I am fortunate enough to collaborate with on various projects, such as Montreal-based poet and writer Wanda Waterman. She writes beautiful work and lets me illustrate it; conversely, I can send her an image and she will write something based on it. Another is Elizabeth Kenneday, whom I mentioned earlier, who keeps the spirit of The Repository alive. Also artist Brandt Eisner, who is based in Nova Scotia, whose work explores sex and gender issues. We teamed up to produce the ongoing series Odd Jobs, which examines what someone’s nightmare might look like according to their vocation (fortune teller, librarian, exterminator, and more). Brandt supplies each character, and I provide the environment that his characters occupy.

The joy of collaborating is that the end result is something that is unlike anything that you or the other artist would have created on your own. It’s as though the combination of your individual personalities (a sort of third entity) created it, and that is always exciting.

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