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Artist Profile: Susan Burrows Dabney

The rich, deep channels of a newly tilled field—a favorite subject for oil painter Susan Burrows Dabney—pop from the walls of her studio. Some are in winter with snow burnishing the jagged edges, others roll through summer fields newly harvested and buttressed against a lush hillside meadow. And one, The Furrows of Biggs (shown, top), is so big, so wild, so experiential that it spans two separate canvases. Her paint, layered and heavy, barely keeps to the framed work of the diptych.

Although Burrows Dabney is widely collected and shown in prominent homes around the world, for the last few years she’s had a hard time getting back into her studio … sometimes life gets in the way of art … and in this case Burrows Dabney’s world turned upside down.

“Light and love and energy have always been my philosophy,” she says, holding onto one of her art journals. “And these last few years have been the greatest test of all."

It was so bad she couldn’t even pick up her old brushes without feeling the rush of everything that had soured in her life.

Instead of painting she found herself cooking. The nurturing comfort of food: warm, thick, life-sustaining pots of her daughter’s favorites. To make the leap from stove to studio she had a woodworker ( create a new set of paintbrushes, designed from her beloved wooden cooking spoons. He sawed off the old handles and gave each brush a different wood—cherry, walnut, even apricot—completely altering the feeling of them.

“It was a way to change the old energy I wanted nothing to do with, into something clean and new,” she says. She bends over to a five-gallon bucket aproned with her brushes around the outside. The bucket overflows with her plein air tools: jars, sketchbooks and more brushes. Pulling out one with a long, cherry-handle, she hefts it for weight and balance. “I knew the minute I held these brushes that I would be painting again.”

Standing against the wall is a large piece, Strength and Beauty in the Middle East (shown, above), exemplifying the other side of Burrows Dabney’s work. Her interior landscapes are told in the symbols of still life paintings, flowers—in vases, on tables, dropping petals—and the mosaic background she always includes in these pieces.

“About twelve years ago I went to Rome and was transformed by the mosaics in the Basilica di San Clemente,” she says, picking up a postcard she keeps of the L’abside e l’Arco Trionfale Apse and Triumphal Arch. The mosaic work is detailed, simple and complicated. “For me it spoke to the depth of my heart and soul. It still does.”

A close look at any of her still life paintings reveal a sort of code told in mosaic. Like brush strokes, they add another layer of intensity to her oracular work.

Strength and Beauty in the Middle East was done last February when Hosni Mubarak was ousted from Egypt. Burrows Dabney picks up a square of embroidered fabric, a piece of a dress she’d acquired from Iran. The beadwork, the intricate stitching of the fabric echoes the blues and oranges, the reds—deep and bright—in the painting. Even the patch of material is thick with overlays of handwork, just as her 36”by 48” piece is thick with paint.

“That’s what this is about—their courage and their guts.” Her voice trails off, and I wonder if she is talking about the Arab Spring or her own uprising from victim to victor.

She is tenuously coming back to her studio, a hero’s journey for sure.

“I think there is a way to stay in touch with my inner balance and direction,” she says, opening another sketchbook, one that carried her through the darkest of times. The stripes on the outside look anything but daunting—candy-striped and silk—and it fits perfectly in her opened palms, a kind of personal prayer book, each sketch a little psalm. “I have a huge appreciation of all I have and all I will have. And I’m reconnecting to my paintings every day. I don’t know where I’m going but I know my work will be there.”

Right now she’s peeling back the layers of her days, of her memories, of her own strength and bravery. “It’s what allows us to see why we’re here,” she says. “And honoring that gift is very important to me, to all of us.”  -TBM

Susan Burrows Dabney is represented by Goodwin Fine Arts, Denver; The Gallatin River Gallery, Big Sky; and Ecce Gallery at the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture.

Published regionally and nationally, Michele Corriel has received a number of awards for her non-fiction as well as her poetry. She lives and works in the Gallatin Valley. 

Read More Magpie: Corriel's previous artist profile introduced our readers to painter Amanda Wilmer.

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