Get Out of Your Own Way

INTERVIEW BY REBECCA DAVEY

I’ve never met Soozi Schlanger—part fiddle player, part painter. A friend pointed me in her direction when I told her what we were up to at She Said Films. But as soon as I walk into Soozi’s apartment, I feel like I am meeting up with someone I have known for years. Soozi’s energy is contagious. She is warm and gracious and OH SO CREATIVE in every way. She has transformed her apartment at Bathurst and Bloor into a total oasis.

She starts by making me fennel tea with a splash of almond milk. I feel right at home.

This is a homage to my dad and my mom. (She’s showing me her kitchen backsplash—a big fish mosaic she did herself.) My dad had a fish store next door on Bloor St. when we were kids. There was this great big tank of carp in the front window. I sat in the other window. And he always picked up a penny for good luck. So after he passed away I did this backsplash on my counter using pennies as the scales of the fish.

It’s so amazing.

It still has to be grouted. These details are not my specialty! Oh, and for mosaic number two you can come look at the floor of the bathroom.

(I follow her to the bathroom.)

Oh my gosh! You made this?

Well, it was fun ‘cause I got to smash tiles.

Wow! And the sink!

The sink was an old kindergarten sink! (She explains how she gutted the whole bathroom herself before revealing a new painting hanging behind the bathroom door—which is sold and thus hanging in a hidden space where she can no longer be attached to it.) And the art that I’m doing now—this is tape art. I’m doing art out of coloured tape—completely little bits of coloured tape.

I love it!

Yep, I just tape, tape, tape, tape, tape. For me I love it because I like to change my mind. So if I don’t like it—boom. Take it off! None of this oil paint, paint on your hands, have to wipe your brushes off… I started out in oil painting. When I got into tape art a couple years ago—I think I invented it—I just went nuts. I can play some fiddle, go do some painting, my hands are never dirty! Now that I’m part musician, I have a thing about my hands. I don’t want to walk around with dirty hands all the time. My painting overalls are in the basement if you want to see what I used to look like!

So you kind of changed—

I change based on what I need to say. The medium through which I get to say it follows me. Or I just start playing with something and realize that I have something to say through it. It’s a very un-deliberate process. Nothing I do is very deliberate. Oh, these are my hula hoops.

Do you hula hoop?

Not like a person who can do tricks but I can stand there for hours. If I didn’t have to pee or eat I could stand there all day. I’m not bragging, just telling you what I know how to do. ‘Cause god knows I can’t do any book keeping!

(We laugh and then get immediately entranced by her kitchen shelf which is like its own installation—packed to the brim with an intricate array of objects.)

This is the deal: I grew up in a fish store and we lived upstairs. My parents were immigrants. They came in after the war. So basically I sat in the window of this fish store when I was a tiny little thing looking out while people came in and out—the fish tank in the other window—and basically the whole store was shelves with objects on them. And my way of playing—we didn’t have things to do, you had to do with your eyes—was moving things this way and that way with my eyes. So for me there’s a comfort in things on shelves! My whole world was my eyes playing with shapes and moving colours where I wanted to move them.

(We spiral from conversation to conversation.)

My deal is I love working but I’m not crazy about the fine finishing. I don’t know how to pick a frame or a wall colour. ‘Cause all colours are created equal. I have come home with three gallons of lime green and bright red… but then I realize at 3 in the morning that I can’t live with lime green walls. And people say well, you’re a true artist.

It’s crazy making?

It’s not just crazy making it’s crazy! That’s what I feel like today—I need to paint my walls!

Well, I feel like there’s this order to your space. Its own order.

Thank you.

We’re exploring curiosity in this issue of She Said Notes. Do you have to be obsessively curious as an artist?

Curious is an interesting word. I would say I’m the most uncurious person, but at the same time… I won’t ask questions… but I like to explore, I like to play. Curious has an intellectual quality that I don’t think I have. I’m more curious about the person at the corner store. What do you like to do when you’re not working here at the corner store? What are your hopes and dreams?

(She says she’s interested in how I got to where I am, who my husband is and have I ever coloured my hair because it’s a great colour! She offers to do a ‘tape art’ of me. I suggest maybe a portrait of my husband and me. She starts telling me about a new boyfriend with a solar powered house—thank god he’s not a musician or an artist!)

When I think curiosity I think everything you just said. Do you eavesdrop?

I can’t help it. You’re in my world, I can hear you! As an aside, I hold salons here every month—musicians come, I collect money for them… I set out a spread. People come and look at the art and hang out, listen to the music—so that’s happening tomorrow!

I want to come to one!

Sure!

So did you train as a painter?

I met a boy who lived in New York, so that’s where I went. Guys didn’t talk to me when I was high school except to get me to help them with their projects. Everyone thought I was high. But I wasn’t high. I didn’t even smoke pot. I was this. But I didn’t know what ‘this’ was and what to do with ‘this.’ I was very emotional, high-strung, angry… I had all these emotions, but didn’t know what to do with them. Anyway, I got to New York and lived in this cheap hotel with junkies and prostitutes and rockstars. And then this one hot summer day I was sitting in our room and this random guy came flying in with a tiny little box. He threw the box on my lap and said, “I don’t know what do with these anymore. You take ‘em.” It was a box of paints, so I got my first box of paints. I started painting on my own. When I first started painting I could feel this tingling up my spine all the way into my brain. And I went, “Now I know why I’m mental!”

You had an immediate physical connection to the painting?

Totally visceral. I realized who I was in that minute. The same thing happened when I heard Cajun music for the first time. I didn’t know how I knew it, but I knew it…and twenty-one years later I’m still playing with Swamperella—my Cajun band. We formed the band right here in this kitchen. The stuff that everyone is trying to do now to sound folky, it came organically out of here. People were like, “how long have you been doing that?” “Oh, a week!” Everything has always been very organic with me. I started the Kaleidoscope program at Harbourfront—where you make art out of recycled things. That was before people were doing that—in the 70s. I don’t think it; I just receive it.

Do you think about your artistic process? Do you work at certain times?

At night. That’s when things quiet down. It’s not so bright. I can use a few lamps. It’s dark outside so my canvas is my inside lit up and the outside is the darkness and I like that. I feel good at night. I might think I’m going to prepare. I might think I can prepare and my mind is telling me that I’m preparing. But all I have to do is tell myself I’m preparing, that’s all I need to do—‘cause it changes all the time, even the thing I know how to do over and over again changes all the time. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s like opening up to a process, as opposed to controlling the process. A lot of the time I’ll work on paper and just start splashing paint down. And I don’t know what it’s going to be. Haven’t got a clue! And then I grab a crayon and add some more acrylics. I just play. I have junk objects around the house and they kind of gravitate toward each other… this is how I created Goddess Pursued by a Boa. A lot of it is jokey—humour.

(We look at Goddess Pursued by a Boa now—a mermaid-like figure in a frame surrounded by a royal blue boa.)

This happens so much with my work that things gravitate toward each other—including my process—that I just have to give in to it.

Are you mostly okay with your process and who you are?

It’s a question that you go through everyday. Being an artist is such an individual thing. The only thing you can do is be who you are ‘cause that’s how you’re going to create the best. You have to let yourself be who yourself wants to be. Get out of your own way!

Classic!

Yes, classic and you’re not alone! For me at this stage of my life I can trust that my process is working on its own and I don’t have to push it.

I want to get there.

(She takes me on a tour of her art studio full of her mask creations, her paintings made through a technique she calls ‘art squirt’—she squirts paint and sees what it wants to become, co-creating with the paint, the colour—and all her newest tape art creations.)

Any advice for artists?

Giving yourself permission to be who you are. Make a commitment to breaking free. No matter how we grew up, whether we grew up with lots of paints and colours and parents who said try this, do this, I’ll send you to art school, I’ll send you to dance lessons, here’s all the right brand names so you don’t feel like an outcast… we didn’t have any of that shit. Play in the laneway in the back and see if there’s something on the ground that inspires you! So it doesn’t matter where you come from! You can emerge from any environment. Some of us have it worse than others, but we all have our package to deal with. If you feel connected to art or music… doesn’t matter how old you are! I started being a musician when I was 38—no lessons! Anything, almost anything is possible! Give yourself permission. Try not to judge yourself. But we all do. So when you do, acknowledge it, forgive yourself and move on. Try not to compete. We all do. Again, forgive yourself. If you want to write, just sit down and write. Write about the shape of the ceiling. Why do they call it a ceiling? Anything. Cut out a bunch of words from a newspaper, shake them in a paper bag and throw them down and see what they say. Start writing from that… squirt some paint and mush it around—see what comes out. Give yourself permission to be and to play. Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t think so much about the goal. Experience the beauty of it right now in the creative process. That’s what I think!

You’re an inspiring person!

I look around and I am very grateful.

Thanks for your time!

(We hug and I promise to come see her again. I’ve made a new wise friend.)

An active member of the Toronto Multi Arts community, Soozi Schlanger works in the following media: painting, sculpture, installation, performance, music, poetry, theatre, spoken word. She is also the leader/singer/fiddler of the Cajun band Swamperella. Keep up with her work on her website.

 

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