You may recall that back in October, we showed a charming series of small, glossy, thickly-textured abstract oil paintings on wood, that were bought in a South London charity shop around 15 years ago. If so, you’ll know that we were intrigued to know more about the artist, who’d initialled them on the front, but luckily for us, also signed her full name on the backs of them: Susan Schneider. We were curious about who she was and how this set of paintings came to be in that shop. We had a hunch that she was more than just an enthusiastic hobbyist – the technical know-how and sensitive compositions were unmistakable. When we decided to show them in the Small House Gallery, we thought we’d better at least try to find her. We didn’t really think we stood any real chance of success. Surely, too much time had passed. It was such a long shot.
So we began ‘desperately seeking Susan’. Most of the search hits were for Susan Schneiders based in the United States. We were trying to find the one whose online portfolio had work in them that could conceivably be from the same hand as the painter of our miniature artworks. None of them quite fit the bill. Despite this, we managed to find our Susan Schneider within one week of posting her show on our blog. But not before wading through a whole slew of Google hits for ‘Susan Schneider artist.’
There was Susan Schneider the very cool lampshade designer/maker in Massachusetts, Susan Schneider the seasoned graphic design professional originally hailing from Ohio, who became an award winning San Francisco Bay Area figure painter and California wine country landscape painter, Dr Susan Schneider the Massachusetts transplant from NY, and Columbia University graduate turned plein air nature painter/teacher. There’s even Susan H. Schneider, the highly accomplished 19th century American still life and landscape impressionist painter of Bavarian heritage born in Pennsylvania, Illinois in 1876. Then there’s this Susan Schneider artist, and this Susan Schneider artist, and this Susan Schneider artist, and did I mention this Susan Schneider artist? And to make matters even more confusing, there’s the Susan Schneider who is a professional artist and graphic designer turned advocate for raising legislative and diagnostic awareness about, and funding for research into, a form of Parkinsons Disease called Lewy Body Dementia (or LBD) that often gets misdiagnosed as Alzheimers Disease, and that her husband Robin Williams suffered from – yes, that Robin Williams.
Several of these Susans had a London, UK connection tucked somewhere into their bio or CV. We reached out to all the Susan Schneiders whose practice or style might possibly correspond in some way to the miniature oil panels in our show, but there was one Susan Schneider that our ‘Spidey senses’ told us was the most likely candidate for some reason, and we turned out to be right! She doesn’t have much of a web footprint – no website, no blog, no instagram, very few samples of work at all online. Just a teacher’s profile on an adult college’s faculty page that describes her as ” an artist who [has] use[d] batik, oils and watercolors for 35 years. She returned to Seattle three years ago after living in London for 12 years and teaching at the largest community college in London.” Searching for her under ‘Susan Schneider batik artist’, we managed to find one example here.
Our founding curator Eldi Dundee emailed the top three probable Susan Schneiders:
“Hello, I wonder if you can help. I’m trying to track down the artist who painted these [attached photos of paintings set in the dolls house] so I can find out more about her…
Is this the same Susan Schneider? I did a search and there are quite a few ‘Susan Schneider artists’ out there. Did you have any connection to London 15 years ago or so?
If you are the same Susan Schneider I’d love to hear from you and hear the story behind these oil sketches and tell you how I came to be in possession of them and how I’m displaying them currently in a miniature exhibition.
If I have the wrong Susan Schneider, apologies. If I have the right one, please get in touch with me. I hope you will pleased to see the works again in this new context.”
Susan Schneider the advocate’s assistant came back with a lovely message of good luck wishes for the project and finding the right artist.
Not long afterwards, an email came through, headed: “My oil paintings!”
The right Susan Schneider told Eldi that she recognised the paintings only by the initials she signed on the front of them, but that the paintings themselves were a bit of a departure from her usual practice so she didn’t really remember making them. She did remember collecting the cedar wood cigar boxes from a smoke shop in Covent Garden, and she remembers going to the trouble of soaking off the labels, ‘sizing’ them with rabbit glue, and she even remembered the different codes she wrote on the backs of them describing which types of varnish were used to finish off the paintings. She said they were never intended as paintings to be scaled up; they were what they were, small and complete in themselves. She confirmed that she had lived from 1996 to 2008 in the same part of South London that Small House Gallery is based and that she had volunteered briefly for the charity shop where the the paintings were found. She had donated them before she left for America.
For three of her 14 year stretch in England, she taught art at WAES, a good further education college for adults in central London. Teaching art meant teaching oil painting, but her usual medium was actually batik.
Our Susan was a member of the UK’s Batik Guild. In her main practice, she created contemporary paintings on stretched silk, which were inspired by the Modernist movements and the Impressionists, but using the techniques and materials of the batik tradition. Schneider participated in many shows throughout the 90s and 2000s, including the Battersea Art Fair, and a Batik Conference in Ghent with artist Noel Dyrenforth, the award winning internationally acclaimed fine artist whose silk and cotton batik paintings have been acquired by the V&A Museum for their permanent collection, who has been pushing the boundaries between fine art and craft and textiles since the early 1960s and was part of the shift towards dissolving the categories of art disciplines, media and procedures.
Schneider’s departure into oils for the purposes of teaching was not without precedent. During her time in Canada in the 1970s, she had begun experimenting with similarly small-scale works on panels, in the countryside around a little town called Dundas, where she would spend her spare time reading and walking, discovering landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes to paint. Painting, then and now, was her passion turned occupation.
These days, she’s not very interested in using social media but she was very happy to have been reunited with her old paintings and to take a walk down memory lane with us about her decade and a half in London. She was especially fond of remembering the art studios she’d had here, her favourites being the one above a local pub that is now a pub/hostel/arts centre, and the batik studio she had in the garage of her old South London home. She also has wonderful memories of the students of the adult education college she taught at – and for the building the classes were held in, which she’s been told has since been sold for luxury flats development. (A very London/arts industry story.)
The right Susan Schneider now practices in a sunlit studio in a friend’s home, and visits St Ives every year to paint and draw.
Her influences from among the masters are Henri Matisse and his Fauvist friend Albert Marquet, the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, as well as Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. Her more recent influences are: 20th-century Ulster painter William Scott who painted in Somerset after the 2nd World War (of particular interest for Schneider are his still lives with frying pans), and her current work is also influenced by the 50s & 60s San Francisco Bay area painter Richard Dibenkorn for his abstraction of cityscapes. Her mother, who was also an artist, is still an ever present inspiration.
Susan has kindly offered to send the other oils on cedar cigar box panels so that Small House Gallery can put on another retrospective of her miniature works from her period in the UK. We cannot wait to see them up close and to share them with you in the spring/summer when we plan to have show her Cornwall paintings. We may even get a chance to meet on her next painting trip to St Ives, if Covid allows. Watch this space.