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Circling Success

A potter/printmaker/painter makes her mark at The Art League.

On every wall of the room where Susan Finsen’s solo exhibit “Making My Mark” is currently housed, there are circles, rings, loops and curlicues. Perhaps it is a little obvious, but the pattern is a good starting point for understanding Finsen as an artist.

Finsen learned to develop film in college, and spent a few years taking photos for an alternative to the student newspaper at the University of Virginia. About the time a roommate pressured her to end her bathroom-as-darkroom setup, another friend invited her to look into pottery, Finsen said. Throwing pots became a steady passion, and clay was the medium she was using when she joined with other young Alexandria artists to found the Torpedo Factory in 1974.

“I was in the original group that met in Marian van Landingham’s living room,” she said. “I had a full-time, mortgage-paying job, [but] I wanted to find a place where I could throw pots.”

That place was a studio in the Torpedo Factory. Finsen has stayed in the Torpedo Factory, through institutional renovation — the building was redone in 1983, and Finsen’s new studio shares a doorway and foyer with the Hollin Hall Potters — and personal evolution — her own pots gradually became flat, and she worked with linoleum printmaking before becoming a painter.

“It is a leap,” Finsen admitted. “You think of painting as being different.” But the move from pots to prints to paintings was smoother than it sounds. And not a complete surprise — Finsen said she was painting and drawing on her pots when she made them, making them more decorative than functional. “I think I was making these marks 25 years ago,” she said.

She “migrated over to linoleum prints” after becoming intrigued by architectural themes, especially baseball fields and stadiums. Her first painting experience was hay bales in a field. A friend who worked with oils “gave me a 30-minute lesson on how not to ruin her brushes,” Finsen said.

Overcoming practical problems has been a constant occupation for Finsen since she began painting. Her desire to layer paint and add collage elements meant she needed quick-drying paint: “Oil was way too slow for me,” she said. “Acrylic was much better suited to me.” She has moved from painting on stretched canvas to boards, because they provide more resistance to the pressure of her marks. She likes to paint big — a huge triptych, 108” wide by 60” tall, dominates one wall of the gallery in the current exhibit, and Finsen had to use six boards to create it, as the a 36-inch, square board is the largest size that will fit in her car. “I paint them as if they’re all one unit to begin with,” she explained.

Super-sizing her working surface is a lesson Finsen took from classes with Joyce McCarten, an instructor with The Art League School. McCarten said many students come in with an idea of what abstract art is supposed to be: “They think it’s something they’ve already seen.” At a class on abstract painting and drawing and a week-long workshop on experimental drawing, McCarten taught Finsen and others to look beyond what they think they know about abstract art in general and their own work in particular.

Having students work with large rolls of paper teaches them to approach the work differently, and even give up the feeling of being in charge of the art, McCarten said. “It’s beyond your control, you can’t get it done and finished,” she said. “You’re unable to control it, it’s too big, and therefore you’re out of control.”

Instead, McCarten wants her student to work into a piece, not from outside of it. “A lot of artists are afraid to work into their work,” she said. “They think they have something good or that it’s on the way to being good, and they don’t want to mess it up. Anyone who has been to my class will tell you, ‘Joyce says, “You have to get rid of the piece you like.' It can’t move forward until you let go of the thing you’re protecting.”

Painting over sections of her paintings is part of Finsen’s process. She did say that McCarten had insisted on letting go of sections if they weren’t working to further the whole piece. And she tries not to come to an empty board with an idea of what it will look like when she has finished. Before she was painting, in both her job and her artistic endeavors, she knew what the end of the day would bring. With pottery and linoleum printmaking, she had to decide on an ending before she began. “I had a goal already set,” she explained. “I didn’t want to do that [with painting]. Now every part of my workday is totally new.”

McCarten is complimentary of Finsen’s progress.

“As with every artist, you allow yourself to change and grow and you surprise yourself,” McCarten said. “That was the journey that Susan went on, and she did it very well. She’s been working very hard and she’s done that, she’s let go, she’s letting it be.”

Talking about a painting she had begun only hours before, Finsen echoed the lines on the two side-by-side boards with gestures. Charcoal lines — one fixed with clear tar gel, one still fresh and sooty — were first. A few more light lines followed, and then Finsen put on two vibrant red shapes. “Now I can see that they’re dominating,” she said, looking at them again. She had started to play them down with a lighter color dotted across both boards, and said she may paint over the red if it was still too strong.

Finsen said it was unusual for her to work on a painting more than two solid weeks. She also said it was rare for her to abandoned a piece. She rotates the boards frequently, looking for another angle, a different perspective, sometimes finding multiple orientations that she likes so well she has trouble deciding where to sign the painting.

Regardless of its location on the canvas, Finsen’s name is spreading along with her paintings. Although all the paintings in “Making My Mark” are fresh, completed since February, the application for the solo show began in October 2004. Finsen said she painted more work than she needed, and rearranged her initial plan for the exhibit once the pieces were in the gallery. The concerns are mostly “for size and for rhythm,” but it’s also trying not to let one work of art dominate another. “They do take on relationships to one another that you don’t see until they’re on the wall,” she said.

The exhibit is on display in The Art League Gallery, Room 21 of the Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., through July 3. Gallery hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Visit www.theartleague.org or call the gallery at 703-683-1780, or visit www.susanfinsen.com for an electronic tour of the exhibit and images of more of Finsen’s work.