Sue Sommers: Reflections On Women, Art And The Creative Economy


Sue Sommers is a contemporary American artist and resident of Wyoming since 1989.

Her paintings, prints, and book art highlight her home in the West.

She serves on the National Advisory Board of the University of Wyoming Art Museum and is one of the founders of the Pipeline Art Project, a group of contemporary Wyoming artists "pumping art from the energy state of Wyoming."

She is an active member of the Leadership Wyoming Class of 2019.

She explains why she calls herself a contemporary artist, how to define book art, and ways to support women in politics in Wyoming.

Emy diGrappa: Today we are talking to contemporary Wyoming artists Sue Sommers. Welcome Sue.

Sue Sommers: Thank you Emy, it's pleasure to be here.

Emy diGrappa: First of all, the fact that you live in Pinedale, which is wonderful and has grown into a really artistic community I think but what brought you to Pinedale? Why Pinedale why Wyoming?

Sue Sommers: Well first uh, why Wyoming? I chose to go to the University of Wyoming for a graduate degree in Visual Art Painting and I was told by people from Jackson and I was living in Tucson at the time, I'm, uh, I've been a lot of places (laughs) and um, they- they said, “Oh, you need to go to UW. That's it. Just apply there.” I applied to more places than uh, UW, but UW rolled out the red carpet for me. They welcomed me to the grad program. They gave me all kinds of financial aid and I was able to be a teaching assistant and I had a really great experience there. And I met some friends who were from Pinedale.

Sue Sommers: We both graduated at the same time and none of us had teaching jobs (laughs) so- so we all decided to go back to Pinedale and see what happened. And we started making art projects and I started meeting new people and making new friends and I got a job at the local newspaper and pretty soon Pinedale became home in a way that no other place had been for me because I had been raised somewhat on the East coast but also traveling all over the world. And- and while I really learned a lot from that lifestyle, it made me kind of rootless and I didn't really know what it was like to feel rooted until I stayed in Pinedale for a few years and after that I kind of couldn't leave (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: That is great. What are some of the countries that you lived in?

Sue Sommers: We lived in South Korea for several years. We lived in London, England for several years. And then we also did short trips to Iran and New Zealand. And- and then after I graduated from college, I was undergrad I visited my folks uh, in different places where they continued to travel to. And it's been wonderful to learn how other cultures are configured and- and how people look at life.

Emy diGrappa: Do you have any favorite places that you've lived?

Sue Sommers: Most formative for me was when I was in high school, I got to go to an American school in the heart of London and they had an excellent art history program, believe it or not in high school. And I was able to go see all kinds of exhibits and I learned so much about the history of mostly European art at that time. And I was going to incredible galleries and museums there and it kind of blew my mind (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: So what was your journey to become an artist? Why did you choose that path?

Sue Sommers: Even when I was little, I was drawing and I was also journaling almost as soon as I could read and write. I was writing about what I thought and what I saw and what I was doing and I was drawing. And the more I learned, 'cause I- I was really, a i- introverted kid and I would stay home and read encyclopedias for fun. The more I learned, the more I believed that the arts were a tool to understand yourself and to be able to get your life story in front of yourself so that you could grow and communicate with other people. And I still believe that- that, that's something that has, uh, been with me forever.

Emy diGrappa: And do you think it had a tremendous impact on your life to move around a lot and not have roots? And what were your friendships like because you did that kind of transitional moving and you know, do you, do you feel like that affected you or- or may or shaped you in a way that is different than from other people?

Sue Sommers: You know, because I was such a nerd, I, it didn't bother me that we moved around a lot. I would, I'd pick up a friend or two here or there and let them go when we moved. And- and I, that sounds a little strange now because I have so many friendships now that means so much to me. And maybe that's why, because I, I know what it's like to live without that. But what I loved most about traveling that I think is- is one of my most important tools is that I try to see things from different points of view and different angles. And I think about deep history, you know, we in- in America especially, we get so hung up on, you know, our- our big 200 years and- and more, you know, we think that's a really long history. And I think about Europe and Africa and Asia and the thousands and thousands of years. And so to me that's an important perspective to have. You know, these people have seen it all, they've done it all (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: And that right there is a good segue because we're celebrating 150 years of women's right to vote in- in the nation.

Sue Sommers: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: And so what do you think about that? Because you have this unique perspective that you've traveled a lot and you've probably seen how women live in other countries. And what do you think about women's rights in the United States?

Sue Sommers: Well, first of all, I don't know that there's any place in the world where women have it particularly good. I was listening to one of your other podcast guests just recently, and she said, I am a progressive feminist. And that seemed to be somewhat of a bombshell. Well, I am too. I really feel like when women are doing well, a society does well. And when you take care of your women, you take care of your children, you take care of everyone, you know? And I don't think we're really great at that in the United States. I think we're better than some places by far, but we still have a long way to go. And we have a culture in Wyoming that, uh, really favors, you know, the tough guy, you know, the, you know, bootstrapping and traditional male values and norms. And we forget, you know, and I've thought about this a lot.

Sue Sommers: We forget that Wyoming was built by schoolmarms as much as it was built by Cowboys and schoolmarm values. You know, what we think of today as traditional feminine values but of course everybody has both masculine and feminine attributes. The traditional feminine schoolmarm values should also be considered important norms for us. You know, scholarship, civilization, culture, the arts, being good to your neighbor, being part of a community, contributing to the greater good, working together with people. And sure Cowboys can do those things too, but we seem to rely more on a hundred years of John Wayne movies instead. And I- I would really like us to- to expand our- our norms to include all those things women have given us and- and that men would benefit from adopting also.

Emy diGrappa: And what kind of things would you do to- to change that culture? I mean, I love your schoolmarms and because there is this quote unquote cowboy way-

Sue Sommers: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... and I would love for it to not be just the cowboy way, but what would be the other word for it? Because there is such a thing as the West and what we take pride in- in the West. And I, and I have found that a lot of women who live and work and make their home in Wyoming, they really bond with that, that Western culture that is independent and don't tell us what to do (laughs).

Sue Sommers: And I can do anything a man can do. I'm to- tough. I'm tough.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Sue Sommers: That toughness is cherished by many women in Wyoming and- and I can respect that as well. The only part that I- I wonder about is are they doing that to fit in and to be accepted by men? And it could well be truly part of, part of them of course too. And- and I felt that also as a, as a real introverted kid, I always did everything on my own. It was like, Oh, I can handle it. And so I had a lot of that attitude myself growing up-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sue Sommers: ... and it's taken me a long time. In fact, that's the part I cherish most about moving to Wyoming is I started to understand that I lived in a community and we could help each other and I could be helped by others. That was huge for me, you know? So it's ironic, you know-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Sue Sommers: ... I come to the cowboy state and you know, people are walking around in their spurs and boots and where men are men and women are men, you know, (laughs) you know? And what I take from it is no, I'm going to be softer. I'm going to let people help me.

Emy diGrappa: Oh that's interesting.

Sue Sommers: I'm going to be connected.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Sue Sommers: And that's- that's been enormous for me. That's why I have stayed, you know.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. Becasue that does say community when you say you're surrounded by people who will help me and take care of me and love me and that's a community that's what that feels like.

Sue Sommers: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: And that's what you kind of grew into maybe, you know, when you moved to Wyoming and now 'cause obviously your art has grown to reflect that, right? Well what do you call yourself a contemporary artist, first of all?

Sue Sommers: Because I don't make art in the Western tradition or any kind of genre. I'm trying to reflect on my life now and connect it to the outside world as well. I don't want it to necessarily be immediately identifiable as Wyoming art, whatever that means, you know? I know that means different things to different people, but I like commenting on current trends in our society. I like examining what it means to me personally and I'm not interested in copying somebody else's style or making a great watercolor landscape. You- you know, like you would see in most of the state, I want to have an individual style that is recognizable as my own.

Emy diGrappa: And does your art make a statement when you create an art piece, do you have a thought in mind of what you're trying to convey?

Sue Sommers: Well, everything I make, I make for a reason. Sometimes I don't know what that reason is until it's finished and sometimes I use the making of the art to discover what it is I'm feeling or thinking. So if it's a, an inorganic kind of evolution, yeah, some of my art is super intentional. Well, especially the book art. Any- any work that I make that is based on the book form, which I manipulate or I might make from scratch. Those have to be planned out really carefully (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: And so what, what is book art?

Sue Sommers: Any art that uses the idea or the form of what you might think of as a, as a book, anything you might think of as a book, as a point in its evolution. I know that's really squirrely and squishy. Okay, as an example, I've made a series of little bitty hardbound encyclopedias and- and I hand bind those, the pages taken from a set of encyclopedias that was published the year I was born, 1959. And I take the pages and I cut them apart and I reshuffle them and then I stitch them back into a kind of a traditional looking little hardback book that's- that's like half the size of a, of a regular encyclopedia volume but it's really fat.

Sue Sommers: And I call them encyclopedia rebound and they are, uh, deconstructions that it's kind of like, a, an analog version of a web search. So you open the book and the encyclopedia entries are all jumbled up, kinda like when you start looking at Wikipedia and you start clicking links and you- you can't finish anything and you don't know where to start. And yeah, so it, so it's like that. So they mess with your mind a little bit and they are using the idea of a book to do something else.

Emy diGrappa: This is fascinating. Where can you see these, do you have on your website, where- where do you have them?

Sue Sommers: Yes, I have, I have several of them on my website. Pretty much all of my current work is on my website.

Emy diGrappa: And what is your, what is your website?

Sue Sommers: Well it's of course (laughing).

Emy diGrappa: That was easy, but that's with two Ms, right?

Sue Sommers: Yes. S-O-M-M-E-R-S.

Emy diGrappa: Okay, So you're married to representative Albert Sommers?

Sue Sommers: Correct.

Emy diGrappa: So you have a unique perspective as well in terms of women business and politics and even from a viewpoint as an artist. And what do you think can be different about women in politics in Wyoming? Because we have the lowest number of women in the legislature.

Sue Sommers: Wow. That's a little bit outside my realm um-

Emy diGrappa: Is it?

Sue Sommers: I thought you were going to ask me more about the role of the arts in the economy.

Emy diGrappa: I am, but that was my next question (laughing).

Sue Sommers: Um, but I can, I can speak a little bit to that because I love to attend the Leap into Leadership conference-

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Sue Sommers: ... each year if I can make it. And I love talking to the legislative spouses as- as well.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Sue Sommers: They know quite a little bit too and former legislators who happened to be women. You know, I think overall there are two things that could bring more women into the legislature and probably elected decision making roles throughout the state.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sue Sommers: And those would be women allowing themselves to reach for that and believing in themselves enough to do that.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Sue Sommers: And men doing the same believing in the women and reaching out to them.

Emy diGrappa: And supporting them.

Sue Sommers: Yes. And of course uh, Rosie Berger and Mary Throne's effort with Leap into Leadership also connects women with ways to, you know, get help and assistance and financial you know, support and Rosie Berger and Mary Throne's Leap into Leadership program educates women who are thinking about maybe running for an office and- and tries to hook them up with support mechanisms.

Emy diGrappa: So that does lead into my other question, the one that you thought I was going to ask you. Because besides women in politics, how can Wyoming as a state support artists and the cultural economy? What things can they do or we do? How do we support the cultural economy? How do we support artists and why is that a good thing?

Sue Sommers: Well, I think there are a couple of, couple of points I- I should really make about that. One is that Wyoming already does a lot for artists, especially with nonprofit arts spaces and groups there's so much going on. And the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, the Wyoming Arts Council, lots and lots of local groups are doing incredible work that way and it does help, especially emerging artists or beginners get their feet under them and have places to show and build their resumes. The other point I want to make is that artists are not business people. When you make art, you make culture and you're making it not because you have like this profit motive (laughs), heaven knows, but because you feel driven to make that and to speak your truth and to connect to the world. It's not something that is a free enterprise.

Sue Sommers: Uh, it's not driven primarily by a love of business. It's driven by a love of ideas and self-expression. So, and that's all, that's been true for 3,500 for, no, that's been true for 35,000 years. It's a human attribute. It's even a Neanderthal attribute. I've heard archeologists say they think they've found art made by Neanderthals. I mean this is something that our organism feels called to do and so we have to be mindful of that when we're talking about the economy and business models and artists and that's why support for the arts, it's so important that it be a community based thing. Now as an artist for, I mean my whole life and I've gotten to a professional level that way, doing it all my life, the opportunities I want are to sell in a contemporary art gallery. There are very few of those in Wyoming and so I would need to work really hard to find opportunities to market my work at the level that I think it needs to be.

Sue Sommers: And the only thing that will change that in Wyoming is having more people, more customers, you know, a broader base of customers. And so that- that calls up a whole host of other you know, political and economic issues that are way outside my purview. But to have a vibrant high level professional art economy, we'd have to have a more robust commercial economy all- all altogether-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sue Sommers: ... I think.

Emy diGrappa: They kind of support each other in that sense I'm thinking.

Sue Sommers: Well, if you make art and you want to sell it, and not everyone does-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sue Sommers: ... but- but lots of us do. You need lots of different people with different tastes-

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Sue Sommers: ... to support that. And believe me, Wyoming artists make all kinds of stuff.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sue Sommers: I mean, the array of- of uh, approaches and media is amazing, you know, for the population.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sue Sommers: Which leads me to want to make the point that everyone's creative, everyone solves problems, looks for alternatives, tries to innovate, tries to make their life better. They try to work around and- and figure things out. Problem solving is creativity, but art making is just one kind of creativity.

Emy diGrappa: Right? And that's an excellent point.

Sue Sommers: Yes

Emy diGrappa: Oh my gosh.

Sue Sommers: ... I- I meet people every day who say, “Well, I'm not an artist. I'm not creative.” Whoa, Whoa.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah.

Sue Sommers: Time out. Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: You just put yourself in a box when that's very true. Because when you think about art throughout the ages, whether it was basket weaving or any kind of weaving, 

Sue Sommers: How about, how about sewing or cooking or-

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Sue Sommers: ... you know, balancing a budget?

Emy diGrappa: Right. You gotta get creative (laughing). What's been great talking to you today.

Sue Sommers: It's been great being here. Thank you Emy I've really enjoyed it.

Emy diGrappa: Good. Thank you.