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Balancing a Creative Life

Have you always been interested in art and can you give us a brief description about the circumstances that led you to a career in art?

I have loved art since I was a child. I was raised by two very creative parents: my mother an interior designer, and my father an artist. Since the age of 10, we watched as my dad filled many pads of paper with life drawings and produced many more paintings. My mother loved changing the color of the walls in her home (still does) and having new draperies sewn or meeting with clients. A favorite part of my growing years was drawing, painting, and pouring through art books. At the age of 88, my dad was working on a large mural for a client and has since passed away. My mother continues to encourage our passions as she continues hers.

Can you give a brief description of your educational and professional background?

I attended Central State College University majoring in math and psychology. For many years, I taught Special Education in Brookline and Waltham, Massachusetts. Always with sketchbook and pencil close by, the reality of being a fine artist seemed far reached. My twin sister, Sandra, encouraged me to look for a means to start studying art more seriously. I started with a few evening courses at the Boston School of Fine Art. Later, I studied in the private studios of Joshua Graham and Dorothy Lepler. They would become influential in teaching me the discipline of observation and control. I then continued my studies at the Scottsdale Artist School with world-renowned instructors including Betty Patt Gatliff (Forensic Facial Reconstruction), Rosalind Cook, Tuck Langland and many others. William Alexander Edwards (now 93 years young) continues to mentor me.

My professional career started with debuting The Littlest Ballet Company Inc. in 1982 at The International Toy Fair in New York. Starting this company was to be the first step of creating a career in sculpture. I was awarded "Doll of The Year" for my sculpture of Jeanne and shortly after, I was offered a position at Hasbro Toys in Pawtucket Rhode Island as senior designer contributing to the growth of the doll design department.

The Littlest Ballet Company continued to expand, creating baby dolls and making it necessary to incorporate under the name of The Susan Wakeen Doll Company. For over 25 years, I was recognized by my peers and collectors as one of the leading artists in the field, being honored with more than 48 awards and nominations for “Doll of the Year” and “The Award of Excellence.”

After 28 years in the doll business, I knew it was time to make a change. With the encouragement of my husband, family and friends, I took the plunge, closed down the Susan Wakeen Doll Company, and opened The Susan Wakeen Fine Art Studio. My love for bronze and clay led me the rest of the way. I have been accepting commissions and selling my work ever since.

Can you tell us about the process or steps you follow in creating your artwork?

Each sculpture I start begins with a feeling; one that I believe is strong enough to carry the piece through to completion. I will contemplate and plan every aspect of the design before I put pencil to paper, or clay in hand. After I feel I have a full understanding of my “idea,” I will sculpt a small clay sketch. Sometimes this clay sketch (maquette) is just a quick gesture study, other times I will complete a maquette with quite a bit of detail.

When sculpting a portrait, I usually take outside measurements and then leave these numbers behind as quickly as possible as the feeling of the portrait is most important. There is always a photo session or two and many sittings. At times, the modeling sessions are just conversations, other times it is serious posing.

When I feel a sculpture is complete, I am not always quick to cast it. I will have the sculpture sit in my studio for weeks to a few months, making sure that every profile line and angle is pleasing to my eye. I will also spend much time making sure I am satisfied with how light flows over the forms within the sculpture and then how the shadows ground the forms. My works have been cast in plaster, bronze, and porcelain.

Can you tell us some information about the subject and inspiration for your portrait of Carla?

Carla is a beautiful 32-year-old mother of two wonderful young children. When I met Carla, I was instantly enamored by her striking grace of line and posture. She has a way about her - always modeling with her head held high - I knew some day I would need to sculpt her. Strong, sweet, and genuine, Carla was the inspiration of Carla.

At this year's Portrait Society conference, your sculpture, Marcy, was selected as a Finalist from over 2,500 entries and then awarded First Place Sculpture. Can you share some information about this work?

Marcy is an inquisitive 23-year-old who has lived her life working hard to overcome losing both her parents at an early age as well as the challenges of cerebral palsy. She came to my studio last summer looking for work. Her intensity, her smile, and her sweet disposition were immediately engaging. From that moment, my hope was that she would model for me as she was refreshing and truly an inspiration.

Since Marcy loves to converse, we talked away the modeling hours in my studio. I would study the muscle movements of her face, how she held her jaw, the glances of her eyes moving back and forth, and the graceful turn of her head. It would almost bring me to tears as I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness; she does not realize how beautiful she is.” As she continued to tell me her story, she shared what she misses most about the loss of her parents are the family dinners. She has goals and ambitions similar to what we might all take for granted. She wants to be in love and have a family of her own.

Always positive and sometimes tired, Marcy took this job very seriously. Her pose was not a “chosen pose.” It is her: humble, intense, very bright, and a bit shy. The emotional journey of depicting who she is and what she has triumphed over will stay with me for a lifetime.

What have been among the most challenging experiences for you as an artist?

Transitioning from 28 years of doll design and manufacturing to fine art sculpting was a major life change and challenge. It was hard to believe it was possible after having had so had many years in commercial design. There were many false starts and unpredictable stops. It is difficult to pin this down to just one experience. I would have to say that all of "life’s experiences" - challenges and joys - have guided me and led me to this place. Balancing a life of art, family, friends, and my twin sister would often say to me, “Sue, will you hurry up? You have everything it takes to do this." . . . So I did.

Susan Wakeen lives in Litchfield Connecticut with her husband, Bill, and son, Kenny. Her work is in homes throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia. She sculpts almost daily and teaches workshops and classes in her studio. She says, "My husband and son know when I say, 'I am just finishing up a thought, I will be home soon,' that could mean 10 minutes or 2 hours." Susan considers herself a student and has continued her studies at The Art Students League in New York with artists Max Ginsburg and Antony Antonios and attends workshops at the annual Portrait Society Conference.

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