Profiles in Art: Susan Champeny

Susan Champeny is an artist, sculptor and muralist. Formerly of Worcester, MA and now based in Pahoa, Hawaii, she is the maker of strange sculptures, odd mosaics and magical murals.


Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?

I always loved art, especially typography and publications, but went to Wellesley because of its incredible liberal arts program. But by the second year, I realized that I while could become a great Chinese Language scholar or an amazing Art Historian with a Wellesley degree, it was limited in hands-on art-making. I transferred to the Massachusetts College of Art, and feel I got a perfect mix of excellent academic learning from Wellesley and the intense hands-on at MassArt. When I graduated, despite being in the middle of a recession, I was already employed as a graphic designer. I almost didn’t graduate, because my employer, Prime Computer, offered me a full-time job in my Junior year. It was very tempting to skip the degree and take the job, but in retrospect, I am glad I pushed on for the degree. 10 years later, Prime Computer was bankrupt, and I still was out there working as an art director for magazines and Newspapers. 

Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?

I worked in publishing for over 22 years, starting as a paste-up artist, then as a graphic designer, and an art director. I was in the crossover from paste-up work to working on the PC, and because I had done computer programming as a high school intern at MIT and then at Wellesley, I moved over to computer art at a time when most artists did not have the skills or knowledge to do that. Computer design was not taught at school, you just had to figure it out on your own, which I was good at.

But by about 2001, being good on a computer was no longer an advantage, and I was looking for something new to do. By chance, I took a job as a graphic designer for a toy company. That was the most fun job EVER. If they had not gone under the next year, I would still be there to this day. It was the first job I had where my Chinese Language skills were necessary and useful, as they were manufacturing in Taiwan and mainland China. The Operations Manager would say “If you can draw it, they will make it – they can make anything out of plastic.”

That started my love affair with plastics as a sculptural medium. When I started my own fine art studio in 2006, I thought I would paint in the morning, visit clients in the afternoon, do email sales in the night. The following year, I was invited by the city of Worcester to create art for a mosaic project, which became my first public artwork. My studio practice rapidly morphed into public art, installation sculpture, and murals. Making artwork that is bigger than I am is exciting to me.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?

In publishing the biggest challenge was project and people management. Especially when you had 5-6 publications, all with conflicting deadlines, a limited budget, and less-than-optimal labor hours to accomplish it with.

In my own studio practice, the big challenge is coming up with a viable, vandal-proof sculpture that won’t kill anyone, and then find someone who can actually help pay to make it happen. Funding is huge, it makes the difference in whether a project can actually happen, or is just a nice idea.

A lot of public art projects are on miniscule budgets. For instance, a 3,000 SQ ft mural for one-5th the budget of painting a whole house. Or a custom site-specific sculpture for less than$1,000, when even a pre-fabricated park picnic table set costs more than that. Because I often work with recycled materials, folks think it must be cheap. It costs more in time, labor, and engineering to work with recycled materials. The cleaning alone is time-consuming and pretty gross.

Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?

Total control! If I hate my job, I have only one person to blame – the boss, which is me. It is up to me to transform my “job” into something I love to do every day. No one else is going to do that for me.

Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?

My father was very angry about my decision to go to MassArt. His exact words were; “All you’re going to be able to do with an Art Degree is clean test tubes for the rest of your life.” He was an engineer, and he expected we would stick to the sciences, or at least computer programming. He was astounded when I was actually working through school. Several years later, I walked into his office, and saw his corkboard: he had stealthily subscribed to the computer magazine I worked for and has cut out EVERY diagram I had drawn over the previous two years. He was proud, he just couldn’t say so.

So, I would say: worry more about making sure your kid has good study skills and work ethic, and leave the creative job-making to them. The future is hard to predict.

Q: What advice would you give to young artists just starting in their career?

Work. Practice. Do it over. Paint 100 paintings, then find a way to paint 100 in half the time. Always strive to improve the quality of what you do.

I can tell you, I hated that advice as a student, and ignored it as much as possible. But now, I use it all the time. When I am proofing a sculpture, I often build 3 different prototypes, then test to destruction. There are so many ways to solve a creative problem, so try them all.

Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about your field of study/work or art history in general?

Creativity is a practice, and can be improved just by doing it over and over. Yes, there are some genius artists out there, even as there are genius scientists, but even for them it is 90% sweat and hard work. When you fund one of my sculpture projects or commission a mural, you are paying for 40 years of hard work, study and continuous improvement – which also happens to be beautiful.

Just for fun..

Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol/cocktail) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?
I like hot sake better than wine. And I will eat all the octopus or Poke I can with that.
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