Suzy Spence: Power of Paint
Discover the inspiring journey of Suzy Spence, an artist, feminist, and sports enthusiast, as she shares her passion for painting jockeys and breaking barriers in the male-dominated world of horse racing
Glorious sits down with Suzy Spence, an all-around artist, feminist, and sports enthusiast, to discuss her incredible journey from childhood to her current focus on painting jockeys. Hear about her fascination with the dangerous world of horse racing and how women are smashing the glass ceiling in this male-dominated industry. Suzy also talks about her mission to spread a message of empowerment and personal autonomy through her stunning artwork, plus she opens up about her daughter, an equestrian rider, and her goal to provide her with the freedom to choose her own path in life.
Glorious: Tell us about your artistic and sporting history.
Suzy Spence: I’m based in New York City and Vermont but I grew up on the coast of Maine. My mother, Marcia Stremlau, is a painter too. Her philosophy is, give a child the best materials you can afford, and take them seriously. So we’d sit in the landscape and sketch in charcoal together, or work with watercolours at her desk. I have very early memories of sitting with her in a sand dune at 4 or 5-years-old, drawing next to her. I was able to watch her work, so I could follow her example.
At age 19 I went to Parsons School of Design and The School of Visual Arts, both in New York City. I got my MFA, worked at a museum, and looked at art night and day. I have remained working within that art community my whole career.
I was a jock as a kid, and practised gymnastics just about every day from age 6 until high school. As a pre-teen I had success in track and field, and won some medals at the state level. I very much wanted to ride, but my parents were raising four kids, so I took lessons for a few years but then I focused on other sports out of necessity.
In midlife I got serious about riding, and found excellent dressage and natural horsemanship trainers in Vermont. I gained foundational skills to be a decent rider, and I applied that to my favourite cross country activities of pleasure riding and drag hunting.
When she was five I would put my daughter on the horse I was leasing, and over the years she has chosen to pursue the sport seriously and has become a much better equestrian than I have ever been! She trains regularly and is trying out for a college jumping team in the fall. My focus lately has been to support her sporting activities more so than my own.
Glorious: What inspired you to combine the British sporting art genre and feminism through painting jockeys?
Suzy Spence: I’m interested in the intensity and risk of this particular sport; the straight-ahead all out gallop; the rocket-like power and energy you feel with the animal as you move together through space. I personally love to gallop through the landscape more than anything else! I get high on the adrenaline and the view can’t be matched.
I’m intrigued by the women jockeys who are making it in the male dominated horse racing industry. Women generally have smaller physical frames and incredible core strength which means they should have a natural competitive advantage to their male counterparts. Racing is presented as too dangerous a sport, too hard-scrabble, yet women compete head-to-head with men in Olympic Eventing, an arguably more dangerous sport. It seems there’s a particular gate-keeping that goes on in horse racing because women racers, given equal access, would completely dominate.
British Sporting Art has had a rather low status within the history of art because it was generated so much to please the patron and it shows in the work. The paintings were more like trophies and conversation pieces, than serious academic works. The conceptual artist in me has always liked to explore that problem. And then there is this extraordinary animal and the colourful, patterned silks on the athlete, so visually there is a ton to work with as a painter.
Glorious: How do you think your artwork helps spread a message of empowerment and female strength, and how does your art empower you as a female artist?
Suzy Spence: In America our right to bodily autonomy is being threatened, which has all kinds of ramifications including preventing us to be athletes and artists how and when we want. The athlete is the ultimate person in control of their body, and this is a metaphor in my paintings. I hope that people understand the metaphor of personal bodily autonomy at least intuitively when they look at the work. Women who have bought my work have told me how sexy and powerful and even comforted it makes them feel.
Glorious: What’s your favourite part about being an artist?
Suzy Spence: Making it, living it. I don’t differentiate between life and art, it’s my whole lived experience, hence my riding and art blending together. I love being an artist, and I love looking at other people’s art.
Glorious: Who inspires you (artists or other) to keep you motivated to continue in this career?
Suzy Spence: A trend lately is for women artists who are in their 80s and 90s becoming very successful late in life. I admire their perseverance, and now they are having their day: Lois Dodd and Howardena Pindell are two examples. Check out The Great Women Artists on Instagram curated by Katy Hessel for a huge list of amazing artists to continuously learn about.
Glorious: Your daughter is an equestrian rider, what are the main messages that you want your daughter to take away from your art?
Suzy Spence: A painting of mine was her phone screensaver for a little while, it was the ultimate form of teenage flattery! My goal as her mother has been to open as many doors for her as possible. I want her to have choices, and let her decide which direction she wants to go. As a 17-year-old she’s an activist volunteering for Planned Parenthood, and I am very proud of that.
Glorious: Have you always encouraged your daughter to be ‘sporty’? How do you think the experience of being a young woman and women’s sport is different to when you were younger?
Suzy Spence: Yes, when we started spending time in Vermont I took her for skiing lessons and riding lessons. It’s not uncommon for Vermont kids to take their skis to school in the winter months; schools have income equitable programs with the mountains, so basically everyone skis or snowboards. Outdoor sports are more accessible, and more a way of life.
The main difference in women’s sports today is the upending of how we think of gender in sports. You can see how it will disrupt the economics of the sports industry. Men’s sports will no longer be valued more and men will have to share the spotlight and the cash. Our society is moving in a less gender binary direction, and even though it’s being met with resistance by some athletes, eventually it’s going to be better for everyone.
Glorious: Would you consider painting another sport(s) that portrays female empowerment?
Suzy Spence: It would be fun to paint women rugby players or boxers, but I love the landscape too, so I think I’ll stick to equestrian sports.
Glorious: If you were hosting a dinner with three inspirational women, who would you invite and why?
Suzy Spence: I’d much rather meet each of these women for dinner one on one, rather than try to entertain them all at once! Serena Williams for being the greatest athlete of all time – I would like to give her the floor and listen to her wax greatness for as long as she’d like. Billie-Jean King, who broke so many barriers and whose Battle of the Sexes was a spectacle I remember. She’s a beautiful person. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a.k.a. “AOC”, who is a genius and incredibly brave. I’d like to thank her.
Glorious: What’s next for Suzy Spence?
Suzy Spence: My exhibition, For the Roses, opens at the Arusha Gallery at The Old Silk Barn, Bruton, Somerset on 30 April until 28 May. My studio website is: suzyspence.com