Susan Clinard doesn’t like talking about her work, and doesn’t consider herself to be particularly political. “I shy away from politics in general,” she said, in an interview at her studio. “Many people have said my work is political, and honestly, I’ve never thought of it that way. I guess if sharing stories about humanity is political, then I’m political.”
But current events motivated her latest piece, just completed at her studio at the Eli Whitney Museum, where she is artist in residence. On Jan. 27, President Trump signed his executive order (since revised) barring citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the United States and halting entry for refugees from Syria. Protests sprang up around the country. And Clinard went into her studio and worked on a series of figures that she finished right before Tuesday’s snowstorm.
The first figure was a woman wearing a head covering, looking to the side, concern creasing her brow. A hand to the side of her face. She was “the direct response to now,” Clinard said. “I didn’t put the baby on her back until later, and that really changed the piece.” It turned her into a mother.
Next came a man with his eyes cast downward, thoughtful and sad. He, Clinard said, was “from nowhere — he could be any one of us. Is this the next group to be banned?”
From there, Clinard went back in time. The third figure was a Japanese woman, a nod to the internment camps of the 1940s under President Franklin Roosevelt. “How awful it must have been to be in this country and feel like a cockroach,” Clinard said.
When Clinard sculpted the Jewish figure, on his knees, his head bowed, wearing an armband with the Star of David, she wasn’t only thinking of the Holocaust in its enormity; she was thinking of the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis, an ocean liner that sailed from Hamburg, Germany in 1939. Almost every passenger was a Jewish refugee. The St. Louis docked in Havana; the Cuban government allowed only 28 passengers to disembark. The ship sailed close enough to the United States to see the lights of Miami, but none of the remaining passengers were allowed off the boat. The St. Louis sailed back to Europe. The refugees ended up in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, where 254 of them died in the Holocaust.
The last figures Clinard made were an African man and his daughter, representing what Clinard called the “irony of the brutal slave trade.” Before abolition and emancipation, “12 million Africans were ripped from their homeland.” Fifty years later, the 1924 Immigration Act sharply curtailed immigration from Africa. Today, Trump’s travel ban targets the African countries of Sudan, Libya, and Somalia.
All together, Clinard’s figures represented the march of refugees, people caught between the grinding teeth of international conflict, across the world and through time. But they weren’t symbols. Under Clinard’s expressive hand, each of them was an individual. Someone you might see waiting for the bus, who then gives you a more intense look than you’re ready for, a look that tells you where the person has been, what they’ve seen and been through to get here.
When The Personal Gets Political
“I actually had a sick feeling in my gut,” Clinard said, when she told acquaintances what she was working on. “I know I’ve alienated some people, some of my own family, and that’s kind of scary.”
But her latest project — though triggered by current events — was also a natural outgrowth of the work she’s been doing for decades. Before she became a professional artist, she was a social worker in Chicago for three years. She worked with kids in the foster care system, which meant that she dealt with “heavy stuff,” cases of violence and abuse.
Finally, one day in 1997 or 1998, while walking down the street, “I collapsed on my knees,” Clinard said. “I had taken on too much and I realized I couldn’t walk.” The moment passed, of course; she got up and went home, and talked to her sister — professional dancer Wendy Clinard — about what had happened. Wendy encouraged her to try going into art for a living. After all, “I was sculpting all the time,” Clinard said. “It brought me total joy.”
So she tried her hand at it, and began to see success. She moved to New Haven with her husband, a scientist at Yale, in 2007. But in a sense the impulse that drove her to social work and to art was the same. “I try to separate it,” Clinard said, “but then I think, ‘who am I kidding?’”
She has worked with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services for a decade, including a project in which she sculpted portraits of refugees; with a small grant, she could pay the subjects who were willing to sit for it. She went to IRIS and “did it in the hallway, on my knees. There was a lot of humor in it, particularly in working through the language barrier. In June 2016 she curated an exhibition at the New Haven Museum of art by refugees.
“They are friends, family — beautiful human beings who have been a part of my world for 10 years,” Clinard said. Her most recent art thus has begun from a place of deep affection.
“I can’t wrap my head around the constant anger” from both sides, Clinard said. “I have to tell the story in a loving way, but also a fighting way.” But “If I’m going to condemn anger, but do it in anger, aren’t I doing the same thing?” In her art, she hoped to move beyond “that knee-jerk reaction of just being livid, but instead, sitting with it longer and figuring out another way — not necessarily the best way, or the only way — but another way to share the concerns of people who don’t have a voice.”
So what happens now? Often projects come together over a longer time period than two months, and galleries work far in advance of that. Yet Clinard knows her most recent project is very much of the moment. “I’m going to see if I can find alternative places for it to be seen, even if it’s just for two weeks,” she said. Maybe that means a gallery will take the project on. But an “empty storefront” would do. “I would love it to move to different neighborhoods.” Meanwhile, Clinard is also volunteering at LEAP and continuing to work with IRIS.
And yes, maybe all that work looks political on the outside. But we are inundated with numbers regarding the refugee crisis and our response to it — the United States has admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees in the past 15 years and 84,995 refugees in its fiscal year of 2016 alone — and as historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his book Bloodlands, about the mass slaughter in Eastern Europe that took place under Hitler and Stalin, “it is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” The faces on Clinard’s figures, with their senses of individual history and loss, do just that.
“You see the emotions, you see the pain,” Clinard said. “Maybe you think, ‘Hey, that could be me.’”