Artists as Activists by Saad Ghosn
Confronting Genocides of the Conscience
Suzanne Chouteau uses her art to address planetary issues
Suzanne Michele Chouteau is the youngest in an artistic family of eight children. Her father is an artist and retired professor of art, her mother, a vocalist/pianist, her brother, an interactive kaleidoscope maker, two of her sisters, designers and illustrators. She grew up surrounded by art, the walls of her home covered with original prints done by her father and his artists friends.
“These works held my attention for hours from a very young age,” she says. “Drawing and printmaking were somehow always part of my artistic yearning. I was born with an inclination, art became part of me, like another limb attached.”
Chouteau, a printmaker, got her BA in Art from Saint Ambrose University, Davenport, IA, and her MFA in Printmaking from University of Iowa (UI). She is currently Professor, Chair of the Department of Art at Xavier University, Cincinnati.
Chouteau has also been a social activist all her life, her awakening starting as a child watching the Vietnam War broadcast every night on TV, also accompanying her parents to war protests and civil rights demonstrations.
“Growing up during the socially active 60’s and 70’s influenced my worldview beyond my little town of Davenport,” she says. “I did not have frivolity about life and knew early on there were grave and serious issues facing our world.”
In undergrad school Chouteau was exposed to comprehensive traditional teaching, studied anatomy, life drawing, design, and acquired solid skills. In her junior year she studied abroad for a semester, in Italy; it affected her approach and the content of her art. She realized that in addition to their beauty, the Renaissance works made important and powerful statements, carrying meaning behind their figurative representation. Art could then be used as a tool to say something, she felt. This was reinforced by a show of Mauricio Lasansky’s The Nazi Drawings she saw when she returned home. Lasansky’s figurative prints representing people said a lot about them, also about himself, reflecting with outrage on the brutality of Nazi Germany. This prompted her to start a series of lithographs connecting her technique to people she knew, meditations on her brother, family, friends, revealing some hidden aspect of their personality.
For graduate school Chouteau specifically selected UI because Lasansky taught printmaking there. Under his guidance, she focused increasingly on content and communication, not just technique. Art became a tool for her self expression and her work drastically changed. Involved in the antinuclear proliferation movement prevalent in Iowa at the time, she did a series of multicolor etchings based on her Childhood Memories of Nuclear War, expressing the fright she had as a little girl going through nuclear bomb drills. She complemented them with images of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also by writing journal articles, designing for student protest papers, getting involved in “on the street” activism.
“I started putting in my work the activism I wanted to do,” she says. “It allowed me to connect with other artists who felt like me.”
That’s how she became involved in protesting the US-backed Contra War against the Sandinista revolution and traveled to Nicaragua to help harvest coffee, the economy of the country being decimated by the US embargo and ongoing widespread fighting. Upon her return she did a series of lithographs pertaining to her experience, also to Nicaraguan children in time of war, deprived of their well-being and dreams, affected in their daily living, victims of adverse conditions imposed by adults.
When she became a teacher the focus of Chouteau’s activism changed, shifting more to artwork and classroom. In the classroom, she helps her students develop, in addition to skills and technique, concept and content, insisting they say something, make meaningful work. She encourages their awareness for social justice and challenges them to use their art, according to Xavier University’s mission, as citizens for others not only for themselves.
Being in academia, not having to peddle her art, she also has been able to devote her work to what she believes in, is important to her.
For many years now she has been working on a continuous series of reduction color woodcuts titled Genocides of the Conscience. The series explores what she considers the root of contemporary ruin on the planet, a loss of conscience/conscientiousness in humanity. It addresses historic and contemporary events in which creatures were subjected to actions that undermined their survival. The Chinook salmon of Klamath, California, the American Bison, the gray timber wolves, the threatened Polar Bear, endangered American pika, as well as the people of Darfur, Rwanda, Armenia, all victims of various genocides, are featured in her prints, pointing to the ruinous acts of recent generations.
“Giving these genocides a visual presence is my way to force recognition and encourage action,” she says.
Her Rwanda print is divided in 2 by an image of a machete, symbol of destruction and deforestation; the upper part depicts numbered heads of Rwandans victims of their genocide, the lower one, dying salmons in the siphoned off bed of the Klamath river.
In her Darfur, Sudan print, she calls attention to the children of Darfur in need of protection from the abuses of war. It shows children sleeping on the floor in a safe place, guarded from potential capture. A line of fire, metaphor for devastation, separates them from a Dinka village where they once happily lived. A young boy in the foreground appears to grasp for a star on his shirt alluding to every child’s right to ‘wish upon a star’, be able to dream, have a future and not be held hostage.
Chouteau has also recently started an ongoing series of etchings titled Generation; they represent California’s endangered trees due to global climate change, the foxtail pine, sequoia, redwoods… She means her series ‘constructive’, each print embodying hope for a conscientious life towards the beauty and well-being of all creatures.
“My art is a journey to the center of my being and back out again. It reflects me, responds to a need within me,” says Chouteau. “I make pictures to address my private and social concerns. I want to use my art to dig, explore, experience, grow, become more human… I want it a focus for human interactions as they affect other humans, other living creatures, the environment.”