My first personal meeting with American artist Susan Waitt occurred some years ago at a private spiritually-themed event and reception, taking place in a certain ex-bordello in Valletta. Her colourful, vibrant outlook and curiosity immediately struck a chord. A Scorpio, the Connecticut-born artist worked as an illustrator for a Disney studio in Massachusetts, hosted her own American TV talk show and was an artistic director and writer for Liquorish TV, to name but a few of her achievements.
On the other hand, her gothic, surreal artwork seems to spell quite a different character; more dark, more mysterious, but still very intriguing. Waitt’s perception seems to filter and reproduce vagrant metaphysical ideas of succubi and the supernatural; sinister presences which may as well hide within each and every one of us, or even behind the closed door around the corner.
What prompted you to come to live in Malta?
Originally, I came here to co-organise an international conference on the consciousness of the Megalithic Temple builders, and somehow, I never left. I’ve lived in Malta for nine years.
From Disney artwork to the grotesque: How did one category of art evolve into the other?
The concept of the grotesque in art and literature speaks to something profoundly basic about human nature, and the nature of existence itself. In fact, Disney perfected for a general audience the interplay of paradoxical opposites such as fear and laughter, aggression and playfulness, and the merging of bizarre, carnivalesque atmospheres with rational and logical realities. Think of all the terrifying moments in Bambi, Peter Pan, and Snow White to name just a few animated feature films. My art evolved from this quite naturally, in that I felt like it was part of the whole circle of life, since the spectrum of experience was all there in Disney already.
Above: Ghoul Bride by Susan Waitt
Of course, I was always drawn to Bosch, Goya, Fuseli, Moreau, Dali and many other artists who portrayed what was dark, subterranean and wrapped in ineffable mystery. Now, having grown older and somewhat wearier of the world, it often appears to me that there are also precious gifts within the darkness of the human mind – depth, profundity, nuance and complexity. Intense contrasts of light and dark add a sense of drama and therefore a sense of awe. Awe is a key aspect of the experience of the sublime.
Above: Tulpa in a Gothic Frame by Susan Waitt
Is there a particular unifying theme within the exhibition?
I deliberately used Victorian Spiritualism and mediumistic séances together as a unifying trope or motif, because I felt it represented the collective desire of humanity to probe the unspeakable enigma at the centre of existence.
What is your method of creation?
For many years I painted in acrylics only, especially for large-scale mural projects. Now with my studio work, I usually first execute an unfinished acrylic under-painting, usually on a toned background and then finish in oils. When I was working as a commercial book illustrator for Disney and Fisher Price, I was constrained to lay out book galleys meticulously. That required sketching and sometimes re-sketching scenes and finishing with inks, water colours and airbrush. In recent years, I started executing artworks with the same absolute freedom and energy that I had usually reserved for my free-time sketching and doodling. I’m producing art directly onto the canvas now.
Above: Medium by Susan Waitt
Spiritual energy or ectoplasm seems to coat and swirl around many of the subjects in your paintings. Why do you deem it so important?
The idea is that there is much more to reality than simply what shows at the mundane level. Ectoplasm, whether it exists in actual fact or not, represents the Philosopher’s Stone of the Alchemists, the Fifth Element, the Quintessence, and as you say, the animating spiritual energy or force that creates the phenomenal, material world. Mind generates matter.
Above: Ectoplasm Bulbs by Susan Waitt
Night Gallery: The Uncanny and the Sublime will be running from the 29th October through to the 25th November at The Fortress Builders in Valletta. There will also be a number of special mini-events centred around the exhibition. On the 8th November at 6.30pm, there will be a talk entitled The Science of Ghosts. There will also be a free Psychic & Soul Art Workshop at 1pm on the 15th November, and a special magic show by Mr Vanni Pule on the 22nd November.