I met Susan Hyde Greene at an opening at Monterey’s Green Chalk Contemporary, the only art gallery in the Carmel-Monterey area I know of showing contemporary art not aimed at tourists. After learning more about Susan and her work, I asked her if she’d be willing to be interviewed. A few weeks later we sat down together to talk. I knew she’d faced hardships in her childhood and we began there…
Susan Hyde Greene:
I’ve come to see that my whole life has been formed practically by loss, instability and insecurity. My parents were divorced when I was really little—three, three-and-a-half. I hardly ever saw my father. I’m just going to go through this and tell the whole story.
My mother took us to Florida to get her divorce. My brother was only two. I learned really early to take care of myself and I was a really creative child. I liked making things. My mother had a lot of sisters, cousins and aunts, a lot of female relatives. They were always around. They were always making things. Some of them were painters. Some of them sewed. They taught us how to do all of that. I loved watching these women sew and interact with each other. I was part of a group of four or five younger cousins all around the same age. We would get in trouble just doing whatever we did. All of my older cousins were just so glamorous. My gosh, would I ever be like that?
I started to notice that the women were really healing themselves, because they all had hardships of one kind or another. Getting together like that was really healing for them. I think that was the first time I started to think about art and healing.
About how old would you be at that time would you guess?
Maybe I noticed the healing part when I was about seven or eight.
RW: It’s interesting that you noticed there was something healing about it.
Well my mother, especially, was sort of emotionally fragile. I saw it was wonderful when she was with her family, because things were kind of normal. I noticed that. I don’t know if I noticed it consciously. It hit me because, well, my brother had polio when he was six. I was seven. In the newspaper they always put the names of the kids who were in the hospital and because my brother had polio they thought I might be carrying it. That made a big impact on me partly because I was not allowed to go out all summer.
RW: Oh, I see. Yes.
That was the summer I learned to sew. My mother sat with me and taught me embroidery and all kinds of hand sewing.
RW: Was this before the Salk vaccine?
RW: Gosh, that must have been terrifying.
Yes. It was a huge epidemic. Nobody went to public swimming pools. I just remember those afternoons with my mother teaching me to sew. It was very nice. Eventually it got better and things kind of got back to normal, but I remember people still didn’t want me around. I remember going over to a friend’s house and they didn’t let me in. But in addition to these kids with polio, in the paper they had what they called the Fresh Air Fund for inner city kids who needed to go to camp.
RW: What city was this?
New Haven, Connecticut. We lived in a town called Guilford nearby. So they had a fundraiser and I really wanted to do something for that. I decided to get my friends and put on a circus.
I was really good at gymnastics. They called it acrobatics then. I could do that. Then somebody else wanted to be a clown. We had all these fields in the community we lived in and there was a big vacant lot with a platform. So that was our stage. Even my parents came and paid 25 cents to watch us do this performance.
RW: How many kids were involved?
RW: You organized this thing? [yes] And you were about eight?
RW: Seven. Wow.
I liked doing things like that. So we did that and I felt really good about it. We raised enough for the fresh air fund. My mother gave us a party.
So through everything there were ups and downs in my life. But through everything there was always art; there was always creativity. I’d spend hours designing clothes for my dolls and my pets.
The other thing I loved to do, I had a grandmother who lived in New York City. I cannot imagine that she let me do this alone, but I remember being alone in the basement of the New York Natural History Museum in New York City with the dioramas and loving it. I was around nine, ten, eleven. loved those and decided that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to make those.
We lived at the edge of the woods. I would wander through the woods and pick up arrowheads and stuff. I liked digging around and seeing what was underneath things. We had a lot of Revolutionary War artifacts buried in the woods around us, too. We would find all kinds of objects. I think I had an imaginative nature that kind of separated me from all of the chaos that was going on in my family, because there was some bad stuff.
RW: What was some of the bad stuff?
Well, my mother remarried, but she married, basically, a psychopath. I was the oldest in that group. My brother was a year younger and then they had a daughter, my sister Alice, when I was about eight years old.
He was incredibly abusive to everyone, but there was something about me. He didn’t take me on. I was a shy quiet girl. I was not a tough girl, by any means, but there was just something. I had to watch my brother being severely emotionally abused his entire life by that man. I was the one who would scream at him and tell him to leave him alone. My mother would try to get me to stop yelling at him to stop. Pretty soon everybody would be hysterical.
When I was 16 I told her she had to leave him or I was going to leave. I was sent down to my aunt’s in Washington, D.C. I spent the summers on Chesapeake Bay. I’ve been going down there every year since I was twelve. Then I came back, but my mother didn’t leave him. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go to my father’s house. I knew that everything would explode if I went to move with my aunt. I was just trying to keep the peace, because my mother wanted the divorce so badly she actually gave up custody of us to my father.
RW: When was this when she gave custody?
I was four, my brother was three.
RW: But she ended up having custody anyway?
Right. See, she wanted to marry my stepfather. So she let us go with my father. He was working for the newspaper, the New York Herald
I think. It would have been some terrible place, probably. She let him take us down there. It was quickly clear that he was not going to be able to take care of us. Then his sister wanted us and there was a big court battle and my mother got us back. So there was constant chaos, but I was just always making art. I was good at it and I got encouragement for it. It was fun. I liked exploring. I think my biggest pleasure was enjoying exploring.
RW: So from the time of the divorce when you were around four, all the way to sixteen, art sustained you, but otherwise life was pretty unreliable or…
Totally. I was trying to do well in school, but it was difficult. I had a lot of trouble with numbers. I found out years later that children who grow up in chaotic homes frequently have enormous problems with numbers.
RW: Interesting. I wonder why?
Because your mind gets scrambled, the brain gets—even today, don’t ask me to tell you what f-stops I should use or anything like that. But I was good at other things. I just didn’t have—I lived on my own pretty much, just tried to manage and get through.
RW: Because your mother was kind of uninvolved and fragile, you say?
Yes. And she had to go to work, because my stepfather could never keep a job. She had been a dancer. Of course, she wasn’t going to go to work as a dancer. I was never sure why she didn’t just start up a dancing school, because she was very good. So she had all these awful jobs. I remember timing her for typing. She lost her mother when she was only eight. She was raised to be kind of a princess. They all made tons of money which totally disappeared through my stepfather, but the girls in her family were never raised to actually support themselves and take care of themselves. That was not unusual for that time. She was born in 1920, but she was a bright woman. There were lots of things she could do. I think she just didn’t have the confidence. So she was more comfortable in low-level manager jobs and those kinds of things.
RW: So at sixteen you were on the edge of leaving home. What happened from that point?
I went off to college. I wanted to go far away. I didn’t care what college I went to. What happened was I got to college and it was very interesting. I went to a girl’s college in Virginia. It was a two-year school. The idea was after the two years, a lot of the girls from that school went to the University of Virginia, which was only for men at the time, but the last two years, if you were in education or certain majors, you could go.
So I thought that would be fun, a good thing to do. I was thinking I was going to be a special education teacher and teach art or be an occupational therapist, something I could do with my hands that would be practical. I was struggling with these really stupid courses for me to take like economics. So I left there after the first semester, because I hated it.
I was seventeen, by the way, when I went off to do this. Then I came back. The only place I could go was a State College in southern Connecticut. So I signed up for that with my best friend and she and I roomed together.
My life just opened up. It was fabulous. I had friends and just a great time. Then one day in a math class I realized it was just impossible. I was looking at the catalog and discovered art majors didn’t have to take math. So the next day I went in and said I’m an art major.
My life changed then. I mean that’s what I should have been doing. I got very interested in art history and for a while thought I would go into that, but then I thought I’m not the kind of person who is going to sit in a cubicle and write articles. So I didn’t actually finish there. I dropped out of school and got married and we ended up going to Hawaii. I ended up graduating from the University of Hawaii as an art major. It was just a wonderful experience.
I was majoring in textiles. They had such a fabulous program there in textiles and there were influences from the Pacific Islands. For a girl from New England it was just the most amazing thing. Then at the end, I took a photography course. I had a camera, but I never thought I would be good at.
When I was nine I got a camera for camp. I had all of the instructions on how to use it, what not to do and blah, blah, blah. I was so curious about this camera and what was inside and how it worked that I took the whole thing apart and just ruined everything. I still remember that film and all the layers of colors and everything. I just loved it. I didn’t even care that I ruined the pictures.
RW: That’s fascinating that that experience remains such a strong memory.
It really does.
RW: What do you think made that experience so indelible?
I think it was because I followed my curiosity, instead of worrying about ruining my pictures. The urge to find out what was in there and explore that camera was bigger than the urge to document my friends at camp.
RW: Was it hard for you to follow your curiosity in that pure way?
RW: Then there must be something beyond following your curiosity that made that stand apart, because you’re saying you followed your curiosity all the time.
Well, the camera was such a mysterious piece of equipment! I knew perfectly well that I was going to ruin the pictures. It was a little bit intimidating, this camera, but I just had to.
RW: You knew you were going to ruin the pictures?
RW: So in a way you were going against doing the right thing, or something. You were following an interest in spite of whatever happened.
In spite of whatever happened. Right! I knew that. I’m a fairly careful person. I knew nothing dangerous was going to happen from doing this, but I just had to know what was inside.
RW: It may seem that I’m making a big thing out of this by focusing on it like this, but because it’s indelible I think there’s some clue to something.
I think that anytime in my life where I have followed this inner voice, do this, do this—
even though it seems like maybe I shouldn’t do it—if I do it, it’s usually the right thing to do. If I don’t follow that, I’m usually sorry in some way. I haven’t always been totally successful at following those little voices. I think now I’m better at it. I think that’s what actually helps me with my art. It helps me get the work done, because I let myself just kind of follow this little voice. I let myself follow a feeling to see wherever it goes. Now I feel so much more focused.
I left out a couple of things in my childhood. There was my brother and I and another cousin, and then a girl cousin. She and I were the same age; we just did everything together. Our mothers were sisters. When we grew up, we went in different directions. But we were very close. She became an alcoholic and had a lot of issues, but I would always talk to her. But it was hard, because she would call late at night drunk and have crazy talks like, “I am going to go take care of children in Africa.” You know, just things that were just not in the realm of reality. I listened and tried to talk her down a little bit, but mainly I would just listen. Another little voice said, “Just do this.” So one Halloween night when we were in our 30s she passed out drunk with a lit cigarette and was burned to death in a fire.
RW: Oh god.
I can still get emotional over it. It was such a shock, first of all, to have somebody you’re close to die like that. But the one thing I was happy about was that I had never hung up on her; I had always listened, and I felt really good about that.
There was so much tragedy and death in the family that I lived with. My grandmother had died young and a child, too. Even though I didn’t even live with my father…
RW: Your real father or your stepfather?
My real father. Not a day went by, I don’t think, without this child being real. He was kept alive.
RW: Now who was this again?
This young child. He was my father’s brother who died when he was 10 years old. My father was probably in high school then.
RW: And he was kept alive somehow in everyone’s mind?
In everyone’s mind, just as my mother’s mother was. My mother’s mother was like a real person. Every day she was mentioned. If there were family parties, she was talked about and she died when my mother was eight years old.
My mother would tell stories about her. So these people were definitely still in the world. Later, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought it was a very curious thing. I also started to realize how unresolved my mother was about her mother’s death, how really desperately tragic it was. She took that to her death at 92. She was still mourning her mother.
RW: There are many difficult losses that people suffer, but that’s one of them, I think—for women, the loss of a mother when still a child.
Oh yes. And she was the youngest of eight kids by a lot. So most of her siblings were out of the house. She was left living with her father, who was a nice man, but he had no idea what to do with a little girl. Her family adored her and they pitched in and they took care of her, but still.
RW: So you were in a family with a lot of cousins. It was a blessing having all of these cousins around, right?
It was just remarkable. The other thing was that they all saw what was going on in our house. But my cousin, Georgene—the one who died—and I would talk about it. She was horrified. But what could we do? We were kids. I was always a little resentful that this huge family saw what was happening and I don’t remember anyone ever coming to me and saying, “Are you okay? Is there anything you need? Can we help you?” Never once. My father, when I would rarely see him, would say, “How is Art treating you?” Of course I would say, “Fine.” I was just afraid to rock the boat because he had an explosive temper.
RW: Your father also?
Well he never harmed anybody. He was not an abusive person. He was just fiery. He had his pain with losing his brother and then he lost his father when he was in high school. The other thing I noticed, but it wasn’t until he died—he was a writer and I decided to read all of his books. (I’d already read them, but when I was much younger.) But reading them much later, I realized, (my god), every character, every book has a character that’s a young person with some sort of problem—a disability, emotional problem, something. I thought, wow. He poured his sadness into his novels. They were fiction, but they weren’t entirely fiction.
RW: How do you think that relates to your own work?
I think I do the same thing. A lot of my work in the beginning was definitely autobiographical. I started out using pictures with me and my father. Then I would use pictures of my grandmother. I was using family pictures and I did that for a long time. Then I don’t know what happened. Just gradually I’ve had various breakthroughs. I can now use old photographs, not necessarily of my family, and still get that same feeling of layers of family time and family life. But I’m more separated from it and I think it’s easier for other people to access that kind of work. I never wanted to do work that people had to scratch their heads and ask what’s happening here?
RW: I’m immediately thinking of MFA programs because I think there’s a typical ethos there that encourages intellectualizing things.
Right. I was lucky. My first husband was a physician and he was unhappy at UCSF, so we went to Utah for a while. That’s where, unfortunately, we broke up. But I got my MFA there and wonderful, lucky things happened. I was working on two projects for my final show. With one I’d gotten a graduate research award to do a project about a man who had turned 100 years old. Installations were just getting popular then. I wanted to create an environment like that, so I did the piece called, 100 Years, 100 Pictures
. And the Salt Lake Art Center invited me to show it there. Then I put together another piece for my MFA show that I called, Jane’s Secrets
, which is the name of my grandmother (who) whose child tragically died.
All of that was pretty autobiographical. When I think back, doing that in an academic setting took a lot of courage, but everyone loved it. People said it made them think of their own lives. It made them want to go back and look at their own pictures and think about their families. I loved that. I thought that’s good—art and healing.
I had a lot of friends with MFAs from the Art Institute [SFAI] and Mills and we would have discussions, but eventually I thought, “All I can do is be authentic and just be who I am. My story informs my art. It touches people sometimes.” Once I came to terms with that, I think the work got better.
RW: When do you think you came to terms with it?
It’s been gradually occurring over the last 15 years or so. Let’s see, I’ve been divorced from my husband for almost 20 years. I would say that the last 10 or 15 years I’m totally comfortable with what I’m doing.
RW: Do you mind my asking how old you are?
I was born the day after Pearl Harbor.
RW: The reason I ask is because it’s kind of a long journey. I’m guessing you were in your 50s at least before you…
Oh yes. But I was raising children, too. I had so many distractions. Then a couple of things happened, the divorce was a shock and I had to sort of start my life over again. I decided to use it as an opportunity to be better and I gradually I found myself not trying to please other people, not being so invested in what this dealer thinks or that dealer thinks— just doing the work. Then I was lucky, too. Someone I hardly knew, who has become such a close friend, called me one day. She was offered a studio space at the Noonan Building in San Francisco on Pier 70. It was pretty inexpensive.
That has opened up so many doors for me. I met Marian Parmenter at the Artist’s Gallery and she loved my work. Then there was a man in the building named Stefan Kirkeby and we became good friends. He called me one day and he said, “Susan, you’re a really good photographer. You really are. You should show these….”
I wasn’t good at promoting myself like that, but anyway he eventually got a gallery in San Anselmo and gave me a one-person show in 2007. At that time I was combining sewing and photography. He said, “I love this! This is who you are”
He had a piece of mine he liked in the gallery and I gave it to him on a trade. And one day he said, “Somebody was in here recently, they loved that piece! They think that you’re really talented.” It was this push I needed to totally believe in my direction and who I was.
RW: It’s wonderful to hear about that journey, because I think it’s a difficult journey.
Yes, it wasn’t easy.
RW: Many people never get there. I wanted to know how long it took, not as a criticism in any way, but as an acknowledgment that this is not an easy journey.
Right. And I actually do agree with you. This is important for young kids to know getting out of school. I don’t care how talented you are. You can’t possibly know yourself well enough to do the mature kind of work that you can do later on. Unfortunately we live in a youth culture, but I’d love to see us get to a point where we also want depth.
RW: Right. There’s no substitute for grappling with life and running into problems and dealing with difficulties. Now you said earlier that art making has helped you all through your life. There’s a way in which I’ve heard people, especially MFA-type people, demean the idea of art as being therapeutic. Do you know what I’m talking about?
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I think it’s ridiculous, because anything that you do that you love is going to be healing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, or whatever you do. If you love it and you’re good at it, it’s going to be healing to your spirit.
So I don’t know why there’s that fight that art somehow is diminished if it’s healing. I don’t get that. That’s changing a little bit in some circles. In Marin there’s the Art and Healing Network. It was started by Marion Weber many, many years ago. Do you know Danny Hobson’s work?
RW: I do.
She does wonderful work. There are all different levels of the journey of art and places where people can land. I mean, I went to graduate school with the idea that I’d get a job as art faculty. That was the goal. Well there were hardly any jobs at that point and I remember one day thinking, maybe that’s not really the goal.
RW: Yes. In photography how far back does it go where you’re cutting the print and kind of shifting it a little bit?
I started doing what you saw in the Water Stories Show just last year, really.
RW: I see. It’s very recent.
But before that, I was always cutting up parts of photographs and piecing different images together.
RW: Okay. In your recent work there’s a single image, but the pieces have shifted a little like plate tectonics, kind of like fault lines. It’s hard for me not to feel this is, metaphorically, profoundly relative to your own life.
Yes. And I think I’m just beginning to understand that. I was asked to be in an exhibition in the Artist’s Gallery last summer. So I sent Maria some seascapes. I had an idea. I’ll just cut the photo up and sew it. So in about five minutes, I cut one up, sewed it up. I took a picture with my iPhone and sent it with the other things.
I was so happy that she liked that. So I did those three black and white pieces that you saw. The first one was easy. Then I wanted to do them big and I had them printed out at Smith Andersen North. Oh my gosh, they were very expensive! And there were so many places where the construction could go horribly wrong.
So it was kind of stressful to do them. But it was such a wonderful experience to realize that idea the way I did. I do feel that these images have a lot to do with how everything is unstable. What I feel good about is I’ve been able to take my own instability, but then translate that to the instability of the planet and the world. So it becomes less personal and related more to everybody.
So I am very happy about that. In the beginning, I talked about my own personal story a little. I’ve learned that something that’s mended will never be exactly the same as the original, but it could be better if it’s done thoughtfully. I really believe that. I think that same idea goes for the human spirit. Maybe the spirit gets broken along the way, but it can be repaired.
RW: You know it’s often said that it’s through my own wounds that I become capable of being healing for others. Do you feel something like that?
I think I always did from the time I did the circus when I was seven. I was moved to help people, to somehow heal people. I wasn’t going to go into medicine—like the museum work was such a gift. My friend was head of the access program at the De Young for a long time. She was an art historian and they gave her this job that she wasn’t (prepared) trained for. So she put together a committee of people from the community with various interests in disability. You know, I’d founded and run Very Special Arts Marin for several years. We worked with people who had developmental disabilities. And I’d worked at Napa State Hospital, too. Somewhere along the line I got a master’s in Special Ed. and my first job was at Napa State Hospital.
Oh my god! I didn’t know what I was doing. I went two days. They were throwing chairs and tables, everything all over in this little room. There was an aide who wasn’t helpful. I was determined they were going to do some artwork so I went over to visit Eli and Florence Katz at Creative Growth in Oakland and explained my situation. I said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Oh yes you can,” they said. They gave me tips.
I went back to Napa State Hospital and the person who was in charge of the program came to see what was happening in the classroom. She said, “You need a new aide.” Then a wonderful young woman and I worked together there for three years. It was a job that I was successful at. It wasn’t something I wanted to do forever, but it was a wonderful feeling.
So then I was given this opportunity at the De Young Museum. It was just the perfect fit. I felt like I really was giving to the community, but in a very creative way. I used my own ideas on a lot of things. I enjoyed it.
But finally I asked myself, why am I doing this? We have so many talented artists with disabilities in the area. Let’s have them show what they can do so the visitors can see what people can do. So we started that. It was very successful.
I just resigned this year. I had some health issues and I also wanted to work on my own art and I just decided that door needed to close.
RW: So what’s most important for you now?
The most important thing for me is to keep working. I have another show coming up at Smith Andersen North. And I want to keep focused on the creativity that I’ve been given to see what I can do with it. And I really have to stay healthy.
RW: It sounds to me like you feel more whole in your art life right now than you ever have before.
I do. My art is really doing well. I have a lot of curiosity. So now I have a chance to follow my curiosity. What will happen if I do this or that?
RW: The journey continues and it’s like a search. Would you agree?
I would agree, definitely.
RW: Where is the search located do you think?
Susan: I’m not sure what you mean by that.
RW: What’s the realm in which the search takes place? You could say it’s about coming up with that outer expression, new work.
I’m not sure that’s what it is though. It’s always that, but it’s a search to realize that something that I can’t quite yet see, something I’m imagining, but I can’t see it. So it’s a search to see that. That’s a really exciting thing for me. When I get that and a piece is done, I often feel like somebody else did it. That’s one of the ways I know I have finished a piece; it’s having this feeling that someone else made it.
RW: It’s a mysterious thing in a way. Right?
Right. It usually starts—I call it “an idea path,” but I don’t think it’s as cognitive as that. It’s more like I’ll see an image. I’ll go through my images after I take some pictures. I organize them and then look for the ones that really stand out. Then I start looking for how these relate one to another. What’s the story then that wants to be told with this picture?
RW: And the measure of an answer, if it comes, is from some inner place. Right?
Yes. It’s from something. I mean, it’s something that’s already there probably from the Pleistocene Age or something. It’s already there. I just haven’t seen it yet and then all of a sudden I see it.