To simply call Susan Rubin an artist doesn’t really get into her niche. She works mainly in colored pencil, but she isn’t merely a draftswoman, either. Rubin employs an amalgam of color theory, scientific research, sensitivity and an educated love of the delicate beauty of the botanical world to create subtly refined renderings that go beyond the boundaries of illustration. And that brings us back to our first descriptor: artist. She’s definitely an artist, and a self-made one at that, who’s made a career out of drawing flowers — magnificently.
But Rubin, a longtime member of Denver’s Spark co-op and a former botanical illustration instructor at the Denver Botanic Gardens, is also a student of the world, a traveler always looking onward, who chooses to share her skills, her outlook and an affinity for places like Monet’s garden in Giverny with students and art lovers alike.
How did that happen? Let her tell you in her own words as she answers the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Susan Rubin: The obvious answer for a botanical artist would be “flowers.” It's really more than that, though. It is the rhythms and constancy of the seasons and the immutable forces of nature that transcend human distractions and interference like politics, pandemics and even progress. I am endlessly inspired by the scientific details that make a seed germinate, turn a petal blue or cause an insect to pollinate a certain plant.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Maria Sibylla Merian: In 1699 and newly divorced, she embarked on a purely scientific journey to Surinam to document and illustrate insects and plants. I admire her moxie.
Joseph Albers: The Bauhaus colorist whose Interaction of Color inspired my study of color theory and application in the 1970s and informs my work every day.
Dorothy Parker: Obviously Dorothy Parker. Her acerbic wit and droll observations would light up any party.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
A great advantage to being a botanical artist is the relative scarcity of people in the field, making it a very appealing niche. It is also one of the worst things, as botanical art is often regarded as not quite traditional enough for the botanical illustration community and not quite experimental enough for the arts community. Though I walk that awkward line, I have been able to exhibit, teach and publish widely in both communities over the past 25 years, for which I am extremely grateful.
How about globally?
Botanical illustration is held in high regard in other parts of the world, in places like the U.K., where people are historically more connected to gardens and to plants in general. That said, there is a deep attachment to traditional illustration, which can tend to exclude my more contemporary approach and materials.
What made you pick up the art of botanical illustration in the first place?
In a 1974 botany class at Colorado College, professor Jack Carter noticed my lackluster performance and offered me a chance to redeem my lackluster grade by doing some illustrations for his upcoming book. I taught myself basic illustration skills overnight, and I was hooked. In 1989, as a student in the School of Botanical Art and Illustration at Denver Botanic Gardens, I learned actual illustration skills and launched my career.
What’s your dream project?
I am always trying to connect people to the botanical realm by drawing parallels to the thinking world. I would love to take on a residency in an inspiring landscape.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Denver has been my home for my entire life. I wander, but I always return. I love the city for the climate, the relaxed atmosphere and the sense of adventure inherent in the West.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Right now, Katy Tartakoff. I have immense respect for this brilliant photographer, whose engaging work spans from portraiture to nature to the night skies. Her exquisite eye and refined skills reflect her balanced and kind relationship with the world and yield images that linger with me, both visually and emotionally.
What's on your agenda now and in the coming year?
I am mounting an exhibit at Spark Gallery in April. Living Color is my response to the gray sameness of the long year of quarantine. It’s a meditation on color, life and renewal. I am showing with superb collage artist Janice McDonald and sculptor Lydia Brokaw.
I am also teaching online classes for now and hoping for a return to in-person workshops by summer’s end. While waiting out the pandemic in my studio, I am making plans to get back to France.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Artists who draw. Though often viewed as preparatory work for a “better” medium, drawing is at the foundation of most good art. There is stunning observational work being done in Denver right now.
Living Color, a solo exhibition of botanical art by Susan Rubin, opens Thursday, April 1, at Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, and runs through April 25. Also showing: Janice McDonald, Moment/um, and Lydia Brokaw, Radically Rebuilt Reclaimed Recreated Ridiculous Rubbish.