Humming Along

Colorado painter Sushe Felix has been listening to a lot of old jazz lately. Especially important to her are the pieces that interpret the classics written by Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen. She also likes Burt Bacharach numbers, especially the way Dusty Springfield sings them.

Felix listens to the music while she paints, and it inspired her to name some of her latest pieces after famous songs. In her show at the William Havu Gallery, Abstract Symbols From Nature and the Unconscious, there are paintings titled "Misty," "Skylark" and "Nothing but Bluebirds."

Felix was born in Colorado Springs in 1958 and was interested in art from childhood. She has a BFA from Arizona State University and did graduate work there and at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When she first broke on the Denver scene, in the mid-1980s, Felix established her early reputation with wild neo-expressionist paintings that incorporated fabrics and fake fur, glitter and rhinestones. The edgy cartoon-like paintings were carried out in the loudest colors imaginable. Her subjects were animals and human figures, all of them set in vaguely allegorical scenes.

She debuted this sort of thing at a funky little art spot in LoDo, a neighborhood that was then littered with funky little art spots. Her work was an immediate hit with the art-buying public (the style was a national trend) and with the critics of that era. But all that wildness was not really right for her, and she made the first of several major stylistic changes. "I tried being sloppy, but it never satisfied me," Felix says. Changing what you do is a risky thing for a young artist who has found a popular route, but Felix never cared about being commercial, only with finding her own way aesthetically.

Living in Manitou Springs with husband Tracy, who is also a painter, Felix discovered an interest in the regionalist scene that had flourished in Colorado Springs during the '30s and '40s. The couple collected the work and met many of the artists who were still living in the area. They both also began to reflect regionalist influences in their paintings -- though, interestingly enough, their work does not look anything alike.

One of the artists Sushe Felix hooked up with was Eric Bransby, who is in his nineties. Bransby had been a student of Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson, two of the great regionalists. "I wanted to do the figurative thing, but I had gotten tired of doing that weird '80s stuff, so I sought out Eric," Felix says. Bransby took an old-fashioned approach, however, and his process was very rigorous, with innumerable studies done for a single painting. That took the fun out of it for Felix, and after a year and a half she went off on her own again. Still, the work from her Bransby period shows that she could have flourished in the traditional scene.

In 1991, Felix started breaking up the space in her paintings and making them more abstract. She did that for a year or so and then gave up the figure in her paintings, though she still uses figural forms in her ceramic sculptures. About that time, a new interest among scholars, dealers and collectors was being directed toward modern art in New Mexico from the mid-twentieth century, in particular the work of the transcendentalists. Felix became aware of their work through books, magazines and trips to Santa Fe.

"When I first came across them, it was artists such as Raymond Jonson, Agnes Pelton and Emil Bisttram that stood out," recalls Felix. "Their compositions are very geometric; however, there's also a connection to the earth, and I found that combination fascinating." Picking up on the newly discovered transcendentalists, Felix positioned herself on the cutting edge of retro painting, which came on strong about ten years ago.

The challenge for Felix was conveying the Colorado landscape in a way similar to that of the transcendentalists, and putting a sense of spirituality into it, as they had done. "I did this through the forms," says Felix, "especially the circle, which I see as an archetypal shape that has long symbolized the self. And even more than that, there's the color, which I see as being very spiritual." Felix also sees her paintings as expressing emotions. "There's turmoil in the paintings, like bad weather coming in, and I think this turmoil is an emotional element."

Felix has been addressing those concerns ever since. And even though she's settled into neo-transcendentalism, change is still a regular feature of her work -- just not the radical shifts in style that occurred earlier in her career. For example, the paintings in Abstract Symbols are still neo-transcendentalist, but they are different from her efforts of the past couple of years.