“I had a great childhood,” says Susan Strazzella, turning the “suffering equals art” notion upside down. As though in gratitude, her painted world now is about the “happiness of colorful flowers,” the “gentle peacefulness” of her favored animal subjects, and “the splendor of birds,” as she writes in an artist’s statement. Even her still lifes radiate this joyful contentment.
The artist grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. “Living so close to New York City, my mother took my brother and me to museums, ballet, and the theater. She wanted us to have a knowledge of the arts,” says Strazzella. Every Sunday, she paged through The New York Times, noting, “I loved all the fashion illustrations.” That passion got an early boost the summer of her senior year of high school, when she took a fashion-illustration class at Pratt Institute. The experience convinced her she wanted this to be her life’s work; she later attended Pratt, where she earned a BFA. Strazzella followed this by taking courses at New York’s School of Visual Arts, where she got to study with famed fashion illustrator Kenneth Paul Block (1924–2009).
She then set out on her own impressive career in illustration, and as an art director. Over the years, Strazzella worked for some of the biggest names in the industry: Vogue, Butterick Patterns, Talbots, Macy’s, J.Crew, Coach, and others. The unrelenting workload of design, photo shoots, and attendant constant travel, however, made it impossible to paint. About 20 years ago, she decided to leave the corporate world so she could explore a more personal vision.
Strazzella began painting primarily with watercolors but eventually switched mostly to acrylics; more recently, she’s begun incorporating fabric and paper into her work. Her fashion background is never far away. “I love the mix of patterns and colors that traditionally don’t work together: plaid and polka dot, fuchsia and bright yellow.” It helps when a particular subject, like her favored sunflowers, offers enough surface area to play: “I simply love sunflowers,” she says. “So many petals to work with.”
Her work is also inspired by her extensive travels. “My husband and I have visited 65 countries so far, and, for the past seven years, we’ve been living in Florence, Italy, in November and December every year.” On these journeys, she’s always on the lookout for striking papers and fabrics to build into her canvases.
For reference, she turns to books, photographs, and her own drawings, but adds, “The colors are mostly from my imagination.” She usually begins with a rough sketch that she breaks down into graphic shapes. “Then I start with paper and fabric and see where it takes me.”
Despite a lifetime spent in the creative arts, she admits she still marvels over how it all works. “I’m always excited when I start a new piece — and am pleasantly surprised when it’s finished.”
Susan Strazzella, Wedge Studios, 129 Roberts Street in the River Arts District. Strazzella’s work is also exhibited at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St., Asheville, woolworthwalk.com). For more information, see suestrazzella.com.