“Art was my identity as a geeky kid,” says multimedia artist Sue Wille, who also produces work under the alias Suzie Millions. “I talked my 9th-grade algebra teacher into letting me do art class instead of algebra, and in 10th grade, art got me out of having to go to gym class.” At age 13 she sold her first painting, a self portrait, to the school yearbook photographer. She ran out of ink while making that piece, used her father’s liquid shoe polish to finish it, and has been improvising and experimenting with random materials ever since — to critical acclaim.
Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums internationally and is in private collections including those of Harry Shearer, Susan Sarandon, Lucinda Williams, Boozoo Chavis, and Rev. Al Green. Wille is also the author of The Complete Book of Retro Crafts.
Before settling in Asheville in 1999 she lived in New Orleans, where she did pastel portraits of blues musicians and began creating assemblages that are now her primary artistic focus. “LeMieux Gallery gave me a one-person show of those, as well as memory jars, linoleum prints, cigar-box dioramas, drawings, and paintings,” she remembers. The show practically sold out — including a piece purchased by renowned New Orleans-based writer Tom Piazza, who published a multi-page feature about Wille’s work in The Oxford American. He noted that a shrine-like montage Wille made “felt almost as if it had a soul.”
While her work has honored Southern roots musicians for decades, the assemblages she’s now creating have recast the scope: “I did artwork about country music and the music of the Mississippi Delta for so long that it branched out into other aspects of Southern culture, and I realized that the dining-room table and food were things that connect everyone.” Wille has spent years accumulating collectibles like old photos, cookbooks, table settings, printed advertisements — the whole culinary kit and kaboodle. Now much of that material finds its way into her art. Her home studio even has a large bakery rack, where there are no less than 18 trays of assemblages in progress.
Wille attended the Chicago Art Institute as a merit scholar while working full time in the most intriguing places she could find — the Double Door dive bar, a local East Indian television station, anywhere she could “participate in human theater.” Her first gallery show in the Windy City, pastel portraits of people who attended elementary school with her, was featured in Chicago Magazine in an eight-page spread.
Then Wille headed down the Mississippi to Memphis and, hard up for affordable art supplies, started making music-themed dioramas out of cigar boxes. She went on to make thousands of those, and though it’s not something she does regularly now, she recently completed a commission of them for an art dealer in France.
The theme: women in music.
Susan Wille, East Asheville, suziemillions.com. Wille’s work is carried at Horse + Hero (14 Patton Ave., horseandhero.com), where she’ll have the April Artist Spotlight including an opening on Friday, April 8, 6-9pm. The artist is also represented by La Pop Galerie in Sète, France, and her work will be included this fall in the Outsider Art Fair at L’Atelier Richelieu in Paris.