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Artist is always creating something

July 17, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Wayne Skinner's AIIA (Antiques to Art) gallery opened in 1996 with an exhibit of Diana Suttenfield's artwork.

The artist is back in her third one-person show. The exhibition, on view through Sunday, Aug. 3, showcases Suttenfield's "Dumbarton Oaks" series of pastel paintings.

A native of Washington, D.C., Suttenfield has been fascinated by the district's Dumbarton Oaks since 1989.

She is eager to know what people think of her Dumbarton works. These are not representative of those gardens.

The work is more abstract. The colors are imaginary, she says.

The exhibit includes pieces in other media. There are a few in egg tempera, an old medium using egg yolk and watercolor. There also are a few small monoprints, done by painting an image in acrylic paint on glass then printing on paper.

There is one watercolor in the show - "Longwood Gardens," 1997. Years ago, Suttenfield worked primarily in watercolor, but she estimates that 98 percent of her work is in pastels now. She avoided the medium for years because it's so messy. "It's pure color. It's pure pigment."

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There is texture in a work in pastels.

"It's like little crystals of color refracting light," Suttenfield says. "That's what makes pastels so rich."

Several of the works are on black paper - something else she avoided and now loves.

Although Suttenfield says she drew all the time as a kid, she never thought about making a career of art. She lived in Washington, D.C., and Dranesville, Va. - a village near Great Falls, Va.

Years later, preparing a slide show while she was artist in residence at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, she realized there was a consistency in her work. The subject matter of her art - gardens, arches, architectural structures - were parts of her life. Her mother was a gardener. The house in Dranesville had an L-shaped breezeway conservatory. She appreciated those things as a child.

"Things were subconscious," she says.

Her family moved to Shepherdstown in 1962, and she attended Shepherd College from 1963 to 1966, studying secretarial science.

Shorthand and typing classes did her in, she laughs. "I just couldn't get beyond the squiggles."

Suttenfield was living in Georgia when she heard of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She studied there from 1969 to 1972, still without a concrete plan for her future. "At the time, I just wanted to be in an art situation," she says.

There was no career counseling; there was no structure. "I was just painting." She tried etching and did some figurative work, but most of the work she did was abstract.

She returned to Shepherdstown in 1972. Suttenfield was part of a group of artists that opened a cooperative art gallery in Shepherdstown.

"My own artwork evolved because I need to do artwork," she says.

In 1976, she took a job as public relations coordinator at Martinsburg-Berkeley County (W.Va.) Public Library and worked there for 23 years.

In the mid-'70s, a Shepherdstown homeowner commissioned Suttenfield to create an image of her house for notecards.

The project helped her to become aware of architecture and to realize how houses come to be. She got a sense of a house's proportion, its relationship to the land, the linked openings and closings, doors and windows.

"That's pretty much how my artwork comes about," Suttenfeld says. Putting color on paper, breaking up the space, she says.

She's done a few books of sketches of architecture in Shepherdstown and Martinsburg and one with author Tom Hahn on the C&O Canal.

Her work has opened eyes beyond the area. She has exhibited in New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago. One of her pastels has been exhibited in the American embassy in Kenya.

Looking at the work of other artists has been a major part of Suttenfield's education.

"Nobody taught me how to do what I do," she says.

Looking at artwork, she explains, seeing how someone else solved a problem, has helped her answer questions in her own work.

She's always asking.

Suttenfield doesn't have a set schedule for creating. Sometimes she's in the studio that's attached to her house from 6 a.m. until midnight.

She may not paint every day, but she gets "kind of antsy" if she's away from it for a couple of days.

"I want to be creating something," she says. "I'm always thinking about it."

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