So, some of you may have followed my first blog, milk&honey. It was literally borne out of a dream I had in which I was interviewing some of my favorite artists and having the time of my life. I woke up from the dream and said, “I’m going to do that!” And I did!

I have always been an avid appreciator of artists, and not just the conventional kind. Really, anyone who follows their creative inclinations and pours their insides out into some form of expression is an artist in my book and someone that I definitely want to chat with. I absolutely loved picking the brains of musicians, visual artists, and other creatives for milk&honey, so I have decided to bring all of those interviews over to the helloashleyberry blog, and it only makes sense that I would start with the first interview I conducted for milk&honey, which was with one of my very dearest friends, Suzanne Campbell.

Suzanne is an artist in every sense of the word. She studied photography as an undergrad, wrote an incredibly touching book based on her photographs and the story of a friend’s rescue pup, she creates gorgeous living art with succulents, and now combines creativity with meditation at Sitting Lily, her lovely meditation studio in Playa del Rey. Check out this interview that I did with Suzanne a little over four years ago when I was first starting my journey as blogger, and then be sure to check out Suzanne’s donations-based Creativity & Meditation classes on Tuesday evenings throughout the month of August and the first Tuesday in September!

Interview with Suzanne Campbell 6.1.11

(originally posted on milk&honey)

AB: How did you first come up with the idea for your “living art” projects?

SC: I was taking an “Introduction to Horticulture” class at UCLA and I was doing my research project on succulent designs. I came across an image of a living art piece in a book, and my brain just immediately went, “Why didn’t they make that an actual image of a landscape with the plants?”  They had all the colors; all they would need to do is position them slightly differently, because it already almost looked like a landscape.  So, I immediately wanted to run out and buy thousands of plants and do that myself.  It really was a moment of complete artist’s inspiration and it just took over.  There were no thoughts about how much it would cost me or how I would go about doing it.  I thought, “I just have to do this.”

AB:  So what is your artistic background?

SC: Well, in college I majored in Fine Art and concentrated in Photography and Computer Graphics.   As early as I can remember, I enjoyed painting and things like that.  I didn’t really hone that skill, but collaging, actually, has always been a big part of my art.  My mom recently found something that I did when I was four years old.  I had collaged an entire scene, kind of like what I’m doing now with plants, but out of shells.  I had found all of these shells, and I made a sunset and all these flowers and butterflies on this huge piece of blue construction paper and I refused to let her glue them down because I wanted to be able to move them!

AB:  It definitely seems like there’s a big focus on nature in your art, and sometimes, you’re pulling nature into kind of unexpected places, too.

SC: Yeah, having gone to school in a “city” city, I was always noticing where nature came through.  A park in the middle of campus definitely makes such a difference, especially in big cities.  So, for me, it was important to create that space in my art, just bringing nature into whatever I saw. 

AB: Tell me about where you grew up?

SC: I grew up in a suburb of Boston, very much the scene of Mark Twain on a river.  We grew up right on the Charles River and had a canoe in our backyard and would just throw it in the river and go wherever as kids.  I definitely spent a lot of my childhood running around.  It was such a safe area and we could ride our bikes everywhere.  It was very free.

AB:  So where do you find inspiration? 

SC: Well, definitely going on hikes.  That’s usually where my brain gets the most quiet, I’d say, and where inspiration usually strikes me.  I remember leaving LA for a weekend and going up to Big Bear to go hiking.  In the middle of the hike, I came up with an idea for an art project, and I literally just started running back to my car.

AB: What led you to start taking the horticulture and landscaping classes?  Were you always into working with plants?

SC: Not really.  Both my grandmothers were very avid gardeners.  My dad’s mom and dad had a big farm.   So, my earliest memories were picking blueberries with her.  My mom’s mom was also always in the garden.  She was always growing herbs and making her own little lavender sachets, but I didn’t really get involved in horticulture until I had space for it.   The first time I started buying plants for myself was when I had my own apartment with friends in Playa del Rey, CA.  We had a little patio, and I probably killed half of the plants out there.  But, it made such a difference and the ones that did live were beautiful. Then when I finally had my own home and a yard it was a little overwhelming at first.  That’s, actually, why I took a horticulture class.  I just didn’t know what to do with myself.  I had all of this land, and it was like a blank canvas.  It was like the Sistine Chapel, because it wasn’t a small little area of dirt; it was huge and I didn’t know where to begin.  So I started taking a landscape design class.

AB: What are the most challenging parts of using plants as an artistic medium?

SC: Definitely dealing with the weather.  Space—if I didn’t have a lot of space, it would be difficult.  And keeping everything healthy and happy and alive.  Keeping it in the right type of light versus shade as it’s still rooting, because, if the roots aren’t fully down into the soil, it can dry out really easily.   You have to be mindful of over-watering or under-watering, too much sun, too little sun.  It’s really about finding that balance, and then I probably have at least 20 different types of succulents in one piece.  So it’s interesting to see which ones root really quickly and are really happy right away, and others are just like, “I don’t want to be here.  I don’t know why you put me here. "

AB:  Did you reference any artists in particular?

SC: I think for the first piece I was looking primarily at Seurat and a little bit at Cezanne.  Seurat did pointillist art, and if I did plant art on an enormous scale, like on a huge building, I could do a Seurat painting.  I think it would be so cool to make an entire building like a painting!  So I am basically just taking that principle and then scaling it down a lot.  I looked at their pieces to get an idea of how you can use color to create landscapes.  If you look at one of their paintings, you see only a handful of colors, but you can tell the difference between a building, the sky, and the ground.  That’s really what I was trying to do.  I’m using all the same kinds of plants, but I want to make sure you can see the difference between the sky and a river and a mountain.

AB: It sounds like it becomes almost necessary to work on a larger of a scale for this kind of art.

SC: Yeah. I’ve had people ask me about doing smaller pieces, and, for what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t work. I like working on a big scale with this, because you can have a lot more fun with the illusion. I wanted there to be movement in the color, and a change in the shape that you could really see. I think also because the panels are in rectangles, to get any kind of fluid movement, it needs to be huge.

AB:  It’s interesting that you used the word “illusion” because it seems like that is a theme that’s really present in your work.  There is a “peek-a-boo”, “is-that-what-I’m-seeing” kind of effect. 

SC: Yes, when I did my senior thesis on collage at the University of Pennsylvania, I had photographed my collages and then printed them in the color dark room.  This was in the beginning of the digital media age as well.  So everyone thought I had done it digitally.  First, they thought, “Oh, there’s a photograph.”  Then they thought, “Oh, she did that digitally.”  But they were all collages that were made from photographs, so everything was done manually.  I liked seeing everyone’s brains go through all these steps and thinking, “Wait. What am I seeing?”  They knew it wasn’t quite like a photograph, because they could tell something wasn’t right visually.   The horizon would be positioned in some way it couldn’t actually be or people would be upside-down in the picture but you wouldn’t notice at first.  I loved seeing people walk into my space and think, “Oh a photograph,” and then get closer and say, “Wait a minute.”

AB: So, the two living art pieces that you have created are landscape images.  Will you continue to work through landscape imagery?

SC: There’s definitely two more landscape pieces that I want to do, but I am also thinking about doing a portrait, which would definitely be an adventure.  I’m thinking in the vein of Andy Warhol with block colors, but the tricky thing with succulents is that even if you get something that’s one color, it’s never just one color.  And you have to be careful because, depending on the sunlight it gets, it’ll change color.

AB: You’re from the East Coast originally.  What brought you out West? 

SC: When I finished with school, I knew I wanted to venture away from Boston.  I had always loved traveling and had always wanted to live in other cities.  So I kind of narrowed it down between New York, LA, and San Francisco.   My brother was living in LA, which meant I had a place to crash so I just came here first, and then I never really left.  It just felt right and it’s just beautiful out here, so I stayed. 

AB: I heard that, at one point, you traveled across the country in your van for several months.  What made you decide to do that?

SC: That was another moment of crazy inspiration.   It was a couple of years after I had graduated college and I remember looking over at my camera and it had dust on it. A layer of dust!  And in that moment, I was like, “I need to get out of LA.”  So, I spent the next six months saving up, sold my car, bought a VW bus—the cutest bus in the world—and fixed it up.  I traveled around the U.S. photographing animal sanctuaries. I did a zigzag across the southern states.  I broke down in about half of them.  Eventually, I made it all the way down to the Florida Keys, all the way up to Boston, and got some great photographs.

AB: I also heard that you recently self-published a book. 

SC: Yes,  “Brandy’s First Swim”. I didn’t really know it would turn into a book.  I was traveling with some girlfriends and my friend’s dog up the coast.  We drove from LA to Vancouver, just camping, and I took pictures the whole way.  When I got back, I was thinking, “What should I get my friend for Christmas?” So, I just started putting pictures in a folder to make her an album from the trip.  As I started going through the pictures, I realized that I had an amazing story in these pictures.  Brandy had been a rescue dog who had been abused and almost died when my friend, Emily, brought her home.  Brandy got better, but after going through something traumatic like that, she had a lot of things that she had to overcome.  Even with this new happy life, she was still terrified of a lot of stuff and one of her last fears was water.  She hated rain; she hated puddles.  But on this trip, we were at the beach every day.  Brandy loved the beach, but hated the water.   After going to the beach everyday for almost a month, she started getting used to the water, and when we were right on the border of Canada, she swam for the first time.  It was so momentous!  Emily and I were both crying.  It was unbelievable!  So, I ended up hand making a book for Emily, told from Brandy’s point of view, about the trip and how she swam for the first time.  I gave it to my friend and she loved it, and then people started asking me if I would make them a copy.   So, a year or two later, after my hundredth request for a copy of “The Brandy Book”, I decided to put one together on my computer through iPhoto.   Then, I started getting calls from people I didn’t know, asking me for a copy!   I had to order every copy and they were really expensive, so I finally decided to self-publish it and it’s been amazing!  So many people can relate to the story of overcoming a fear, and it’s a dog lover’s dream story because Brandy is this amazing, courageous dog that was saved from an abusive world.  Her story really is about having a second chance and about letting go of your horrible past in whatever way you can.  It speaks to so many people. 

If you're interested in unlocking you're creativity, be sure to check out Suzanne's Creativity & Meditation Classes! They're donation-based and will be happening on Tuesday evenings in August and the 1st Tuesday of September at Sitting Lily!