The World of Sue Kreitzman

Interview with Sue Kreitzman:

For The Jennifer Lauren Gallery blog.

The Jennifer Lauren Gallery holds pop-up exhibitions, often in London, and takes part in art fairs across the world. Check the exhibitions section for further details on these. Jennifer herself is also a freelance producer and curator.

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
When did your interest in the field of outsider/folk art begin? When did you become a collector of this art? How many pieces do you think are in your collection now? And do you exhibit any of it on the walls of your home or elsewhere?

Sue Kreitzman:
"I have loved folk art my entire life and still do. I am surrounded by it in homes in London, Cambridgeshire and New York. I have always been a rabid collector.

In the beginning, a long time ago in New York City, and later in New England, I collected from quirky shops, flea markets, museum shops, itinerant vendors by the side of the road during trips to the countryside...anywhere interesting pieces called my name.

From the late 60s until the mid 80s I lived in Atlanta That's where my son was born. That's where my epic food career began. Georgia is full of folk artists. Actually not just folk art but what I eventually learned was Outsider Art - wonderfully crazy people making splendidly crazy art. At that time, alas, I was, among other things, a 'Faculty Wife'. A dumber, blander group did not exist. Their purpose in life was to support their professor husbands and to live in a very proscribed way. This was way back in the day; I'm sure things have changed by now. The people I was forced to occasionally socialise with didn't understand the stuff I collected, or understand why I wanted to spend money on it. They saw it as scary, stupid, and worthless. Kids always loved me and my collections, but one little girl once pulled me aside and confided: "My mother thinks you are crazy."

We used to drive up to the North Georgia Mountains to visit artists like Lanier Meaders. He came from a long line of folk potters. He's long dead now, but he was such a nice man with a kiln and a workshop out in the boondocks. We would drive up there with our toddler son, and just spend time with him. He made face jugs, a southern folk tradition. We bought quite a few of them. The first one we bought cost $5! He had a bone yard with stuff that didn't please him and we nabbed pieces from there too. It was very primitive and exciting. The face jugs have ugly, grotesque faces. They were so affordable at the time, but now I see them going for lots of money. We didn't buy them as an investment, but because we loved him and loved the jugs. Howard Finster was out there too, but I didn't get any of his works. I learnt later this art was Outsider Art. We saw it as folk art; exciting day trips out for us.

Above: Alkaline-glazed pottery jugs by Lanier Meaders

I was considered very weird, I didn't have everyone else's taste and didn't live the way the other faculty wives did. I painted my house in vivid vulgar colours just as I still do now: red, yellow, turquoise... People were horrified.

Sometimes I would drive to Vinings, a small town near Atlanta, to visit the Scandinavian jewellery and food shop, a charming little place. There was a shack nearby, with chewing gum sculptures hanging from trees, primitive dolls on chairs in the garden. The shack and its garden were ablaze with wild colour.. It drove me mad with excitement, and inspired me wildly. I knew it had to be a Black person living there in the middle of what had become a white gentrified suburban area, and most likely a woman. I didn't want to intrude by knocking on the door and interrupting her privacy to gawk, so I never did. But it turned out that this was Nellie Mae Rowe's house and I did subsequently meet her. She was a loving, open-hearted, endlessly creative woman.

Above, painting by Nellie Mae Rowe: Sunner Time. c 1979

In time, a woman named Judith Alexander discovered Nellie. She had a gallery and curated a show for Nellie. I went to that show and I bought a drawing. A treasured part of our collection to this day. Nellie took my son Shawm to one side and told him how to grow up to be a good person - he was around 4 at the time.

Over the decades my collecting depended on budget, (although I always managed to exceed my budget), and my visceral reaction to the art and the artist. Did I sweat, pant and horripilate? Was I overcome with emotion? Did I burst into tears? Well shall be mine!

It is absolutely impossible to know how many pieces we have now. They cover the walls and floors of all my habitats: a studio apartment in New York, a house in the countryside in Cambridgeshire, and a flat in London. I mainly live between London and Cambridge but go to New York twice a year. My son loves the collections in the Cambridge house; that's the art he grew up with. I never get rid of anything and cherish it all.

I am an obsessive collector at heart, not a hoarder - everything is neat and dusted and makes perfect sense. I am an obsessive maker as well. I collect my own work and very rarely sell it. Once in a while I do, but mostly I keep everything. I am anal retentive about my own work. It has more power as a vast collection than having just a paltry few strewn about here and there."

Jennifer Lauren Gallery: Can you tell us a bit about your background? I know you were a chef before becoming an artist yourself, so it would be great to tell people about that and when things changed.

Sue Kreitzman:
"My life has gone in many different directions. I was a good oboe player and went to University on an oboe scholarship. The university had strong music and drama departments. We had a full orchestra. Famous artists and composers came to work with us and mentor us. Each year we presented music series just like a real grown up orchestra. We were taught and mentored by the New York Philharmonic. Those were golden years.

After graduation I was an inner city school teacher in New York, then Cambridge Massachusetts, finally Atlanta, Georgia. In Atlanta, I taught in the oldest brick school building built for black students, right in middle of the projects. I arrived at the time Atlanta was trying to integrate the school system. They began by gingerly integrating the teachers. I was the first white teacher to enter an all black school. The other teachers in the school were so kind to me. Those were interesting years, great friendships were formed, and my eyes were opened to the reality of institutionalised racism.

After a few years, I went on maternity leave and my passion for food and cookery came to the fore.

My mother murdered food. I thought you had to eat because your mother made you finish every horrible thing on your plate. I had no idea that food could be such a magnificent experience. When I grew up and was in charge of my own life, My husband and I frequented the delightful and affordable ethnic restaurants of New York City. And the butchers and greengrocers in our neighbourhood were happy to teach me how to embrace and cook new things. So, in Atlanta, on maternity leave, when I had two months of doing nothing (except gestating), I went on a cooking frenzy.

I became well known for my dinner parties. My husband is an MIT alumnus, and he belonged to the Atlanta MIT Alumni group. In those days, all men of course. One month, their chosen monthly activity was dinner at my house. I threw an epic Hungarian dinner party and knocked their socks off. A major New York City publisher got wind of it (a dinner party attendee wrote a letter!) and contacted me. Did I want to write a cookbook? Why not? I thought, so I did. And thus a new career dawned.

Soon after, a friend of mine with a small restaurant had a problem. The chef walked out and he had no one to cook for the weekend. 'Please come help' he cried, so I went to help out and ended up staying for a year and a half. My reputation grew and I became a food presence in the city. Columns, magazine features, food editorships, more cookbooks, restaurant reviews, cooking lessons: you name it in the food biz, I did it.

In the mid eighties, my husband's career brought us to England. My career flourished in the UK as well, and I became known for a series of low fat, healthy eating cookbooks. I had a regular cooking spot on the BBC, and later on GMTV, as well as other food channels of the time. Eventually, I wrote 27 cookbooks in total.

But then, suddenly, I had a great epiphany, a metaphorical bolt of lightening struck me, and I became an artist. Once again, I completely changed direction.

I was checking the proofs, of my 27th cookbook, when my hand picked up a marker and drew a mermaid on a piece of scrap paper. What was this? I thought I could not draw, I thought I couldn't make art myself, but here was a slightly scary yet delightful folk art creature, festooned with snakes, wearing a fish for a hat, looking up at me. The mermaid spoke to me. She was in charge. Did I have a psychotic break? Did the muse bite me in the bum? Or maybe it was the menopause. I never wrote another book again and I became totally obsessed with drawing.

At first I used markers, then better markers, and then I moved onto little bottles of nail varnish picked up from the local market. Teeny tiny bottle, teeny tiny brush, I had no idea what I was doing or where it came from. I have been making art ever since. And it grew into quite a big thing. But at first I kept it a secret. What was I doing, and why was I doing it? Eventually I used acrylics on found wood, painting goddesses and female mythology. Gradually, I began embellishing the paintings with buttons and found objects until they were vividly encrusted.

When I saw a call for artists for the Raw Art Festival in Islington, I geared up all of my courage and sent a few images. I was sure I would be ignored, or even worse, laughed out of town. But...Reader, I was accepted! It turned out to be the seminal event in my art life. Liz Parkinson was there, an Outsider Artist from Australia I fiercely admired. Judith McNicol was there too, exhibiting her complicated and mind bending doodle-like drawings. At the time she edited an Outsider Art Magazine called Artesian. She loved my work and wanted to feature me in her magazine. I met John Maizels there too, the editor of Raw Vision magazine, and many other people in the field. Judith, Liz and I ate lunch together each day. At last I found somewhere I belonged. (After the exhibition was over, I acted as assistant to the curator of the Raw Art Festival for awhile, and helped him with similar events in Spain and Italy.)

During the Islington show, we, (the female artists, wildly outnumbered by the males) bonded with each other. One night after dinner in Chinatown, and a few glasses of wine, I declared: "We should put on our own show, and call it...I don't know...let me think...Wild Old Women. WOW!! A couple of years later I did just that at the Novas Gallery in London, across their three floors. Novas was a great supporter of Outsider Art, and allowed me to curate the show with the help of my great friend Peter Herbert. Since then I have organised and curated many Outsider Art Shows in the St Pancras Crypt, and with Peter Herbert in the Conference Centre Gallery in St Pancras Hospital. Through all this I have met many artists and many are now great friends. We have love and friendship for each other, and great passion for art and each other's work- it is a wonderful life. None of this was ever in my life goals. I always say don't make five-year plans, don't lock yourself into a box; you never know what unexpected journey awaits or what magical doors might suddenly open."

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
What style of work, if any, is of particular interest to you within this field? (for example is it embroidery, drawing, sculpture, and so on)

Sue Kreitzman:
"I am interested in everything and anything. I look at a piece and I get a visceral reaction to it - the hairs on my body stand up, I gasp and sweat. One look and I'm gone. When I was a kid my parents dragged me around museums. Henri Rousseau's 'Sleeping Gypsy' at MOMA is a piece that entered me at an early age, and I entered it right back. It spoke to me - it protected me. I still feel that way, and every time I go back to New York I visit that work and introduce other people to it too.

I like things that are rough, imperfect, and wild. I like artists who work from their gut. I like it if they don't plan ahead of time, and it just flows. It needs to come from a very personal place."

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
Would you say you had a favourite artist or piece of work within your collection? And why?

Sue Kreitzman:
"I love it all. However, Nellie Mae Rowe's work is very important to me. I admired her house all those years ago, and she inspired me so deeply.

Two of my best friends in the world are Joe Gagliano and Malcah Zeldis in New York. They are friends of my heart. I originally saw Malcah's work at the American Folk Art Museum and loved it. One day, years ago, I was at the Outsider Art Fair talking to John Maizels when Malcah came up behind me. I went a bit funny, and was very star struck. We became fast friends. When I am in NY we spend a great deal of time together. When I am I London, we speak on the phone several times a week. One of my favourite Malcah pieces in my collection is a painting on illustration board of Rita Hayworth as Gilda, peeling off one glove.

Malcah Zeldis: Left: Death of a Friend. Right: Nude on a Couch. 1973

And then Joe. He has a place in Queens, NYC. My friend Dina, who has a folk art shop in the East Village in New York, was always talking about her friend 'Loco Gringo Joe'. He is crazy about Mexican folk art and so am I. So I met Joe years ago through Dina, and visited his space, filled with vintage toys and folk art. He had set up droll and creative little installations of things interacting with other things, just as I love to do. And he is an obsessive collector, a kindred spirit. So we talked and talked, and played with his toys.

At the end of that first intense visit with Joe he said: "Can I show you something that no one else has ever seen?" He fetched a folder filled with drawings. Some were influenced by Keith Haring. Joe used to work in the subway selling tokens, and met Haring a few times, while Haring was illegally, scribbling away on the subway posters. Joe's style is purely his own but you can see the inspiration there. I got quite excited. 'I love them and I'd like to buy a few' I said. Tears came to his eyes.. Since then we have had many art adventures together and every time I'm there he does a big drawing for me, sometimes with me in it and sometimes not. I have huge collection of his work. My very favourite is his version of Grant Wood's 'American Gothic' but with trolls with boobs instead of a raw-boned farming couple.. Yes, you read that right. Trolls with boobs.Does life get any better? Probably not.

Other favourites include Angela Rogers, a wonderful friend, who paints and draws mysterious figures and stories. She paints on clothes too, and I am lucky enough to have some examples. And she makes Poppets, powerful and protective yarn wrapped totems. She does work from the gut, as does Rachel Louise Hodgson, a demure looking young woman whose drawings are hair-raising.

Jamie Freestone creates a multitude of great work using many different media and I have quite a bit of it now, including jaw dropping hand-painted garments. I have an exquisite and fierce embroidery by Valerie Potter, and quite a bit of Noel Donaldson's work. Noel is a passionate African American artist. I went to a show in the Bronx, loved his work and bought several things. I have collected more and more over the years. Businessman by day in IT, at night a prolific and passionate painter. Now he makes sculpture as well.

Early on, I mentored Julia Sisi, now she is flying high. I have quite a bit of her early work, and some of Dan Casado's as well.

I live surrounded by my work and by the work of people I love, admire and respect. My wardrobe consists of art clothes made by me or by artist friends, and all my jewellery is huge, profound, and created by me and my friends. It is a glorious way to live."

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
Is there an exhibition in this field of art that you have felt has been particularly important? And why?

Sue Kreitzman:
"I am going to be very self-referential now, and mention exhibitions I have curated in London over the years: 'WOW', 'Flashier and Trashier', 'Dare to Wear' and 'Epiphanies'. I have a very personal and emotional connection to Outsider Art and outsider artists. In these 4 exhibitions, I was able to showcase artists according to my vision and theirs. The colour, texture, spirituality, humour, angst and originality of each participant came through brilliantly, and visitors left the galleries inspired and moved."

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
Are there any people within this field that you feel have been particularly important to pave the way for where the field is at now?

Sue Kreitzman:
"John Maizels and Raw Vision Magazine. So important in every way to the sometimes confusing field of Outsider Art. I respect him and honour him. I am slightly tongue tied when around him, even now. He has put his heart and his soul into it. I am very grateful for what he has done for the field - it is quite remarkable."

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
Your house in London is like a mini-museum in itself - are there any plans for it in the future?

Sue Kreitzman:
"I do not know what will happen. We talk about it endlessly. Unlike Stephen Wright from the House of Dreams in London, I am a leaseholder, so the council still owns my building. It would be illegal for me to leave the flat to the nation as a museum. I do need to finalise a plan soon; I am 80 years old!"

Jennifer Lauren Gallery:
A conflicted term at present, but how do you feel about the term outsider art? and is there another word that you would prefer to be used instead?

Sue Kreitzman:
"It is very hard to pin down just as contemporary art is. Sometimes the two blend; and things can be one and the other. Outsider art, whatever it is, doesn't come from the head or the heart, it comes from the gut. That's the way it is for me and every outsider artist or raw artist I know. I prefer the term raw art.

My Thoughts on Outsider Art: Once the term outsider art (or raw art) was used to describe work produced by artists working in cultural isolation, following their own vision. All of that vision and mythos spills out flamboyantly onto canvas, wood, scrap metal, whatever is available. Raw artists tend to be scavengers, therefore many build exhilarating and strange constructs out of detritus and junk; all the gorgeous rubbish that less visionary folks throw away. Their isolation might be physical, emotional, or a result of mental illness (or a combination of these). Their work is idiosyncratic, bold and arresting, rarely pretty or twee. These isolates, working outside the cultural mainstream, following their personal and passionate visions, produce compelling, exciting and often disturbing work. But the term has now expanded to include other artists as well, individuals who may be connected to, and function in society, but really have no interest in the established art world, little or no formal training, yet are driven to make art."