Forty years pass quickly. But the memories that matter never seem to dim. Professor of art Suzanne Chouteau can clearly recall the moment when, as a Catholic grade-schooler, she connected personal expression with faith, prayer and seeking God.
“I used to have a hard time praying—saying the prayers at church,” Chouteau recalls. “I talked to my mother frankly. I said ‘Mom I don’t feel anything when I’m saying my prayers.’ She said, ‘When do you feel God?’ I said, ‘When I sing.’ She said, ‘Well then, sing. If that connects you, sing.’”
Chouteau took her mother’s advice. “I thought that was so great. It was OK that you find the sacred and the divine when you sing. And that’s what happened when I started making art, too.”
Chouteau’s most recent work—two series in juxtaposition: the destructive series she calls “Genocide of the Conscience” and the constructive series she calls “Generation”—is true to her roots in both the Catholic emphasis on social justice and her parents’ activism in the Civil Rights Movement. Together, the two series combine efforts to raise the public’s awareness of issues of peace and justice with the belief that heightened awareness will lead to a more responsible, conscientious humanity.
“‘Genocide of the Conscience’ explores what I see as the root of contemporary ruin on the planet,” she says. “The prints address historic and contemporary events in which creatures and humans are subjected to actions that undermine their survival. Through bad actions we teach our children to live without conscience or obligation to anyone or anything—a recipe for producing mass violence, unhealthy lifestyles, wanton greed, pollution of the environment and a devaluation of nature. Of course, the alternative to a genocidal conscience is a generative one, hence the ‘Generation’ counterpoint in my work.”
“Generation” is an ongoing series that includes six etchings—a process in which the acid is used to etch lines in zinc printing plates. The works—“Sequoia (Praise for the Father),” “Foxtail Pine (Mother and Child on High),” “Joshua Tree (Brother Peace),” “Gowen Cypress (Sister Grace),” “Redwoods (Love Your Siblings)” and “Bristlecone Pine (Respect Your Elders)”—capture the inherent, majestic strength and environmental fragility of some of the world’s oldest, rarest trees species, which happen to be found in California. Chouteau began the series after a trip that found her hiking to remote locales to pay homage to these most ancient of living things.
“With global warming, these trees are endangered,” she says. “I realize there is a fine line between the generative beauty embodied in these trees and the genocidal aspect, should these trees perish at our hands. The hope embodied in these etchings then is the hope of living conscientiously for the beauty and wellbeing of all creatures.”
Begun four years ago, “Genocide of the Conscience” includes nine woodcuts thus far. “Rwanda, 1994,” the first print of the series, outlines man’s inhumanity against God’s creatures in two ways: via the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda and death of a generation of Chinook salmon cased by the diversion of the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon in 2004. “Darfur, Sudan, 2007,” depicts a group of young children asleep in a safe house, while army-instigated fires threaten their distant village.
“Wounded Knee, 1890,” captures both the Native American ghost dancers and the Cavalry that gunned them down. “Armenia, 1915,” recalls the killing and forced expatriation of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. “American Bison”; “Wounded Knee”; “Yellowstone 2007”; “Gray Wolf”; and “Polar Bear” are reminders of species at risk on our planet.
Though the subject matter in the latter series may seem dark, the completed works also contain an ambiguity that holds out the promise of peace and justice in the face of overwhelming odds. For example, close inspection reveals that the ghost dancers in “Wounded Knee, 1890,” are actually modern figures—Chouteau says the ghost dance is still practiced—signifying a triumph of the human spirit over attempted annihilation. Often, her works include children and hold out hope for their future.
Likewise, in “Armenia, 1915,” Chouteau intentionally left the top section of the image vague—there are figures with their worldly belongings packed, but does it depict Armenians fleeing their homeland or returning? This particular piece has another significance for Chouteau. The main image is taken from a photograph belonging to her colleague in the Department of Art, professor Marsha Karagheusian-Murphy. The image depicts Karagheusian-Murphy’s grandmother and great-grandmother in traditional clothing. Chouteau recreated the image with one important change.
“I made the great grandmother Marsha,” she says. Although she hasn’t visited all of the areas that form the backdrops for her images, Chouteau’s life experiences give her a unique understanding of each facet of her work. Growing up in the Vietnam era, she saw her brother get his draft card and many young men in the neighborhood march off to war. In college at St. Ambrose University, a Catholic school in Davenport, Iowa, she took core classes that emphasized peace and justice. She volunteered at a women’s shelter, got involved with the college’s Dorothy Day House and became an activist, protesting the Rock Island Arsenal and nuclear proliferation.
The developing artist balanced these activities by working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a park aide on the Mississippi River, and writing and illustrating the Junior Ranger Newsletter, which exposed her to environmental issues. She also went to Nicaragua as a brigadista, helping to harvest coffee and serve as a witness to the Contra War there. These experiences solidified Chouteau’s convictions, and during graduate school she produced an abstract series titled “Childhood Memories of Nuclear War,” inspired in part by her memories of grade-school Civil Defense drills. Chouteau returned to Nicaragua following her first year at Xavier, and while the trips left her with a more immediate, visceral understanding of events, the experiences also taught her something else. “Making art is nothing like going there, but I still think it’s valid to make images,” she says. “I don’t have to be there to know that this is unjust and wrong. I do think it’s important to let people know this is still happening. That’s what art does.
“I’m not an expert in all of this. I’m a human being, and I do know what that means, and I do know what that feels like, and I do know that any one of these things happening to me would be terrible.”
The strength of Chouteau’s commitment to touch the sacred through her work finds expression not only in finished pieces, but in the process of creation as well. For her, the process of making art is both prayer and meditation.
“I read somewhere that prayer is just the act of serious contemplation—complete concentration and focus,” she says. “When I’m making my work, I’m in another place.” She points to the Darfur print: “I’m in this place. I was in Darfur. I was in that room. I was in that place. I was wanting those children to have an untroubled sleep.”
To say Chouteau’s woodcuts are laboriously constructed is an understatement. The process of drawing, cutting and printing layers of colors takes months (see sidebar). It isn’t an approach that offers immediate gratification, but the physicality and risk involved do underscore the importance of the subject matter. And there’s no shortage of subject matter. Chouteau is already planning the next work in the series—a piece commemorating the Trail of Tears, the forced march of Native Americans from the East to Oklahoma around 1830.
Of course, when the cutting is done and the last color in place, it’s the message that counts. By choosing events from a variety of eras, Chouteau taps into a kind of timelessness: The stories remain relevant, whether events took place 40 years ago or 140 years ago. She believes in both the relevance of those stories and in the power of art to make a difference in the way people live. Her reasoning is as simple as it is inarguable.
“I know that art has done that to me,” she says. “Works throughout history, human works, have changed the way I’ve lived, have made me think the way I think. I hope I’m part of that continuum. I hope I’m part of that legacy.”