An Interview With Suzy Birstein

Suzy Birstein’s vibrant sculptures and paintings are full of life and meaning. Her figures are joyful but with a pensiveness that borders on melancholy. Though they exude great strength they also show hints of vulnerability, which both makes them more human and elevates them to the level of mythology. They are surrounded by birds and fantastical creatures who add to the eloquence of the stories they tell, and though they seem to speak and sing, they also resonate with a profound silence. We were grateful for a chance to speak to Suzy about her work and her process.

It seems the pandemic quarantine affected every artist differently. Some reveled in the extra time to create and produced more work than ever before. Others were hampered by stress and worry, or perhaps a loss of emotional or physical space, and had trouble creating anything at all. How did it affect you creatively? Did your day-to-day creative process change? Did you find art/creation to be a form of stress relief?

As with everyone, the pandemic had a HUGE impact on my life and art. 

I did in fact create more work than ever – it was all I had to do – no travel, no teaching, no visiting my children out of country, next to no social life…

Although I have a separate studio for painting (large artists’ studio warehouse) for painting and home based studio for Clay – I only worked from home.

Every day, all day. 

The Mirror and the Mask

6 months of Clay, 6 months of painting. 

This was the continuation of the Tsipora self portraits in Clay and Paintings.  

This culminated in a solo show which had been postponed by covid for 1 year called

“Tsipora: A Place to Land”

My process changed because I had so much more time!! 

The palette for the Tsiporas during covid became much brighter, whiter, pastel, gold lustres, use of fragmented mirrors…fired multiple times.

The paintings – technically I began to use cold wax mixed with my oils – I had a great desire to be more tactile, to use my fingers and a small rib – no brushes – I wanted my hands very very close to the surface. I also incorporated some fragmented mirror, collage and gold leaf, echoing the sculptures.

As for stress relief during covid – I always find the act of creating, even when I am struggling, which I do experience much of the time – that creativity centres me, keeps me sane, gives me deep and meaningful focus.

I feel stress more about balancing time for the rest of my life with making art as I love pretty much all I do: my family, friends, teaching, tap dancing, exercise, reading and writing in my journal….it is hard to fit it all in and do it all well…

Pre quarantine, 

I was teaching 3 days/week – I did not teach during covid

I had been invited by a ceramic artist to create work in Vallauris (where Picasso made his ceramics) and exhibit in Cannes – this could not happen and we’ll see what the future holds. 

I had 2 upcoming solo exhibits and they were postponed

Although one happened July 2021 “Tsiporas: A Place to Land” metaphorically self portraits)


“Ladies-Not-Waiting: Frida” (not sure of title but inspired by Frida Kahlo), a continuation of historic pieces and will happen July 2022

Images from Tsipora: a Place to Land

I love that during the quarantine the focus of your bird-inspired series Tsipora took a beautiful shift in meaning. Can you tell us more about that?

Tsipora is my Hebrew Name meaning bird. The sculptures are metaphoric self portraits with the bird symbolizing freedom, exploration, discovery, flights of fancy, exoticism and travel. Lots of travel to Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Cambodia and Mexico. Also museums and galleries in LA and NYC

The sculptures are fired multiple times, creating a surface referencing ancient sites and cities, enhanced with lustres, oils, wax, bindis and tutus

With covid – the fears, the illness, the unknowingness – it was time to land: to be, to reflect, to look within, draw strength and courage from within and draw upon all that had nurtured me during a freer time. I likened this to Birds nesting, nurturing, singing – 

I felt the need to create beautiful images, nurturing, reflecting, mentoring. The Tsiporas became pregnant – pregnant with life, pregnant with hope and appreciation for all we have had and need to continue to create – To heal our beautiful world…. (Please refer to 1st question re how visually the work changes in palette and technique)

Sometimes the most intensely personal and honest work resonates with the most meaning for the viewer, which is true of your art, for me. Some, like Who are You, Really? are explicitly about identity, but others also make us question what it means to be an artist, a woman, a human, what it means to see/be seen.

Thank you and what a complex question!

It’s like what is the meaning of life?

For me it is about being and constantly questioning how to be my most authentic self, the ways I can best express it and then inspire others to do the same. The why is really about “Make love, not war.” It’s John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Give peace a chance.” 

Now more than ever, with the pandemic, our environmental issues, warfare….

And, when we discuss artist, woman, human – I add men and non binary. This is what it means to see – to see the beauty, love, opportunities, resilience, courage – I could go on and on – to seek for ourselves and mentor that which is most positive for others.

I hope my sculptures, paintings, parenting, teaching….reflect this.

As for being seen – I love being seen – thru my art and person. I love having exhibits, publications, media …. I love dress up – I have more ballgowns and feathers than anyone else I know (vintage, ethnic – not designer) I love song and dance….

Can you tell us about the decision to create the sculptures as self-portraits? I’m intrigued by the expression on their faces—inscrutable. They (you) seem to be seeing something very distant, maybe far away, maybe far in the future or the past. Was there a certain effect you were trying to achieve?

I don’t know. 

The self portraits – maybe because people always have told me I look like my art. 

And, one of my closest friends had passed away. I felt her presence as a bird next to my heart. Then I realized my Hebrew name is Tsipora, meaning bird. A number of years later – Tsiporas..

I like your interpretation of their expression and would like to leave that open. I really don’t think about this in advance. Most everything happens in the moment of creation and just being there. Can be influenced by music I’m listening to, the weather in Vancouver, what I am reading….

Images from Ladies-Not-Waiting after Velasquez

You have a gift for turning history (art history, our history) into mythology—adding layers of meaning, making us ask new questions. And then that mythology becomes something both unique to your work and universal—familiar and new. Can you talk about techniques that produce this mythological aura?

Thank you for recognizing this. 

I experience some level of inspiration every day – from the moment I wake up looking at art books, writing in my journal, working in the studio – plus referencing mythology, art history and world cultures while teaching my students – and within my studio practice. . Add to that travel and media influences. 

Really it’s like a bank in my head that stirs my imagination. But mostly I access this bank while I am actually in the studio – not preplanned as to how to use this.

I am very inspired by certain materials – particularly for sculpture – ceramic and additions of repurposed materials and objects – and with paintings – I love oil and cold wax and collage. 

Technically, I think I just gravitate in some intuitive way to what resonates with what concept. It’s not well thought out in advance. I experiment with materials I love – nothing is too precious to not change- and somehow I have this strong inner siren that goes off when the work is off – and then I experiment and go with it til the siren goes off again!!

You’re equally skilled as a painter and a sculptor, and I’m fascinated by the relationship between the paintings and the sculptures—they seem to commune with each other and comment on one another. Do you create the work in tandem? Is working in different mediums satisfying in different ways?

Thank you again. Although sculpture is my first medium with which to create and come up with the image, until recently, paintings have been my main inspiration.

So I create pieces in clay first – the whole body of work – and then I do paintings in response to the sculptures. 

I think more artists draw their ideas first and then do 3D – but I never do that.

I have sometimes worked in tandem but for my physical space – with 2 different studios – and also my head space, it seems like I get very immersed with clay and surfaces and then very immersed with paintings.

With each, I can’t imagine stopping and want to do more but suddenly – I hear the siren to stop – and then switch gears!

Both are hugely satisfying and I can’t imagine giving up either. They both encompass creating an iconic sort of figure, playing with surfaces, colour, character….paintings give a context re background but sculptures live within varying spaces and contexts – I dunno – I love both!!

Images from Ladies-not-Waiting after Fouquet, Manet, Kahlo

I have to ask about the Motion Pitchers, which were commissioned for the Academy Awards Swag bags in 2006. How did that come about? Did you create the pieces specifically for the awards?

“Motion Pitcher” for Hollywood

In 2007 I received an email from a woman at “Everyone wins at the Oscars” asking if I would like to create art for the Latin Grammies. She was searching for Mexican Art and my name came up! She was intrigued to have this non Mexican name show up, looked at my website and saw my connection to Mexican art and culture.

At the time, I was producing work for a solo exhibit, the tap dance video, teaching, parenting…. And could not meet the timeline. However, I had a great rapport with this woman as we are both Hollywood buffs. 

She asked if I would prefer a longer timeline and could I create something for the 2008 Academy Awards instead!

My parents had just given me my long lost autographed photos from movie stars – I used to write to movie stars when I was a child, inviting them to sleep on our couch if they came to Toronto … 

I thought it was very serendipitous that she was calling just as I’d hung the photos in my studio and so, accepted the offer.

The idea of “Motion Pitchers” came from the ask. I loved the play on words and at that time I was creating a lot of one of a kind pottery pieces.

Your work is alive with music and dancing motion. What do you listen to while you create?

As I child, I wanted to be a dancer and movie star. Not one acting lesson but I did study tap, ballet, acrobatics and jazz.

I chose to pursue visual arts but the sense of dance has always been with me. I am happy it translates into my art!

I listen to Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack, Ella Fitsgerald, Eartha Kitt. Jazz, tango, blues & opera, Hollywood  musicals. I love Johnny Short, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen & Paulo Conte.

I have been tapping with a small company for 10 years.

I have a video on my website – “My D’lovely Fever” – where I am tap dancing with my life size sculptures.

The studio is my happy place – I definitely create to the music!

Here’s a question from the Proust Questionnaire: What is your idea of happiness?

This is your toughest question!!

This very moment, I am listening to Frank Sinatra singing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” with our 2 kittens (Frankie and Eartha) purring on my lap as I get to be interviewed by someone who appreciates and wants to promote my work!

I’d say that makes me happy.

Loving and feeling loved by my beautiful family and friends.

Having the time to create what is in my heart and spirit to create.

Sharing my art and practice with students, collectors, art lovers.

Art/travel & dance keeps my spirit alive and juices flowing.

All this in the spirit of being in the moment while connected to my spirit mentors – artists and cultures past and present 

Summed up as

“Being in tune with my authentic voice”…

Suzy is an Honours Graduate in Ceramics from Emily Carr University, formerly ECUAD. She is inspired both visually and spiritually from Ancient and Contemporary World Cultures. To this end, she has travelled extensively throughout North America, Europe and Cambodia, attending and leading master workshops, visiting ancient sites, museums and all that is enchanting.

Suzy creates to the rhythms of jazz ,tango and opera greats from her ceramics studio in Kitsilano and painting/exhibition space at 1000 Parker Street. She offers workshops to all ages (6-94 years) from her studios, at Arts Umbrella and art/travel workshops. Suzy’s art is exhibited, published, and collected locally and internationally.
See more of her work at her website and on Instagram at suzy_birstein.

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