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Bob Daniel Community Centre

895 Beaufort Street Inglewood

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There was always time for a story

Interview with Susan Mader, a local textile artist from Perth, WA, arts therapist, and member of "Conversations," a call and response project initiated by Kamila Waleszkiewicz at Inglewood Arts Hub. In the interview, Kamila talks with Susan about Susan's heritage, childhood influences, her artistic career development and achievements, as well as Susan's motivation for working as an arts therapist.

Kamila Waleszkiewicz:

You were born and raised in Australia.  Could you share your family’s story with us?

Susan Mader:

Growing up in a rural environment and as the eldest of four siblings, we were encouraged at a very early age to be aware of our surroundings and to observe subtleties in the ways of nature and that of the seasons. This had always been the way for my country born Dad who married my city born Mum. Together they moved onto 1200 acres of land in the southwest of Western Australia with their then, three small children under three, in their beloved Perkins truck they named Polly. Mum was 23 years old and Dad was 27. Their nearest town was Kirup.

Hard work was not uncommon for my Dad. He worked on his parents and grandparents farm at a very early age. My paternal grandparents were of German descent and my grandmother’s family, persecuted for their religious beliefs fled Germany by sea in the mid 1800’s and settled in rural South Australia. A generation later they travelled by ship with their horse and cart to Albany. From Albany they carved their way overland to take up farming in the Great Southern of Western Australia.

Whereas, my maternal family of English descent, they too left their birth country by sea in the early 1800’s. My grandmother’s family lived in New South Wales and New Zealand before settling in Western Australia in the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s.

What are the most significant lessons you learned during your childhood and youth?

There was intrigue and wonderment, hearing stories shared between neighbours and visitors. Farming, family matters, the environment were everyday topics along with family generational stories of migration. Newly arrived immigrant families, and where English was often their second language, added their stories of lived experiences as they too settled into the district, to make it their home. Most of my school friends were new to Australia. We forged long term friendships, shared and exchanged family traditions. Collectively the stories became my window to another world and where the threads of the stories would unfold within my imagination.

Coupled with the awareness, hard work, responsibility, and wellbeing to others while working creatively with what was on hand, was encouraged and practiced by my parents. They volunteered and dedicated their time along with other families within the district, to develop a growing community. The annual exhibition was just one such memorable occasion. I was in awe in which the widespread district came together. The exhibition was held in the local hall to raise money to purchase much needed equipment for the small school we all attended. The school consisted of two rooms. Grade one to three in the ‘small’ room, grade four to seven in the ‘big’ room.

Donated locally grown produce, homemade jams, pickles, preserves, sponges, freshly baked and decorated cakes drifted from near and far into the hall throughout the day.  Each category was judged, and prizes awarded, and the exhibits were auctioned at the end of the evening with the proceeds donated to the school. There was always a flurry in our kitchen on the morning of the exhibition. Mum would oversee us cook and decorate 6 cupcakes and 6 scones in readiness to travel 12 miles along the gravel corrugated road to meet the delivery deadline to enter the children’s sections. We would then run off and amuse ourselves playing on the oval in wait for the opening.

Listening and observing the generosity of people coming together in creative ways and hard work my parents willingly committed to each other to achieve their common goal to make a home and build a community remains steadfast within the lesson of my artmaking today.

Susan Mader, Wheat Oats and Bailey, 18 cm x 60 cm each. Hessian bags unpicked, hand stitched with jute and lime painted. Photographer: Jon Green.

Creativity is ingrained in your upbringing, as you started working with textiles at a young age. What inspires you to create art, and textiles in particular?

Under my bed was a brown suitcase filled with fabric Mum had purchased soon after leaving the city for the country. A childhood pastime was to delve into the case to sort through the fabric lengths. I became absorbed in the colours and prints. Mum was learning to sew on her new Singer treadle sewing machine Dad had given her as a wedding present. She was also learning to draft patterns from an Enid Gilchrist pattern book. Sewing and drafting came easy to Mum. She juggled making our clothes from fabric chosen from the suitcase, running a household and helping Dad on the farm when needed.

Mum grew up during the depression and WWII and she too witnessed the many creative ways her mother made for her family. She recalled fondly, wearing a dressing gown made from a war ration grey blanket. It was a simple joy to hear their shared stories of making and how they creatively improvised with what they had. My Gran taught me how to mold roses from fresh bread, trim hats and upcycle clothing. As a young woman she had worked for Boans Department store in the alteration department before moving to the millinery section to trim hats.

With Mum’s guidance and encouragement, it became second nature for me to make and create. At about age 10 I enjoyed nothing more than to courageously cut into fabric from the suitcase, to make my own clothes on the treadle sewing machine. My favourite being pink pants which I covered all over in different coloured patches. Mum taught me to knit and sew around the same time. Her friend visiting us, was brave enough to ask what I was knitting. I was taken aback and surprised that she did not recognize the long length of knitting with its irregular pattern and shape to be a scarf. 

Making and creating using textile materials influenced by Mum and Gran’s creative ways is not far away when I step into my studio today. The story often lies within the memory of the cloth and speaks the direction to begin art making.

Susan Mader, Working the Fallow, 59 cm x 225 cm. Hessian bags unpicked, hand stitched with jute and lime paint. Photographer: Jon Green.

Balancing the roles of a working mother and following a creative pathway simultaneously can be challenging. How did manage these various life responsibilities?

My earlier life as a young mum with two small daughters had its financial challenges. With an inherent desire to create, supported by family and creative friends, it became easy yet necessary to provide for our home. I designed and had clothing items made and molded jewelry pieces from modelling clay, added repurposed beads and gum nuts. My outlets were country markets, party plan gatherings and boutiques in the city and country. Creative ideas flowed and filled our home.

When my daughters were school age, we moved to the city and I studied at Bently TAFE in Apparel Design and Manufacture, as it was known then. I worked in the fashion industry for a period in various roles. Creativity and making came in ebbs and flows, always juggling a working life, always seeking employment that would create a balanced home life for my family.

Susan Mader, Cropping 1936 (detail), 30x 195 cm. Hessian bags unpicked and hand stitched with jute. Photographer: John Strano

Reflecting on your artistic journey, what is your most significant accomplishment?

As a mature age woman, I gained entry to WAAPA in Mt Lawley where I studied costume making for a short period before transferring to study art and to gain a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts) at Edith Cowen University, Mt Lawley. Here my eyes were wide open to the studies of the language and world of art.  

Being referenced as an artist becomes a struggle for me at times. I went straight from visual art studies to study a Masters of Arts (Arts Therapy) for the following two years. On graduating with my visual arts degree however, I was invited to have a solo exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre. This was a stepping stone. My art was selected to tour with the Tamworth Textile Biennial. I received an invitation to travel to Tamworth to speak at the exhibition opening. Notwithstanding the recent juried selection of my art in local and national exhibitions, my solo exhibition as a new graduate remains a warming accomplishment.

That is a wonderful achievement, Susan. Congratulations. I am curious, what are your aspirations and objectives for your artistic career moving forward?

After working out of the spare room, on the dining room floor and off the kitchen table, I feel very fortunate to have a studio space purposely built for me by my husband and our friend in our back yard. It is full of collected and found materials just waiting. It is always within the context of shared stories of past lived experiences that continues to resonate with me. I have a deep feeling to express the stories in a visual form to capture the essence of a time in place in our Australian history. There are many stories simmering, waiting to emerge in an art form and with a promise to myself to spend more time making in my studio.

Susan Mader, Home Maker, 27 cm x 7 cm. Coiled fencing wire, copper wire and binder twine. Photographer: John Strano

As an Arts Therapist for many years, could you share how you entered this profession and the rewarding aspects of your work.

Perhaps it was the blessings of working creatively at a young age. The soothing rhythmic motion and repetition of movement with my foot treadling the sewing machine, or the meditative state when knitting or hand stitching with no judgement or expectation to finish was the beginning.

The most rewarding aspects working as an Arts Therapist is to silently witness the transformative ways creative arts supports wellbeing. I mainly work with people who have a lived mental health experience. For many their experience is often difficult to speak about. For some it is their first opportunity to work with art materials. Experimenting and exploring art making processes in a therapeutic space can be the conduit for self-expression. It remains a privilege to witness the new meanings in stories along a pathway to the authentic self.

Thank you so much Susan for sharing your story and artistic journey with me. Our community has many hidden gems. I am so glad I can share your story with others.

More about Susan Mader on her Instagram: @suemaderintheartlane


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