It's a week or so before Halloween, and I'm driving out to see Sue Medaris on her farm near Daleyville. The sky can't seem to decide whether it wants to rain or not, and although Sue gave me pretty clear instructions on how to get there, it's not long before I'm lost.
Daleyville, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, is located about 35 miles southwest of Madison, in what geologists ' and all the rest of you, apparently ' call the Driftless Area. (Don't look at me, I'm from Illinois.) Here, hills and valleys, even cliffs and caves, are the norm. The long and winding road I'm on, Highway Something Or Other, cuts through the landscape like a ribbon through a woman's luxuriant head of hair. One moment, I'm on top of the world. The next moment, I'm on bottom. And are those the same cows I passed five miles ago?
Sue said to keep on going past the church. I've kept on going past several churches. But here's the turnoff I'm looking for, the car slowly descending, then rising, rising, past a dairy barn, past a field dotted with hay bales, rising until I finally turn onto a long country road, which also happens to be Sue's driveway.
Sue says that when she and her husband (boyfriend at the time), James Gibson, decided to move out to the country, there were certain requirements she had ' an outbuilding to use as a studio, for one thing. But you can surely understand why James, upon seeing the property for the first time, made an offer without running it by his better half. The view from up here is truly panoramic. No matter which way you look, the fields and woods and earth and sky form themselves into...well, into a painting.
I pull the car up to the house, which has clearly seen better days and will probably see them again if Sue and James ever get caught up on their chores. But there are an awful lot of chores, especially for Sue, who's juggling her life on the farm with a part-time job at the university and a never-enough-time job as an artist.
It's her art that has brought me here today ' paintings, drawings and etchings that together convey what it's like to share a piece of land with all God's creatures great and small. Sue's art ' professionally, she's known as S.V. Medaris ' first came to my attention when she mounted her 'One-Chick Show' at the Madison Public Library, back in October 2004. Chickens don't often get their own shows. Neither do chicks who paint chickens. But Sue endowed these surprisingly glamorous birds ' she likes the more exotic breeds ' with both dignity and humor.
There were portraits that looked like they were of Medici merchants but were instead of 'Lady Lola, Queen of the Polish' and 'Young Hen of the Whitecrest Family,' the subjects decked out in their finest plumage, the rather small canvasses engulfed by richly ornate frames.
And then there was 'The Return of Big Tiny,' a painting so humongous it made me laugh out loud. A Buff Orpington rooster, Big Tiny stands just this side of ' and just as tall as ' a theater curtain, a Grant Wood landscape rolling by behind him. And the painting, which measured 13 feet high by 19 feet wide, was a coup de thÃÃtre, the world's largest calling card. Sue was back a year later with a show called 'The Life of a Farm Dog,' her salute to the most overworked, underpaid employee in the history of animal husbandry. As had the chickens, the dogs sold like hotcakes.
I toot the horn and Sue appears ' a tall, lean woman in her 40s dressed to either feed the chickens or paint them. She waves hello, but the real head of the welcoming committee is Ivan, a dog that could easily be mistaken for a polar bear. Weighing in at over 100 pounds, Ivan is a Great Pyrenees, and when I comment on how friendly he is, rising up on his hind legs to rub noses with me, Sue stops me in my tracks.
'One of the other dogs has been in heat,' she says.
'Oh,' I say.
But I'm not one to refuse a little affection, no matter what its provenance. And Ivan escorts me to the back door of the house, where he hands me over to Dexter and Zuzu, a pair of terrier mixes who scurry about the kitchen, assessing the stranger in their midst. Friend or foe? Sue suggests friend to them, but if you ask me, they're still thinking it over.
The large kitchen, with its bright yellow walls and linoleum floor, seems very lived-in, in that bacon-and-eggs kind of way, and it can't help but remind me of the one in 'Farm Breakfast,' Sue's painting of a man ' Pat, the guy who farms their land ' standing at a white stove, rustling up some grub. Actually, all we can see of Pat is the back of his right leg. Sue was more interested in the party of eight that will be joining Pat for breakfast ' four cats and four dogs, according to my count.
The cats appear to be going about their business, doing what cats do. The dogs are lined up like a military color guard, heads cocked toward whatever's frying in that skillet. The cozy ' if 'cozy' is the right word ' domestic scene will be included in an upcoming calendar put out by the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission. And it's one of Sue's favorites.
'I just like how it captures what that kind of life is like,' she says when I ask her about it, 'especially Pat's connection with his animals ' his hunting dogs, his semi-feral cats. It's this tiny little kitchen in this shack, and I find it all very touching.'
Whether Pat finds it touching is another matter, and one of the strengths of Sue's art is its overall lack of sentimentality. The colors are rich, the light is often dramatic, and there's a slight element of idealization ' life on a farm for those of us who aren't really cut out for life on a farm. But there's a frankness, too, as in 'The Plucking Tree,' where a pair of defrocked chickens hang by one leg apiece from the branch of a stately burr oak, or 'Coveted Spoils,' where a weimaraner pup pulls with its teeth on a piece of gristle still attached to a deer leg while two of its siblings hungrily look on.
On our way out to the chicken coop, we pass James, who says about what you'd expect a farmer-type to say to a stranger. 'We've been talking about you,' I tell him, only partly fibbing. 'Uh-oh,' he says, not missing a step on his way elsewhere. A welder and steamfitter who works at the UW, James has his own brand-new outbuilding, where he works on cars, trucks, tractors, anything that makes a farm move forward.
But right now I'm a little distracted by the 'cock-a-doodle-do's coming from the general direction of the henhouse. Within its fragrant confines reside various chickens, roosters, wild turkeys, even a peacock and a peahen. Does Sue let the peacock roam the premises, strutting its stuff, I ask. 'No,' she says. 'I keep him in here. Otherwise, there'd be bird shit everywhere, and we'd be stepping in it all the time.'
While I try to get a sense of the pecking order (the turkeys appear to rule the roost), Sue explains how she got into the poultry business ' as a painter, I mean.
'When we first moved here, back in 1998, I knew I wanted chickens, and I knew I wanted to paint them,' she says. 'They're just really fun to watch ' a lot of stuff going on with them, weird stuff, and I just thought it would be really cool to show this to people in the city, what it's like out here. Nobody had really done chickens like this before, so nobody would be expecting it. And I got all excited, went around to galleries, proposed the idea. And, of course, nobody wanted a show about chickens. Everybody told me not to do it. But when people tell me not to do something, or that it's a stupid idea, then I'm like, 'Okay, I'm going to do it anyway.''
She did it anyway.
'When I turned 40, I kind of panicked,' Sue says, 'because there were all these things I wanted to do, and one of them was to have my first solo show. So I wrote to the library, because I knew they had a pretty big space to work with. And I scheduled the show a year in advance so I'd have plenty of time to do lots of pieces. But there was still this pressure to get stuff done and see if I could make some money at this, because I can't really justify all the hours I spend if I'm not going to sell something. And the response was really awesome. The opening went really well, and by the end of the month almost everything had sold. Big Tiny helped, of course, because you couldn't ignore him ' he was right there, bam. But that was my goal, to knock people's socks off.'
'Yes, with chickens. What better way to launch a fine-art career?'
Sue, who grew up in Madison and attended West High (along with her brother, longtime Isthmus scribe David Medaris), has a degree in fine art from UC-Santa Barbara. But it was MATC's graphic-design program that launched her on a career as an artist. 'I was working as a bricklayer at the time, because I was a single mom [her son, Luis, attends UW-Madison], and I needed to earn a decent wage,' she says.
'But one day my dad said to me, 'Why don't you use the skills you have, go get some training, get a job?' So I enrolled at MATC, and it was a life-changing experience. Art school had been all about learning how to see. This was all about design and technique and communicating with your art. If you don't have good design, you don't have good art. You're just rendering things. When I started, I didn't think I'd need to take that many classes, but I wound up taking almost every one they offered.'
The pieces of Sue's life were starting to fall into place ' the move to the country, the marriage to James and a job at the UW, where she's the illustrator and designer for 'The Why Files,' a Web site affiliated with the Office of News and Public Affairs. 'We explicate the science behind news stories,' she says, 'and it's a dream job ' lots of fun, very challenging. And it's only half-time, which leaves me time to paint.'
It also leaves her time to frolic with the animals, if you want to call taking an ax to a chicken's neck a frolic. 'I finally realized it was stupid not to raise chickens to eat,' she says, 'so I bought some broiler chicks. And an old-time farmer friend, Hilary, taught me how to butcher them. She's British, so we'd be standing there with blood on us, and she would say, with this British accent, 'That's a very nice incision.''
Luckily, the chickens at our feet, who haven't seen Babe or Chicken Run yet, have no idea what we're talking about. Nor do the hogs next-door, whose rendezvous with destiny is only a couple of weeks away. They're tipping the scales at 400 pounds or so, seven of them in all, an eighth having attended a pig roast a while back. Sue buys piglets in the spring, feeds them over the summer, then has them butchered in the fall. And she tries not to let herself get too attached.
'The first year, we had one that was really cute, looked just like Wilbur out of Charlotte's Web,' she says. 'And I was like, okay, I'm going to name it Porkchop, just to get that whole meat thing going in my mind. But when I'd call them all, he'd come running down the path, with these perky ears. And I thought, 'This is just going to be awful.' They're so trusting. They just walk right through the door.'
And we all know which door she's referring to.
Sue admits to sometimes downing a can of Diet Coke right before butchering a chicken, just to get the adrenaline flowing. But for a city girl, she's come a long way in the country. And some of her strongest works ' including several in her current solo show, 'A Rural Presence,' in the lobby of the Department of Administration building, 101 East Wilson St. ' are those that refuse to flinch at the cruelties of life on a farm. 'I have to watch it at the library, because I don't want to scare the kids,' she says.
'But gruesomeness is just part of it. I watched Pat skin a deer once, hanging it up by its legs, and there were all these animals around. The deer was dripping blood, and these tiny little kittens came padding over and started licking it up, like it was spilt milk or something. They were so cute and so ferocious.'
The centerpiece of the current show is an eight-foot-high painting of a 400-plus-pound hog heading toward the viewer, its head down, its massive heft shrouded in shadow. Hogs are Sue's latest muse, and she'll return to the Madison Public Library next October with 'The Whole Hog,' an entire show devoted to them. And for those of you who like The Big Picture, she's planning one that will be 10 feet high and 18 feet wide, about the size of the fireplace wall in my living room.
'Painting 'Big Tiny' was a total pain,' Sue says. 'Most of the time, I was down on my hands and knees or squatting, the canvas spread out on the garage floor. That was the only way I could control the brush well enough. This time, though, James has set me up in the barn so I can paint vertically, standing up, like scene painters do.'
Anybody out there looking for a 10' x 18' painting of a hog? 'The Return of Big Tiny' got bought by the appropriately named Epic Systems Corporation. And despite ' or because of? ' its subject matter, Sue's work doesn't have any shortage of clients willing to invest in her future as an artist. She had not one but two painted bovines in the recent CowParade Wisconsin extravaganza, one of which sold 'at auction' to the University Book Store for $9,500. (For what's currently available and for news about her upcoming shows, see Sue's excellent Web site at svmedaris.com.)
Official art-world recognition has been a tougher sell, animals long having been pushed to the margins, more props than subjects. Yes, George Stubbs had his horses, as did Franz Marc. Audubon had his birds, but he was considered more of a naturalist. Today, wildlife art is where it's at if you prefer the animal kingdom, but Sue's animals aren't exactly wild. Then again, neither are they entirely domesticated. They're betwixt and between. They're chickens, farm dogs, hogs.
Does that bother her?
'I don't make art to prove anything,' she says. 'I make art to capture a feeling, to say something I want to say. And that overrules everything else. For me to fit into a high-end gallery, I'd probably have to be more painterly, less representational, tell less of a story. I mean, it's something of a concern for me, but not enough to change what I do. As for wildlife art, I made it into the Birds and Art Show last year. All the big names ' Robert Bateman, Owen Gromme when he was still alive ' show there, and I wouldn't say my chickens stood out as being totally off the wall.
'My whole goal is to just keep painting, keep challenging myself, keep coming up with things to show people. And the great thing about the library is, you get people from all walks of life. A farmer will call me up afterwards and say, 'You took me back to my childhood.' I love that.'
It suddenly occurs to me that Sue has taken me back to my own childhood. Both of my parents grew up on farms that I spent a fair amount of time on, herding cows, slopping pigs, chasing after chickens. But those days are long gone, meat production having become much more industrialized, with all its attendant horrors.
Standing next to my car, ready to retrace my steps back to civilization, I ask Sue whether a place like this makes sense anymore. Are small farms on the way out? And if so, what, ultimately, is her art about? 'Sometimes, I feel like a photojournalist,' she tells me. 'I'm recording what this kind of life is like now, because I don't know if it's going to be here tomorrow. But however long it's here, it's definitely the life for me.'
And with that, I take one last look around, sniff the air one last time, then get in my car and head over the hills and through the woods, hopefully toward Madison. It's not long before I'm, if not quite lost, then a little confused. Where did Blue Mound go? For that matter, where did the sun go? And where are those damn cows?
Oh hell, who cares? It's a beautifully overcast late-fall day. And the views through the windshield, as big as the whole outdoors, are amazing, a series of paintings that blend one into another, like a life's work.