Susannah Strong (class of 2015) was one of four chosen recipients of the Rhode Island Foundation's MacColl Johnson Fellowship. She was selected from about 200 applicants by a panel of four out-of-state jurors who are practicing writers and editors, and is the first graphic novelist to win.
"The fellowships provide $25,000 awards, allowing recipients the freedom to concentrate on their art. The money helps them take time off from work to write, rent studio space for the solitude needed in their work, pay for workshops, head off in new directions. There are probably as many uses as artists."
"Susannah Strong's debut graphic novel, "Moth," is the story of twin sisters who are separated when a tragic fire in a circus tent kills their parents. Worse yet, the girls, through an accident, caused the fire. They must grow up apart, individually dealing with the loss and their fault in it.
"I am drawn to the peculiar and uncanny, both in literature and in the visual arts," says Strong, 47, of Exeter, who draws graphic novels and comics. "When not certain what to make of something, I enter a state of wonder and curiosity.
"Likewise, I hope to lead my readers into worlds that are both uncomfortable and strangely familiar. ... If my work inspires readers to wonder, to ask questions, and to reflect upon the human condition, I consider that the highest personal and professional success."
Strong, a native of Houston and a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, took the long road to the job of graphic novelist.
In her 20s and 30s, Strong, who earned a master's of visual arts from the University of London's Goldsmiths College and won the Murray Tinkelman Illustration Award while getting an MFA at Hartford Art School, was a visual artist who worked on sculptural and installation pieces for museums, galleries and alternative display spaces. Her work included multimedia installations and even full-room presentations with sculptures, drawing, videos and digital sound.
"In the case of the rooms, I created solitary environments in which the viewer became the object, implicated in the meaning of the work through the act of participation," she writes in an email interview. "One of the enclosed rooms I built within a gallery space contained a six-foot-high rectangular trough of peat, topped with live sod. The effect upon opening the door and entering was one of walking into one's own grave."
But while enjoying her work, she tired of creating pieces that were only available for short periods, and only to those who came to check out the exhibit.
In her 30s, she started concentrating on work that was "more accessible," she says. While she extended her visual work deeper into the world of words, she realized narrative was always a strong part of her work. And while a visual artist, she wrote regularly, compiling as many "journals packed with writing as I have sketchbooks full of drawings."
Some of her favorite graphic novels are "V for Vendetta" by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch" by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and Frans Masereel's "Passionate Journey," done in woodcut in 1919 and, she says, one of the earliest examples of contemporary graphic novels. Among comics and strips, she cites Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland," George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," and Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."
With the Rhode Island Foundation fellowship, Strong is reducing her course load at Salve Regina University, where she is an assistant professor of art, as she finishes "Moth" and finds more time to send it around to publishers. She is also working on several short comics.
"... I am in the emergent stages of finding my voice in this medium," she says. "Fortunately, this is the nature of the fellowship's intention — to allow emerging creatives to develop and strengthen their work. ... I have the feeling that where I end up in this novel might not look anything like where I currently sit with it."
To view some of Strong's work, go to susannahstrong.com."
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