Exclusive Interview with Susan Mohl Powers
By Sofie Kinnefors
Swedish-American contemporary artistSusan Mohl Powershas accomplished numerous projects and installations, including her impressive energy-efficient window shades “Sailshades”. Although her Swedish roots go back a long way, she believes that her independence and love for art and science have been passed on from her hardworking great-grand parents, who landed in America in the 1870s.
Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1944 to parents of Swedish descent, Susan Mohl Powersfirst became interested in art at the age of ten when she started creating clay sculptures from a “crick” in Leawood, Kansas, where her father Judson Jasper Mohl headed GE Credit Corporation. Susan enjoyed exploring nature and, during her stay in the Midwest, began collecting little fossils. This was the beginning of what would become a long and successful art career.
All art and photos © Susan Mohl Powers
Susan’s interest in science also developed early. “My 10th Grade geometry teacher sent me to the library one day to do something creative with geometry, and so I did. I have always liked the idea of mixing art and science.”
The Minnesota native went on to study at Mount Holyoke College – an all-female liberal arts school in South Hadley, Massachusetts – where she majored in astronomy and ran the Observatory Open-Houses. “I remember how delightful it was to see a blue and red double star the first time!” Susan said. For graduate school, Susan chose to move back to Minnesota. She started working as a science teacher at Summit School in her old hometown of St Paul and signed up for a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota. Susan’s main focus at the university was sculpture.
One of Susan Mohl Powers' "Fossils" collection. © Susan Mohl Powers
Since then, Susan has done solo exhibitions, such as the cloth construction "Polygons and Planar Nets" at Squibb Gallery in Princeton, New Jersey – an exhibit which received glorious reviews in The New York Times in 1979. She went on to create the fabric installation "Under the Microscope of Spirit – A Tribute To The I.L.G.W.U." at the Nemasket Gallery in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It also earned splendid reviews, this time in The Boston Globe in 1988. Susan has done severalgroup exhibitions in galleries in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Milan, Italy. Her public installations include works at hospitals, the Fall River Government Center in Massachusetts, the Boston Ballet, and numerous restaurants.
Susan has a large portfolio of sculptures, mainly using materials such as polygon, planar metal and fabric. She also likes to use oils, acrylics, tempera and gouache. She reveals that her creative process consists of “not planning, but unfolding; I look at what I’ve done and make a decision what to do next.” When asked which sculpture is her favorite, Susan replies that she is very proud of her “Prima Care sculpture” located in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and also part of her art series “Health Care Installations”.
Art Installation at the Fall River Government Center, Fall River, MA (1992-2008). © Susan Mohl Powers
Susan has strong opinions about what is being passed off as art in some circles. “I feel revolted by so-called art like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde beasts, which are actually science, sickening science – I know from seeing one at a Harvard Med School office when my husband was recruited there. I am also assaulted by the New York art scene which does not value beauty. NY Art fame derives from astonishment by media, often ‘is this really art?’ No, but the galleries won’t tell you it’s sickening. As a Unitarian and Christian Scientist, I came to value directions in Healing Art as exhibited in Healing Arts hospitals and clinics: Boston Children’s Hospital, Prima Care in Fall River, and Butler Hospital in Providence, RI.”
Susan is also the proud owner of Sailshade Studios in Massachusetts, where she displaysand sells energy-efficient window shadescalled “Sailshades” – a product she created and developed in her basement.
“Fresh from sewing my painted Berkshire Hathaway sheer fabrics, I was asked by a nearby architect if I could help insulate large windows for a new client. (I realized the need since we had a house in the Berkshires with two complete glass walls, rising to 10 feet over sliders.) I made the Sailshades in my own basement, before I started renting space to work in,” Susan said. She found an efficient way to insulate the windows.
“I came up with low-E before I found Reflectix for insulating between bronze-coated exterior lining and custom Daisian interior. I began to add art for two clients, both architects who had 35 feet of glass windows.” Susan was able to include some of her clients’ inherited fabrics, which thrilled the owners.
The inventive artist’s energy-efficient window shades were soon sold in 34 states and could be found in Acorn Structures, houses and solariums. “Many of my customers were retired businessmen, but I also remember a captain who had been head of the US Navy in Sicily in the 1970’s,” she said. Susan added art to a dozen of her clients’ Sailshades.
At the age of 75, Susan is still very much active and working on her shades. “My most recent large art project on Sailshades was for a physician in North Hampshire who ordered his 25-year old shades re-covered. I subcontracted the new fabric, but added art to ten of them,” Susan said.
One of Susan Mohl Powers’ “Burka Dance Landscape” paintings. © Susan Mohl Powers
Susan takes great pride in her Swedish Heritage. She recalls her great-grandmother Lovisa Oberg Larson and her grandmother Ruth, who taught her about hard work and Swedish culture. “Lovisa came from a very large family impoverished by consuming brännvin (strong alcohol). Their farming and fishing business had minimal success,” Susan said.
Born in Sweden in 1858, Lovisa had many sisters and turned out to be the family non-conformist. She soon became friends with a young man named Lars Larson, born to a neighboring farmer. Lars became a mason by trade. “He fell deeply in love with Lovisa, and with family help they were able to get married in June 1878,” Susan said. The couple soon gave birth to two healthy children, whom they named Ernest and Hilma. In the early 1870s Lars and Lovisa were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, where two more children, Ruth and Abner, were born. Little Ruth grew up to be Susan’s grandmother.
Sadly, Lars died young, but with the help of Ruth and her siblings the family got by and Lovisa enjoyed a long life in America. “My favorite memory of Lovisa is her sitting with a broad smile at the age of 90 in a Morris chair now in our Massachusetts living room,” Susan said. “She had a passion for walking one block up the hill to an Evangelical Church where everyone danced. Ruth showed me how to make meatballs and Swedish cookies.”
Susan does not speak any Swedish, but her husband Alan Powers, a linguist, picked up a sentence in Swedish from Ruth, along with the word tack (thank you).