Portrait of the Artist

Susan Goethel Campbell


By Noelani Kirschner | September 10, 2018
Heat No. 2, 2018, woodblock print with perforations, 24 x 48 inches. Photo: Tim Thayer.
Heat No. 2, 2018, woodblock print with perforations, 24 x 48 inches. Photo: Tim Thayer.

The work of Detroit-based multimedia artist Susan Goethel Campbell centers on the effects of industry on urban environments. Her recent exploration of so-called heat islands in her home city has culminated in her series Heatscapes. Here, she discusses her artistic process, how her style has evolved, and why climate issues continue to inform the decisions she makes as a landscape artist.

“My work—at its core—is pretty conceptual. I’m drawn to the engineered landscape—how there’s a lack of distinction between things that occur naturally and things that exist because of human intervention or alteration. I look for those seamless points in the visual world, and those are the places that I then focus on and flesh out with my projects.

Heatscapes came about from this idea of visualizing something that’s invisible and looking at the dynamics of patterns in urban environments. I had been reading about how cities often have documented differences in heat as compared to outlying areas. They sometimes even have different weather patterns: it might rain in the city but not in the surrounding areas. I found the term urban heat island and did a lot of research on that specific condition. Basically, it’s the effect of manmade surfaces, which elevate the heat and cause different weather patterns. The other condition that I’ve looked at is emissions from industry where there’s particulate matter being spewed out of stacks. The heat from industrial emissions can create cumulous clouds, similar to how mountains create their own cloud formations due to their elevation and to high-altitude temperature differences. I observed the sky in Detroit on certain days, and it would look different because of these industrial emissions. So, I started to document the types of weather patterns that resulted from human activity.

  • Heatscapes No.3, 2017, woodblock prints mounted on panels, 12 panels, 12 x 38 inches each. Photo: Shell Hensleigh.

People have responded most viscerally to the color of these works. The colors vary, but there is a lightly stenciled outline of a city in red surrounded by other color planes. The viewer might start to link these concepts to the changing environment. It’s not as important to me that they know from the beginning that the work is didactic. All of my work is landscape-based, but I’ve departed from mere pictorial depictions of the formal landscape. I didn’t really want to be a landscape painter; I look at landscape in a different way. I needed to make my work more relevant somehow than just a traditional painting or drawing of the scenery.”

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