The Careful Art of Susan Ober
By Meredith T. Matthews
Susan Ober has long been a painter of portraits and figures. Recently, she made a marked shift toward close-up florals, but Ober’s figurative background is still alive in her flowers. One can see the attention to detail, but one that is held in soft focus. The texture, surface, and soft shapes of flower petals almost mimic the body. Perhaps paralleling a human’s physical changes over time, Ober states that she is interested in the life span of a flower—the transient states of beauty in all its stages.
“I have developed an enduring appreciation for the changes that happen over the lifetime of a blossom,” says Ober. “It is remarkable to me that in many species there are few, if any, discernible differences from one blossom to another. But once a flower is past its prime and its purpose in nature has been served, it enters a phase of transition. The petals lose their turgor and relax into restated shapes and unique identity.”
Ober’s floral paintings are currently on display in the Bank of America Concourse Gallery at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Titled “Floral Awakenings,” her group of paintings represents “singular experiences,” in poetic juxtaposition with the concurrent installation at the Cummer, Rebecca Louise Law’s “The Journey.” While “The Journey” consists of millions of flowers strung from the ceiling in garlands that viewers can walk through to immerse themselves in a floral environment, Ober’s paintings hang on the wall with quiet pause. They show one flower, at one stage, and indeed, one moment, as Ober uses a single photographic reference for her paintings.
The act of capturing, preserving, and enlarging floral photographs is the first part of Ober’s artistic process. She interprets what is revealed, “making discoveries” about her subject by freezing it in time and moving in close. Often, Ober crops the edges of the blossom to both illustrate its uniqueness and connect it to larger natural phenomena. “It lets me feel as though the flower has become something else—landscape, topography, or even sunlight in the sky,” says Ober.
For her exhibit at the Cummer, Ober wanted to feature flowers that are, as she puts it, “grown from the very soil and sunlight of the Cummer gardens.” Specifically, she wanted to paint some of the same flowers whose petals were collected in the gardens and strung by museum volunteers for Law’s installation—roses and hydrangea. From this inspiration, Ober painted three new pieces in 11 weeks (a feat for this self-described “slow painter”) to accompany her existing squash blossom series.
When she was approached by the Cummer for this show, with a clear intention to tie her recent floral-based work with Law’s installation, Ober recalls that it was a day she was “poised to begin riding the pendulum swing of my art in the direction of an abstract process.” This figurative-come-floral painter had begun to enjoy experimenting with nonrepresentational pieces. The fresh paintings for the Cummer therefore represent a shift in perspective, a less precious, more intuitive application of paint that brings new vitality to her work. The millions of individual flowers hanging in a nearby gallery are in various states of preservation and presentation, just as Ober’s flowers. “I loved that [Law’s] installation would require the experience of taking in all those flowers as an enormous whole—the sum being greater than the parts—while each of my seven paintings offered the singular experience of every flower as an individual.”