The artist and Texas Woman's University professor talks about her work creating fine art books, the childhood roots of her vocation as an educator, and how she went into the sleep lab to chronicle her dreams through imagery.
View a selection of Susan kae Grant's work in the slideshow above. You can also see more of her photography on her website and on the Modernbook Gallery website,
To read more from poet and contributor Ron Egatz, visit his website.
Wisconsin native Susan kae Grant has done what few artists have done. She has achieved nothing short of photographing what she has seen in dreams.
The Texas Woman’s University professor has spent her professional life in academia, a fortunate path for someone who always knew she wanted to teach. “I was really, really lucky.” she says. “I went directly from undergrad to grad, and then right out of grad school started teaching.” After completing her undergraduate degree in art and art education, she received an MFA in photography and book arts from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Grant put herself through school by working as a window designer for five different stores. “I was very much involved in that notion of fabricating little realities for people to look at, both in the camera and also in store windows for people to walk by and kind of stop them in their tracks,” she says.
Photography was part of Grant’s life long before her post-secondary education and her teaching career. Grant’s mother was the family photographer when she was a girl, and the two would go to the drug store every week to pick up photos her mother had taken with a Kodak rangefinder. When Grant saw a World’s Fair Camera in the store window, she saved her babysitting money and soon started taking her own pictures.
“The first pictures I made with that little camera were all setups,” Grant recalls. “I would make my girlfriends all stand in little poses and direct them: ‘Hey, here. Hold it this way.’ Fifty years later, I'm still directing photographs.” Although she has been creating scenes for the camera for most of her career, that was not the way many people were shooting when she was in college. “When I went to school in the 70s,” she says, “documentary photography was really popular. Everyone in the class always had a camera with them. We all shot single lens reflex, 35 millimeter. Then—it was probably 1978 or so—Duane Michals came and did a lecture at our college. It really changed my life, because I saw I could make photographs instead of take them. The storyteller in me really saw I could use the camera as a tool to actually make narratives, versus walk around and look for something to take a picture of.”
Grant also was influenced by photographer Les Krims and photography historian and critic A.D. Coleman, who, in 1976, published “The Directorial Mode: Notes Toward a Definition” in Art Forum. Both men argued for the power of staged or carefully composed photos, and asserted that an act as simple as cropping an exposure can drastically alter the meaning and experience of a photograph. The exposure to this kind of logic brought her full circle, back to her roots of carefully composing shots before her finger was on the shutter release.
Also in 1976, Grant created a book called Retailing Wrinkles and Wisdom. As one of her first books, it got the attention of collectors, and to this day, some people know her only in the world of art books while others are acquainted with her work as a photographer. Since 1975, she has produced thirteen limited edition, handmade books, and she teaches book arts and letter printing in addition to photography. Like her interest in photography, Grant’s work with books and vocation as a teacher are rooted in her childhood. When she was a girl, her father bought a row of school desks and put them in the basement of her childhood home. She held imaginary art classes with the neighborhood kids, teaching them how to make art projects, including matchbooks they would decorate with collages. “That notion of opening up that little matchbook—to me that was like a little miniature book,” she says. “It was a little object you could open and close. It was just like a book. We were literally making little books.”
As a photographer, Grant is perhaps best known for her Night Journey project. The series of images explores both artistic creation and sleep laboratory research, two endeavors that rarely meet. Because Grant was interested in dreams, memory, and the unconscious, she began to chronicle her dreams, writing them down as quickly as she could upon waking, and later, recording descriptions of them on a tape recorder. “I would use those dreams as an inspiration to create images,” she says.
Researching dreams, she discovered that if you’re awakened from Rapid Eye Movement (R.E.M.) sleep, you have very vivid recall of your dreams. She also read that a mind in R.E.M. sleep is more active than a mind on amphetamines. This fascinated her, and pushed her deeper into the idea of capturing images of her dreams. Further research told her humans go into R.E.M. sleep every 90 to 120 minutes, so Grant convinced a friend who worked as an overnight radio disc jockey to telephone her throughout the night, waking her over and over. When the friend moved out of state, Grant started researching sleep laboratories.
The scientists she encountered at sleep labs were uninterested in an artist asking questions, until she called the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She eventually won grant funding to help support her work at SMC with Dr. John Herman, and began spending nights at the sleep lab with electrodes attached to her. The staff would wake her up at optimum times for dream recall. Opening her eyes in the dark, she thought of shadows as the perfect metaphor for the entire experience. This was the keystone of the Night Journey project. As shadows move, change, and disappear, so do accurate memories of our dreams.
Grant created the Night Journey photos by using a main light off to the side, in addition to smaller lights illuminating the objects in the image and casting shadows on the backdrop, which she then photographed with a 4x5 view camera. After staging and shooting the images in the series, Grant created the first iteration of the project as a large installation: 24 images each printed on 4x8-foot chiffon canvases via heat transfer. When she realized she was losing detail by printing on chiffon, she moved to a more traditional photographic medium, IRIS prints.
Much of Grant’s academic time is spent researching new photographic and printing gear, making recommendations to the university for purchases, and keeping her students abreast of the latest technologies. “I'll try to bring in visiting artists,” she adds. “I always try to do corporate liaisons with the community so we have people using professional equipment come in and talk to the students. They do co‑ops in the local photo studios.”
Although photography has been around over 150 years, and the art of bookmaking a lot longer than that, Grant shows no sign of slowing her interest in technology that can help her in both the classroom and the studio. “My impression is that the field changes so fast all the time that it's really overwhelming, but at the same time it's so exciting,” she says. “When you look at what we can do today compared to what we did 30 years ago when I started teaching, it's amazing. I've just always made it a point to stay up with what's going on. This semester I'm on sabbatical and I'm taking a class in art and code. I'm learning how to write code to do visualizations, and I'm looking to see if I'll bring that into the photo curriculum. I'm also on a panel at SPE about Second Life. We have a Second Life component in our curriculum looking at immersive environments for creating photography. I hate to call myself a visionary, but I can't sit still. I just think as an educator you have to have vision and you have to lead people.”