The window washer in Susan Stuller‘s paintings appears calm as his squeegee moves across the glass. The White House of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond looms obscurely behind him. It’s the view of that historic house that captivated Stuller for weeks when she was at VCU Medical Center with her oldest daughter, Jaime, who was then battling cancer.
That day, however, as the man dangled outside their room’s window on the second floor of the critical care unit, Stuller remembers seeing his shadow behind the window blinds, recognizing that a window washer was out there and then throwing open the blinds to snap a few photos of him.
“He was surprised — there I am with my iPad taking pictures of him as he’s swinging down the side” of the building, Stuller recalled. Then she added, “you just never know where you’re going to find something.”
A self-described “schizophrenic artist,” Stuller admits that she gets bored easily and it’s why her watercolor and acrylic paintings reflect her natural curiosity for all sorts of things.
There’s that window washer washing her daughter’s hospital room window, but also colorful jesters playing with decks of cards that she photographed at her husband’s company outing years ago at the Ringling Circus Museum in Florida. A recent trip to Italy prompted works of quiet streets, while her occasional still life painting could be of anything that catches her fancy, from striped and speckled marbles to a bowl of Cadbury Creme Eggs.
Stuller’s work will be on display starting Friday, Aug. 4, at the RTD Gallery at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
She’s a signature and life member of numerous organizations, including the National Watercolor Association, the Southern Watercolor Society, and watercolor societies in Virginia, Baltimore, Texas, Philadelphia, Missouri, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and more. Her work has also been featured in a variety of catalogs and magazines, and a board on a wall in her home studio is plastered with ribbons of every color from competitive art shows.
Stuller was born in Roanoke and moved to Baltimore as a child, and notes that art has always been part of her life. She took private lessons as a child and aced magazine drawing contests.
She remained in Baltimore until getting married to her husband, Rick Stuller.
With a degree in art education from Towson University, Stuller said she had trouble finding teaching jobs early on, so she worked dressing mannequins and doing window displays for Sears, then later worked in graphic design for other companies.
When her children arrived, she stayed home to take care of them and after a stint in Minneapolis, the family moved to New Jersey. It’s there that Stuller says she picked up her art again, doing commissioned house portraits. Looking back on those, Stuller joked that she’d rather do anything else these days than those portraits.
But the family moved to Chesterfield County more than 30 years ago and never looked back. Stuller teaches at Crossroads Art Center in Henrico County and her work is displayed there as well as at the Little Gallery on Smith Mountain Lake in Moneta.
She works from photographs, first making highly detailed black-and-white pencil drawings to help guide her work before she paints.
Each of Stuller’s pieces is an original — there are no prints.
“I don’t do prints,” she said. “The people who I do the originals for know they have a one-of-a-kind, and they know they’ve bought a fine piece of art.”
She also prefers large paintings — “when they go on the wall, they’re just a little bit more impressive,” she said.
Richard “Rick” T. Wheeler Jr., now retired, is the former chairman, president and CEO of Franklin Federal Savings Bank (now TowneBank). Wheeler said when his offices moved from downtown Richmond to Innsbrook in the mid-1990s, he sought artwork and found Stuller’s work, likely through a local art event such as Arts in the Park.
Stuller crafted many works for the bank’s offices, Wheeler said, including a series of paintings depicting the plantations along the James River. For each commission, Stuller would do a miniature version to show what the future product would look like — and Wheeler said he ended up buying those, too.
“She was great to work with and very talented,” Wheeler said, joking that he never expected to buy the miniatures, but “when she’d do a rendering, the renderings were in such detail that we framed all of those, too.”
“We must’ve had 20 or 30,” he added.
Chesterfield County resident Tim White has been a student of Stuller’s for eight years. Unlike other teachers who limit their students’ interests to their own, he said Stuller allows her students the freedom to follow their own curiosities.
“She gives everyone individual attention in class,” he said, but more than that, “she continues to grow and change in what she does (and) that helps us.”
He explained that one of the things he likes about Stuller’s work is how she focuses on the light, which he says brings a lot of contrast into her paintings.
“You know when you look at her paintings where your eyes are supposed to go,” he said. “It’s never flat or dull — they jump out at you.”
A new grandmother, Stuller said she’s looking forward to getting to know her grandson. She’s also balancing a rotating schedule of art shows. She enjoys the competitive circuit and a few of her current works are either on the way out or returning from somewhere else. She’s on a first-name basis with the folks who run her local UPS store, she quipped.
“It keeps you on your toes, it keeps your work growing and moving forward,” she said about the art competitions, then paused. “I hope I haven’t painted my best yet.”