Susan Champeny is an artist based out of Worcester, Massachusetts who has gifted various locations throughout the community with her artwork installations. She specializes in sculptures made from recycled and found materials, as well as murals using spray paint and elements found in nature such as palm leaves.
Susan Champeny has had multiple installations in the Worcester Art in the Park Competition, the Welcome Words Mural at The Great Brooke Valley Health Center, Worcester MA in 2008, which is a 300 square foot mural which included workshops for caregivers, patients, and other community members.
Susan was initially drawn to art as a form of expression, “As a child, it was primarily drawing and dance. I see drawing as dancing across a surface, and when I paint murals it is a very physical dance experience.” Seeing she spent an extensive amount of time immersed in nature growing up, it made sense for her to incorporate that into her artwork.
According to Susan, “Nature was a big part of my growing up — my mother was a geologist, specializing in Wetlands Hydrology, so we spent a lot of time in the swamps and bogs of New England. I love wetlands to this day, and when I need a break, I usually find a swamp or stream to hang out with. The found materials are a consequence of all the hiking we did to get to those wetland areas. Often there was trash in those areas, and we would always try to take as much as we could out. Anything that was not outright garbage was saved and used to repair things around the house or became artwork.”
A graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, Susan was already employed upon graduation, “My now-wife originally got me a very part time job helping index a Wine book for an editor at Little Brown Publishers. Yes, we were supplied wine and pizza to do the job – very exciting for a college student.” When asked if she felt supported as a queer woman by the LGBTQIA community while pursuing her career, she shared that she felt the highest level of involvement she got from the community was from her wife.
“Her connections got me my first two full time jobs, both at computer companies, so in that respect you could say the LGBTQIA community was a help. But in reality, I was quite cut off from it for a long time, and it was only in the 2000’s that I made a solid connection with the community other than with my Family of Choice group – and it was on Hawaii Island, rather than Worcester.”
In Hawaii, Susan has found a home for her soul where she feels inspired, and her artwork reflects beautiful images of sea creatures and other wildlife found on the island. Not only has she been inspired by her environment; she has also created a new community for herself.“Here in Hawaii, I am part of the Worship Team for the Open Arms Metropolitan Community Church, and as a result interact routinely with members of PRIDE, Equality, and PFLAG.”
While grateful she has been able to follow her passion as an artist, it is not always an easy road financially, “Fame is easy. Money is harder. That was true even when I was a graphic design freelancer in commercial art. It is even more true now that I am working more in the realm of installation and public art. I am starting to realize that there are institutional barriers and systems that make it nearly impossible for small businesses of any kind, not just artists, to survive… I try not to let it bog me down, since, for me, the main thing is to keep doing my work, and not let the “real worlds” get in the way of that.”
Her motivation and perseverance to continue working on her art, despite the high risk of loss became quite literal after she lost her home and studio to lava from the last eruption of Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea. Susan shared, “I had lost everything, 5 years of sculpture prototypes, murals, paintings – everything but my wife, computer, and pickup truck.”
After the destruction of her home in Hawaii, she returned to Worcester and the home she owns there – an experience that was quite striking after experiencing such a traumatic event.
“The most surreal thing about losing my studio and home to lava was to come back to Worcester…But in Worcester nothing had changed, including the house I still own. It was surreal and disorienting”, said Susan.
Despite the extent of her loss, she began planning how to get back to Hawaii and manifesting her home there. Not having the funds to build or buy a new home and studio, she began looking at other options, “I lost my place on May 31, 2018, and by my birthday in September, I had managed to find a new home in Hawaii. It is a 2 room apartment, so no space for a studio now, but I can see the ocean, something I never thought could happen. I have not rebuilt my studio because I could not afford to do that and have a place to live.”
Susan Champeny embarked on a journey to discover how to create studio space on the island through local resources that were available to her. Using creativity and her entrepreneurial spirit she found ways to work within her current situation, “I have had to create studio space in novel ways: I operate out of the back of a minivan, and paint and build in several locations, including the beach. (Which sounds nice until the wind smashes your artwork, or it is raining 6 inches an hour.) I am the Artist in Residence at the Hilo Habitat ReStore, so when I need to do big work with power tools or spray paint, I use their back lot”.
Adding, “When I create mural painting layouts, I go to the Wailoa Art Center and use their big conference room table. When I need clean plastics for my recycled artworks, I go to Volcano Precious Plastics, where I help cut down plastic for processing in return for harvesting material… I would love to have studio space again, and now 3 years after losing it to lava, I may look into that. But the cost may still be the limiting factor. If so, I will continue to create in my “art van” and use the outdoors as my worldwide studio.”
Working under variable conditions can be challenging but has also allowed her to connect with the community she lives and works in – which has been valuable. She has created community murals but also projects that have been commissioned and shipped out of state.
She shared, “A mural painted on canvas at the Wailoa Center was shipped to Binghamton NY’s MuralFest last September. The Worcester Regional Environmental Council commissioned 3 recycled materials fence artworks, at Oread Place, Tatnuck Magnet School, and Vernon Street School, all of which were made from plastic sourced from Volcano Precious Plastics. I am so grateful for projects that allow me to make Installations that ship plastic waste OFF Hawaii Island and do something beautiful with the material. I still work with ArtReach teaching after-school arts with the Worcester Public School System via Zoom.”
Susan Champeny continues to walk forward with determination and passion, using the love of her craft to drive her to never give up despite the obstacles she has faced. These experiences have provided her wisdom that she can imbue on other women pursuing a professional art career, and it is a message that is universal for all people.
The most important thing as a developing artist, according to Susan is to, “Never give up. Do not expect it to be easy but remember working for other companies is not easy either. Look to your social and physical networks to create what you need. Do not forget that your family, spouse, and friends are a huge part of that network of support – give them lots of hugs, thank-yous, and art.”
Working for yourself can be intimidating, and many people stray from their dreams because of the challenges that often are associated with self-employment and contract work. However, Susan is grateful she didn’t stray from the path her dreams led her down, “I have no regrets about working alone as an independent artist. Ultimately, if I am unhappy with my work situation, I have ONE person to take it up with — that is me — and I can change it. My business motto is: Create, Explore, Fun. If I do those 3 things, I have done my job.”
Susan Champeny is continuing to work on Hawaii Island currently and has been actively working on community murals and commissioned pieces. If you want to stay connected with her and see her current artwork you can follow her on Instagram @suechampart or contact her via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/susan.champeny.
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