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Take a jaunt around Denver’s art scene this month, and you’re likely to come across the work of Susan Goldstein, a 68-year-old Denver artist whose work can’t be lumped into a single category. Goldstein, a self-described “late bloomer” in the arts, finds joy in creative experimentation. “There’s nothing that I take more delight in than being playful with my artwork,” she says.
Goldstein started her career as a staff photographer for Westword in the ’80s, but she didn’t begin the transition to creating fine artwork until her late forties. Sometimes, her work responds to political issues; sometimes, it’s purely fanciful and imaginative. Whether its photography, collage, or sculpture using recycled items she collects at estate sales, Goldstein shares her process and the ideas that drive her artmaking.
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5280: Your current solo show at Edge Gallery, Undercurrents: Fault Lines, is your first color photography show and draws from photographs you’ve taken on road trips. How did you choose the photos for this show?
Susan Goldstein: When I travel, I always take the camera, and I’m always looking for images that tell something about a community, whether it’s the failed hopes and dreams or the political concerns that they have—or it could be examples of patriotism that are expressed everywhere through the use of red, white, and blue. I have intentionally chosen not to make political work as a response to my dismay over the current presidency, but a lot of the images in this body of work, when I started deeply thinking about it, represent a lot of the topics that have become the points where the country is fractured—and fractured both to the right and to the left. So, interestingly enough, if one’s political persuasion is liberal, they elicit a particular response; but if somebody is conservative, that same image will elicit almost the exact opposite response. Those are the kinds of images that I chose to frame for the exhibit.
This isn’t the first time you’ve made work with political undertones. Over the years, you’ve done a variety of work that responds to or reflects on political events. Tell us about some of that work and your thoughts behind it.
The first real political exhibit I did was in response to the election of George W. Bush and that was in 2000. That election turned on  disputed ballots that were cast in Florida and it turned into a legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. I made 537 little human figures to represent the fact that, you know, as one individual it can feel pretty impossible…that my vote does matter, but I wanted to engage people in dialogue so that they could see that this is a tiny amount of people…and it’s important to become engaged and to participate.
What are some of the challenges you face in making political art?
I am liberal, but I have not made work with the intention of ramming my liberal perspective down somebody’s throat. My goal is always to create a dialogue, because I think that that’s the only way we all learn and grow and get out of that knee-jerk mode of operating that seems to have taken over the way the world is not working these days. The problem with making political art is that generally the population that ends up coming to the galleries is already leaning a little bit not in the conservative direction. Trying to find a way to get this kind of imagery out there into the bigger world where it can really create a dialogue and change things—or have the potential to change things—that’s the tough part.
Your work in the Colorado Photographic Arts Center show are hybrids of original collages that contain antique photographs—but you’re not showing the actual, original collages. Why is that?
A lot of the photographs [in the original collages]—some of them are from the 1880s, and they’re very light-sensitive. When I was invited to exhibit those at McNichols, there’s not a way to control the light in there…so instead of the main image being the actual original pieced-together collage, I scanned those and made a print. But there are additional elements layered behind and on top of those prints that are antique photographs or parts of photographs or negatives or other materials.
Your collages at Alto Gallery use original photos you’ve taken of “evidence of the human hand” in public structures, particularly museums. Why did you start taking these photos?
I used to fix up old houses and old buildings and I did a lot of the work myself. I’d plumb and I’d wire and I jacked up a house…so I’ve always been interested in old buildings and in structure, and in the physical labor involved in making the transformation from whatever it is to whatever it will become. When I travel, I always go to as many museums as I can fit in, and I started seeing evidence of the human hand in the structures, the actual buildings or the parking garages. I found that fascinating, because we go to look at the finished work on the inside, look at the artwork…but I don’t think most people think much about all the labor that’s involved in creating that space that holds our treasures.
Give us a peek into your studio. How do your collaged pieces come together?
Usually I make these colossal messes, and then I have to clean up, and often when I’m cleaning up, I find the very thing that I know will work to finish something that might have been waiting for a year to get finished. Then I sort the stuff and put it back where it belongs, and inevitably, I’ll be sidetracked because another idea will come and something in that pile will become something else.
This month, you can find Goldstein’s work in the Colorado Photographic Arts Center’s Elemental Construction exhibit at the McNichols Civic Center (through April 7), the Denver Collage Club show at Alto Gallery (through March 30), and at Edge Gallery where she’s debuting her photographic Undercurrents: Fault Lines work in a solo show (March 22 through April 7).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.