Sue Severson’s posthumous exhibition at Gallery 321 isn’t something you would expect in Hollidaysburg, a quintessential Pennsylvania place famous for its Victorian architecture and small town charm. Through her work, Severson brings the big city bustle to the mix.
Severson was not a native. A Brooklynite who went to the Art Student League and Brooklyn Museum Art school, she eventually earned her MFA from Brooklyn College. Except for one year in San Francisco, she spent all her life in New York City until 1992. Then, at the age of 55, she and her husband Don decided to take an early retirement and relocate to Pittsburgh, where the cost of living was less than in New York. A detour brought them to Altoona.
They liked the vistas in the mountains, and the central library, which, Don claimed was as good as one could get. Severson saw a mural inside and figured there were artists around. They stayed for the rest of their lives.
For the first time in her life, Severson was a full-time artist. She joined a local art organization called Art in Common and became active in the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA). Throughout her life, she had been an avid street photographer and accumulated more than 20,000 photos which she used as sources for paintings. That was more conducive to the Big Apple than the quiet streets of Altoona, and her street photography waned. The bulk of her output from the last two decades are mostly New York scenes with some elements added from Central Pennsylvania.
Severson studied with George Tooker and Philip Pearlstein at the Art Student League. Her pastel portraits often feature family members. Their pensive looks and unpretentious postures echo the works of Pearlstein. But it was in Tooker she found a kindred spirit in relating people to their urban environment. Even if figures are ubiquitous in most of her canvases, they are integral, but not central — the real subject is the communal space itself, shared by city dwellers.
If Tooker lent her a lasting theme she would explore, Severson did not share the ideological statement of her teacher. Tooker’s citizens are anonymous commoners suppressed in an institutionalized society, and Severson’s figures are nonchalant individuals who we happen to encounter in their moment. Her true interest lies in the abstraction through reflection that blends interiors, exteriors, and snippets of life into a lively image.
Tooker penetrated the human psyche to disclose the malevolent process of being conditioned by the government. Severson did not probe beyond the glass surfaces. Instead, the glass, omnipresent in cities, serves to dissect tightly fabricated pictorial space into blocks of bold colors and overlapping layers of figures. To that end, Severson was a mere observer, a keen one, more to the patterns than the stories. That lack of intimate knowledge leads to Hopperish isolation, despite the fact the figures are embedded and arranged as if sharing physical proximity.
Severson’s last exhibition was at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art Johnstown branch. At that time, she had been battling with illness for more than a decade. She passed away before the show ended in August 2016. In her will, she donated all her remaining work to SAMA. Three hundred miles from Brooklyn, this region is now their home.