By Connie Leinbach
After a successful career as a novelist, Susan Dodd realized she is really a visual artist.
For almost two decades, the islander has been creating her multi-media wall hangings and objects, which can be purchased in Island Artworks on British Cemetery Road.
One of her quilted pieces hangs in the Ocracoke Seafood Company.
“People just love that thing,” she says with a laugh.
Dodd creates special pieces for community fundraisers, and this year she has again created a quilted fabric wall hanging for the live auction at the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department’s big annual fundraiser, the Firemen’s Ball on Saturday, May 26.
Along with Ruth Toth’s cakes, Dodd’s pieces often fetch the highest bids.
The event includes a silent auction at 4 p.m., a barbecue at 5 p.m., the live auction at 7 p.m., followed by music by the Dune Dogs and Raygun Ruby. See more here.
Visual art is a new side she discovered in 2001 when she traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, to help with her sister-in-law who was ailing. One of Dodd’s duties was to entertain her niece.
“We started doing silly art projects,” Dodd said, and, boom–a new creative avenue was born.
Dodd’s creations, from a trove of items she has collected over the years, fill her Ocracoke home in an eruption of colors and textures that practically blind a visitor’s eyes.
“I love to take pieces of the past and put them together for something new,” she says about these amalgams of antlers, clocks (none of which work), old dolls, skulls, pieces of old jewelry, toys, pottery shards, beads, even items from around the world.
“I get such a sense of satisfaction,” she says. “I can’t paint at all.”
The items in her works are impossible to catalog, but many have such a riot of items they invite extended study and reflection.
Mexican Day of the Dead images figure frequently in her work.
Dodd, who is quick to smile and laugh, freely shares whence this fascination comes.
She grew up in Chicago in a Catholic home and did not have many dolls as other young girls in the 1950s, and her mother had no feeling for old things.
“I didn’t have any heirlooms from my grandparents,” she says.
Dozens of old dolls from the 1930s to 1950s, some of which she has restored, make up these works, or they are placed around her home on view.
“I like the way they peel and crack,” she says about the dolls. “I like things that are unraveling and rotting.”
Her series of dolls trapped behind wires and nails, titled “War Babies,” begun after the war in Iraq started in 2003, reflect her anti-war sentiments.
“A lot of people find them harsh and painful,” she says, “but it’s what I feel about the war.”
An entire room in her home is devoted to works she has created as religious iconography. This is her special place for remembering her past—her family and friends–that she doesn’t share with just anyone, preferring to keep it to herself.
“Religion has been a huge part of my art for the last 17 years,” she says.
So has her devotion to corresponding with inmates on death row around the country. It’s something she is discrete about, and she’s only met one of these correspondents, whom she visits occasionally.
It’s just one of her ways of helping people–discarded, too, if you will.
An American flag with all the names of those executed since 1978 when the death penalty was reinstated hangs in her entryway.
Seeking respite from her job, Dodd discovered Ocracoke by accident in one May day in the 1980s.
“I just found it on a map,” she says, “and fell in love with it. I do feel loved here.”
Dodd had a 20-year career as a professor of creative writing at Harvard University and Vermont College, Bennington, where she earned a master’s degree in fine art. She is the author of four novels and three books of short stories.
“Mamaw,” which is the tale of the outlaw Jesse James told from his mother’s point of view, is one of her most famous novels, as is “The Mourner’s Bench.” Most of her books are available for borrowing from the Ocracoke Community Library.
Her final book, “The Silent Woman,” (2001), about Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, who was shell shocked and commissioned a life-sized doll of his love, Alma Mahler, presaged her 360-degree turn into art.
“It was bizarre,” she says with a laugh about that story. “I’ve always been fascinated about this episode in history. It was a great fiction story.”
With every novel, she gave herself a challenge.
“I had to try to see the world through an artist,” she says, and with this seventh book, she tried to “see the world the way a crazy painter would.”
But the writing life is behind her.
“As a writer, I was very reclusive,” she says. “When I went to Kansas City, I discovered a life.”