Inspirer – Susie MacMurray

Words: Abi Goodman

“You’ve got to keep on making work and putting it out there. Be brave and keep going. You don’t know who will see it and where it might lead.”

Susie works with familiar (often ephemeral) objects and materials (such as feathers, shells, hairnets, balloons) and creates something spectacular with them, creating an experience that evokes a sense of history and place. She makes sculpture (including garments), intricate drawings and site-specific installations.

“Materials are very important to me. If you think about latex – it is degraded by UV light – it’s the sap of the tree, a metaphor for blood.”

In her work she has drawn attention to:

  • that which you cannot normally see e.g. voices in a York church (visualised through an installation of 10,000 hairnets filled with used violin bow hair to create spherical cranial shapes – ‘Echo’);
  • layers of history in a show palace (by weaving fine golden thread between the pillars of Keddleston Hall – ‘Promenade‘);
  • what grief feels like – ‘Widow‘;
  • the impact of war on those who survived and their families – ‘Cloud‘;
  • the foundations of a grand house in Chicester where they found remains of shells in the ground dating back to a medieval fish market. Susie responded to this by sourcing 22,000 mussell shells from a fish restaurant, stuffing them with opulent silk velvet and installing them on the wall in a stairwell. The shells refer to the ‘shell’ of a house that the owners poured their passion into it, the velvet acts as both a sexual reference and a symbol of opulence. It took three months just to clean all the shells for which she enlisted help from students.

So how did she start out? Susie retrained at Manchester School of Art after years as a classical musician. She first undertook an undergraduate degree in sculpture.

“I did ok on my degree but I had a piece that was unresolved.”

It was what happened next that paved the way for future work (although she did not realise the impact at the time). Susie found that a card had been placed by her work at the degree show inviting her to take part in a group show at an old mill in Salford. She said yes and was drawn to the roof space of this derelict building ‘full of pigeon droppings’, filling it with 8- kilos of feather down – ‘Stratum‘.

“Islington Mill’s attic made sense of the work. I needed that dimension of place and history. It gave me the confidence to have a place to work. I combine materials, history and a sense of space – much like making a symphony.”

Susie returned to MSA to study for an MA in Fine Art and after that formed a studio group with her peers for critical support.

“We had an Open Studio 6 months after leaving uni and I smothered a wall in black feathers. A curator from Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) came along and said she had been trying to find out who had made the feather piece in Islington Mill previously. From this I was offered a solo show at MAG.”

After her lecture Susie stayed a while longer for an impromptu meeting with students from Interactive Arts, Three Dimensional Design, Graphic Design and Textiles in Practice who asked a series of questions including:

  • How should you price work?

“When starting out you need to think about how much materials cost and your time. Most people undersell themselves.”

  • What is it like to work with a gallery?

“The gallery does a lot. Sales happen on a 50/50 basis but they store, ship and promote the work.”

  • How important is it to have a studio?

“A studio is very very important. It’s an incubation space. I’m like a magpie, it is important to have lots of stuff around to play with so not too precious about using it.”

  • How do you get your work out there?

“Networking is about developing relationships with people you genuinely like. It is much better if someone commissions your work because they like it. Go to arts events. The people you meet on the way up are the people who will be in positions that can help you later on. Do your research and follow-up on opportunities – you don’t know where they might lead.”

  • How has your classical music background impacted on your work?

“It has given me discipline, I turn up early and prepare. My work is influenced by pattern and repetition, like musical scales. Immersion comes from my musical background, the tactile connection to the haptic.”

Many thanks to Susie for being such an inspiring speaker. Third year students have a further chance to gain advice from Susie through the portfolio sessions she will be running in May. See the Enrichment series timetable for more information and to make a booking.


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