Susan Contreras | Embracing the Unpredictable

By Joy Waldron

“These paintings seduce with the power of the unknown and the possibility of magical transformation. We can’t know what’s behind the masks or what they will release in us. But we can trust, as the artist does, the joy that lies in the courage to imagine so exuberantly…. With Contreras, we embrace the unpredictable.”

—Stephen Parks, Parks Gallery, Taos, NM

Coattails and Ties, oil, 42 x 54., Southwest Art
Coattails and Ties, oil, 42 x 54.

The voiceless world of masks is the place where Susan Contreras lives, at least when she is painting. From the aggressive grimaces in Coattails and Ties to the pensive, peaceful cast of the eyes in Deming Hats, Contreras is fascinated by the guise of facial expression. “A mask has a spirit of its own that belies the emotions of the character wearing it,” she says.

The New Mexico artist sees masks as witty and wonderful escapes from constraint—“a great freedom.” The appeal of such freedom was instilled in her at an early age. As a child, she often communicated through mime with her older sister Patsy, who is deaf. “Miming my thoughts and emotions taught me the power of exaggerated expression,” she says. Later, traveling through Mexico with her mother, Contreras saw costumed characters performing Day of the Dead dances and tourists playfully emoting behind colorful Oaxacan masks. “As a shy person, I viewed the masks as liberating,” she says. “They presented an opportunity for extroverted, unrestrained behavior.”. . . .

Featured in November 1998