Susanne Dotson's desire for rest creates fertile ground for 'Fantastical Gardens'

The artist's new paintings at Sarah Gormley Gallery focus on daylilies and the beautiful, fleeting nature of life

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Finding Serenity" by Susanne Dotson

Throughout 2020, Susanne Dotson and her sisters took care of their mother, who was diagnosed with dementia. Like Dotson, her mom was an artist. The pair would often paint together and even participated in a mother-daughter show several years ago when Dotson was 70 and her mother was 90.

“She had a studio in the basement, so part of my grieving and the celebration of my mother's life was through the painting of roses. That was my mother's favorite flower,” said Dotson, who exhibited the colorful paintings at Sarah Gormley Gallery in January of 2021, one month after her mom died. The show was titled “Can You Tell Me Who I Am?” 

“Early on she could still critique some of the pieces that I was making. … But as she was slipping away, she asked my sister one day, ‘Can you tell me who I am?’ She'd forgotten her name,” Dotson said. “She was really detaching from us, so those paintings were all about what was happening in my life. I was grieving and painting.” 

After her mother’s death, Dotson continued to grieve but realized she had to move on in her life and in her work. “I needed to let her rest and let me rest,” she said. Though Dotson returned again to flowers in her painting, this time she focused on daylilies. “You wait for that moment when they come, and they're there for a day, and then they go,” she said. “It’s a simple metaphor for living, where you have this moment where you can grow, and then you fade and you go away.”

This new body of work, titled “Fantastical Gardens,” is on display through Jan. 29at Sarah Gormley Gallery, where large and small canvases burst with vibrant, exotic colors, transforming the Short North space into a seasonal time machine on gray January days.

"Quiet and Complex" by Susanne Dotson

While Dotson didn’t call Columbus home until fairly recently, she often spent part of her week here as a traveling manufacturer’s rep from 1984 until 2017, when she sold her business. At age 75, she went back to school and got her MFA from CCAD. “Being with those young people, I learned so much,” said Dotson, who splits time between a Columbus condo and a home near Oberlin College. “I hope they learned something from me, too — that no matter how old you are, you can do it.” 

In all her years of painting, Dotson has continued to find inspiration in the outdoors. “I find peace and serenity in looking at the flowers and in gardening,” she said. “I love physically doing it: No one talks to you, and you're making something from nothing. It's really beautiful. I even have a six-inch-wide Toro rototiller that I love cranking up in the springtime.” 

Whenever Dotson saw daylilies, she took photos, though she didn’t limit herself to one type of flower, or even to flowers specifically for this show. One piece hanging at the gallery is titled “Weeds, the Soul of the Garden.” “Even in my daylily patches, the weeds become this under-structure to your flowers,” she said. “They kind of prop up other things, and some of their leaves are really beautiful and [some have] little flowers. So I try to honor them and raise them up.”

"Tropical Heat" by Susanne Dotson

Another piece, “Pumpkin Patch,” came from a visit to a farm near Thornville, Ohio. “We were picking some tomatoes, and it was probably in August or September, and I saw those vines, which look almost bionic. All those pumpkin vines from one seed,” she said. “Watching this incredible trail of vines, I got on my hands and knees and took a photograph. I thought, what if I was a little ant or a little bug looking up underneath those huge umbrellas of leaves?” 

Most of the paintings, though, aren’t meant to perfectly resemble real-life garden scenes. After all, these are “Fantastical Gardens.” Exotic jungle flora in nearly neon colors mix with orange and red daylily cultivars and bright green Ohio weeds. “None of these would really grow together, but it's fun having this wonderful collision,” she said. “It's sort of like life. Just because we're not exactly the same doesn't mean we can't all be in the same place.”