When Mole McHenry, one of the despicable heroes in John Waters' 1977 movie "Desperate Living," played by artist and educator Susan Lowe, steps out of their ramshackle flop house in Mortville, the fictional town of miscreants and fuck-arounds, they greet the fugitive housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) and her housekeeper Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill) with a hefty snot rocket. When I visited Lowe in her Highlandtown rowhouse last month, however, I was greeted with a smile, handshake, and a perky Lhasa Apso named Ralphie. Still, Lowe's drawings and paintings hint at some of the menace she captured as Mole McHenry. Propped along the perimeter of the living room, Lowe's work is full of crumbling, jagged faces, in stark black and white or loud color, shooting shifty glances our way. We talked with Lowe about her upcoming show "Renegade Misfits" with Lania D'Agostino at MAXgallery, starring in "Desperate Living," serial killers, and more. (Karen Peltier)
CP: So, is all of the work in "Renegade Misfits" portraits?
SL: They're not really portraits. They're characters that I invent. People come out in them, and then I name them. And I started doing that when I spent 10 years in the hospital. In and out. I had eight surgeries. I had to go on disability when I was just getting my professorship at the Maryland Institute. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and bipolar—a lovely mixture. So I spent 10 years, on disability, in and out, which is sad because if I worked those 10 years I would've had a nice package for my Social Security. I live off very little, but I'm a full-time artist. And while I was in bed in the hospital I just thought, "How am I gonna make art? Am I gonna make art? Will I be able to?" Then I just said, "I'm gonna start working with crayons and paper." And I could do that in bed. Then I thought, "What's the easiest thing I could do?" I didn't really feel like telling stories like I used to with my big paintings, so I thought, "I'm just gonna work on some faces and make cartoons." And thats how it started out. I had a show in 2009, "Nuthouse Drawings" at the Creative Alliance.
CP: Can you talk about about the black and white paintings? That's a pretty different palette from the colors of the crayon drawings and other paintings you've done.
SL: After the crayons, I did black and white painting which a lot of people like the best of my work and they were from last year or the year before. And I hadn't painted in color for 10 years. And I wanted to. I had a hard time going to it but I managed to stick with it and I have some really crazy characters. I wanted to make [the colorful paintings] look like the crayon drawings. It took me a while to get that. And the titles are even better: 'Mother Told Her She Was Beautiful But The Girls On The Playground Called Her Doggy'; 'She Didn't Care If She Was In Hell She Just Loved Her Pills That's All'; 'Tommy Tucker Was A Sucker, Sucked His Thumb From Dusk Til' Dawn Then He Got Buck Teeth'; 'She Thought I Was Stalking Her Then She Turned Around And Her Hair Moved.' These are like, poetic, I guess you could call it.
CP: Each one seems to to tell a whole story in the viewers' imagination. How do you go about naming each piece?
SL: My titles are really important: 'Beaver Boy'; 'Johnny Maloney Full of Baloney.' I name them afterwards, you know, whatever I think they're doing. 'Hermaphroditey, the Bearded Wonder.' I just start with the eyes and the nose and figure out how that's going to place on them. I do it in pencil first and then I go into it with crayon and then I just let it flow. I don't plan on anything. I work on them for like two days, look at them for a day, tweak them another day. I do maybe three days at a time. There are the real new ones. 'Crackdancer.' She's wild. There's 'Uncle Beeeeee-ul (Uncle Bill).' I'm from the South. I grew up on a tobacco farm and my Uncle Bill was pretty important in my life and he pops out a lot.
CP: Where are you from specifically?
SL: I'm from Reidsville, North Carolina, which is like the flatlands, tobacco land. My mother's from North Carolina. She was Afro-Cuban. My father was a big old drunk Irishman from Brooklyn. Now, how does that work? I'm sure they loved each other at some point but I think he married her because she took care of him. She did everything. She even washed his back when he was in the bathtub. She had to watch him 24 hours a day or else he'd go on binges and not come home for many days. But he was happy, he was a happy drunk. My mother was a hideous drunk. She'd have one too much and she would become Hyde from Jekyll and Hyde. She became the Hyde. And I think that was from her living on a farm and having it pretty hard. But I have a serial killer in my family.
CP: How closely are you related to the serial killer?
SL: Second cousin. From North Carolina. And there's a book written about it. My mother handed this book to me when I was about 38 years old and she said, "Here, read this this is your family." It's called "Bitter Blood" and it's the true story of Southern family pride, madness, and multiple murder. My second cousin Fritz Klenner was a serial killer. And there were four books written about this family. I've been studying psychopathy and I'm teaching a class. I might look like a whore, but I'm really a scholar. I'm a nerd, really.
CP: Can you tell me more about the class?
SL: I start my class on the 16th at Creative Alliance. I first started out studying the serial killers and I got really fascinated with they way they behave. My class goes over what kind of symptoms they all have that are similar. So I go into that, show some movies and blab about that. One year I had like 20 students and the next year I had like 10, so if I don't get any students this time then it's not gonna go. And I really want it to go because I've been doing some academic studies and they're doing brain imaging on these people, comparing it to other criminals. The amygdala is right at the top of the spine and it does everything. It tells us how to behave. Then there's the paralimbic that's eyes nose ears mouth, like senses. So information goes back and forth, sensation and what to do with it; well, they don't have amygdala. Either that or its atrophied. And there's a couple of reasons for that. We always want to think that these people were abused as children and lots of them are. And one thing that makes the amygdala grow is mirroring with the mother. And if you don't get that, the amygdala doesn't grow and you end up kind of like autistic, where you can't see people. And not giving a shit. You see them in the films, all of them laughing, smiling at the camera. They can't understand abstract concepts nor can they understand features. It's really wild. And there's a lot of psychopaths and psychotics around that aren't killers. Like business men and politicians. Look at Trump; he's a fucking psychopath, or he's Rodney Dangerfield reincarnated.
CP: So, how did you end up starring in "Desperate Living"?
SL: John calls me up and says, "Hey Sue, come over I got something to tell you." And I had a feeling it was that he was gonna offer me some kind of role. So he fixes dinner and all and says, "Sue, I want you to be in this movie, but I'm gonna make you a monster. And you don't have to do it if you don't want to." He said that about seven times. And I knew I wanted to take the challenge. And it was rough, because I was a glamour girl. Rasslin' Rita was the first scene we filmed. I love Rasslin' Rita. I think it's a great scene. Somebody stole that outfit, and somebody stole my penis [in the movie, Mole gets a sex change], but I got it back. I was at the Hippo dancing and I heard this fag—and I'll call him a fag 'cause he was—was talking to somebody about stealing my dick. And I said, "Hey, what did I hear? You better give it back to me" or else I'll do this or that you know? He gave it back to me.
CP: Even though you were glam on the outside, it seems as if the Mole character was something you already had inside of you.
SL: I bartended at this really crazy bar where the guy that owned it was a sex maniac. And drag queens used to come in there all the time and I had a blast. I wore a bathing suit in this place. It was the raunchiest place I had ever been in my life and I've been around. And these drag queens would drink themselves stupid, take LSD. Eastern Avenue was a trucker's route, and the truckers would stop and the owner had a room upstairs and he'd charge them like $20 and they would go upstairs, like a striptease club. There was a man that would come in every week and wanted to buy my underwear. And I sold my underwear for $75. I didn't care; I had two kids.
SL: Thank you.
CP: You know, there's a big market on used underwear. There are websites where people buy and sell used underwear.
SL: Is there? That's sick.