Welcome to the 'Nuthouse'

The Baltimore Sun

Susan Lowe is the sort of person who likes to stay busy - whether it's as a painter, sculptor, teacher, mother or actress who has appeared in most of John Waters' films.

So when serious health problems left her confined to a sickbed for most of 2006, she wasn't content to lie back and watch TV all day.

To relieve the tedium, she took a pad of paper and box of Crayola crayons and started drawing characters from her imagination, as if she were casting her own movie.

There were pimps and hustlers, beatniks and newlyweds, enough to populate a small town. She gave each a name and lined them up on the walls of her East Baltimore rowhouse to keep her company while she recuperated.

Now she's on her feet again and sharing her creations with the world, in an exhibit that opens tomorrow at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

Nuthouse Drawings is a rogues' gallery of more than 100 characters that Lowe dreamed up: Stash the Stevedore, Queenie the Spy, Big Biz Bazzinzi, Wendy the Whiner, Tommy Needs a Tranquilizer and Jailbird Joey, My Kinda Guy. "The Nuthouse Drawings is like being at a casting session for the imaginary movie that is forever playing inside her head," Waters writes in an essay for a catalog that accompanies the show. "No one can be ugly to Susan. She draws the obese, the elderly, the misshapen and the defeated with as much respect as she does the handsome, the innocent, the sexy, the intellectual. Everybody is erotic in a Susan Lowe drawing."

"It's a powerful example of Susan Lowe's enduring creative spirit," said Jed Dodds, artistic director of the Creative Alliance and co-curator of the show along with film production designer Vincent Peranio.

Instead of slowing down after a long career, Dodds said, Lowe embarked on a new project that took her art in a different direction. "What that says to me is that here's this force of creativity that can't be stopped, even when her health is failing. When you see the scores of images that were churning out of her, it's like a crazy backyard barbecue party with all these oddball characters talking to each other, and they're all from this woman's fertile imagination."

Dreaming up these characters, Lowe says, was simply her way to keep going, given the circumstances. "As an artist, I feel guilty if I'm not creating something every day."

Born 61 years ago in Reidsville, N.C., Lowe came to Baltimore in the late 1960s to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She met Waters and became one of the early members of the "Dreamland Players," the acting group that worked with him in his early films.

In his essay, Waters said Lowe was "a punk-rock girl trapped in a hippy chick's body." He credits her with being his first talent scout, introducing him to Edith Massey, who played the "Egg Lady" in Pink Flamingos and starred in many of his later movies. Lowe also introduced him to Peranio, a fellow art student who became the production designer for all of Waters' films from 1970 to the present.

On-screen, Lowe played Suzi, part of "Lady Divine's" gang of misfits in Multiple Maniacs; Vikki, the nasty beauty salon receptionist in Female Trouble; and Mole McHenry, the lesbian heroine of Desperate Living.

When she wasn't performing with Dreamland, Lowe was developing her career as a painter and sculptor, focusing on the human figure. She also taught art history at MICA, the University of Maryland and then-Catonsville Community College.

Lowe said she began her latest series after she was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins with rheumatoid arthritis. In the hospital, she said, the nurses tried to get patients to work on crafts projects. Instead of crafts, she wanted to draw from her bed. "I said, 'Give me some paper, a box of crayons and a pack of cigarettes, and I'll be fine.' "

That's when the characters began to emerge. Lowe said she typically started with a nose in the middle of a sheet of paper and a face would take shape around it. She had to decide early on if the character would be male or female, and whether it would face right or left on the page. Once those decisions were made, the characters poured out. When she went home from the hospital, they kept coming, often at the rate of one a day. After working with crayons, she tried colored pencil and charcoal - "anything that was a stick."

Unlike her previous work, Lowe says, these images aren't based on real people, except in a few cases. Several uncles and aunts have appeared. So did an art critic she knew, Gary Indiana. No one sat for a portrait, yet the drawings seem to depict the sorts of wacky eccentrics that might have appealed to her off-kilter, talent-scout eye.

"I wasn't looking at someone or thinking of someone," she said. "Most of the time, they just popped out."

Somehow, they helped her get better. Because of her arthritis, Lowe said, she can't stretch a canvas anymore or squeeze paint from a tube the way she could before. But she's able to walk with a cane, and she does get out of the house. She credits the Nuthouse characters for helping her pull through. Maybe by pouring some of the craziness into them, she was able to hold on to her own sanity.

"They did help me heal, because, as an artist, I could take my studio to my bed," she said. "They were my friends. I don't know what I would have done without them."

Dodds said he thinks the collection represents some of Lowe's best work, perhaps because it's so basic.

"These drawings were her lifeline to reality when she was ill," he said. "They kept her sane, in a way. There's a simplicity to this project that has benefited her and feels liberating. She had to pare down to simple materials and a simple cast of characters, resulting in this astounding body of work."

if you go

Nuthouse Drawings runs tomorrow through April 4 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. A free reception will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow, followed by Do Re MINK, a cabaret performance featuring John Waters film star Mink Stole with a collection of songs and stories, from Edith Piaf to Sonny & Cher. Tickets for Do Re MINK are $12-$15 per person. A free gallery talk with Susan Lowe will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

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