Since her initial passion was sparked in the woods of small town Ohio, Susan Sims Hillbrand has been an exponent of pen light photography.
An art made famous by luminaires such as Gjon Mili, Susan has forged her own inimitable style exploring subjects such as; death and spirituality in images that are surreal and always engaging. Initially almost frightened by her passion for the weird and other worldly, Susan eventually embraced her passion and has gone onto create work which is beautiful yet at times haunting, ghostly and unsettling.
In fact, in our initial discussions through email we spoke of discomfort as a vessel for exploration. Rather than a fear of discomfort ‘we’ (meaning humanity) can delve into those discomforting and unsettling times and find true meaning should we wish.
It states in your bio that the ‘glimmering bugs’ inspired you-just paint that picture or moment for us-where you were, time of the year, emotionally how it made you feel.
The beautiful wooded backyard, where I grew up in small town Ohio, came alive during the month of June. Suddenly appearing in the twilight sky of a warm June evening is a magical glimmering glow of fireflies or lightning bugs, as I would always call them. I wait in excited anticipation for the light flash to emerge. “They are here”, I would scream with delight running outside to be with them, hold them and feel their tickly movement across my palms. My mother grabbed a jar and an ice pick so I could poke holes in the lid for the winged beetles to breath and to create a lantern of light. This creature of light dancing through the sky light the inner fire of light within me as a child which continues to evolve and blossom within and through my work today.
Talk us through this idea of people being ‘light.’
We are all beings of light. We are spiritual light beings having a human experience. Our human body is composed of light. Each cell, of the 70 trillion cells, in our body has 10 – 14 atoms in it and each atom has a photon of light attached. The energy of light is what drives us. When we awaken to our inner light from a spiritual perspective we see and understand the interconnectedness as one with all creation. I ask people when I am outlining their bodies with light to think about these questions – What light do you bring to yourself? To your family? To your community? To the world? When we awaken to our light we are empowered with spiritual wisdom.
Take us through your early years if possible in relation to photography-were you always going to be a photographer?
My early exposure to photography was through my father. He was a dentist and as a hobby he took photographs. In his dental office was a darkroom to develop x-ray film of people’s teeth-on occasion, I helped process the film. At the time, I was not thinking about being a photographer but looking back I see where my interest began. To this day, I feel at home in the darkroom.
What was it (apart from the obvious one would expect) that attracted you to light photography?
Light photography found me. There are many parts to the intrigue of using light in my work. The first time I used a light to outline my body and saw the results something deep inside opened. I was taken on a journey with the realization of seeing the body beyond the physical features. I knew there was much to explore and discover using light as my tool. The power of the message that a photographic image can express has been and continues to be what makes a great photograph. Photographers affect the way we see the world. If the interest of a photographer appears to be more about a beautiful image rather than a powerful statement that too is expressing how one sees the world.
Are their names from the movement who have shaped your work-we note names like Gjon Mili?
The work has shaped itself. My muse comes from an inner creative impulse with curiosity about our relationship to time/space and our place in it. In 2010 I saw an exhibition of Tokihiro Sato’s in San Francisco and noticed we work in a similar way exploring the same notions of light and space. Then in 2014 when Light Painting Photography asked if I would like to be included on the site I found out there was a movement. It’s exciting to know there is a community/tribe I belong to. I call myself an urban pioneer, a conscious evolutionary pioneer and now identify as a light painting photographer pioneer-what does this all mean? There is a mysterious collective consciousness at play. Movements in the creative fields show up across the globe and artist are not always aware of each other’s work although that is easier in today’s world with the ubiquitous internet.
How has your photography, light series changed and morphed as you have become older?
The Penlight Series was always ahead of my awareness and has taken me through a gradual spiritual transformation over the past 40 years. A few years ago, I was at a crossroad – do I continue or stop all together? I could not release the work. I had to understand it in a new way through a re-evaluation process by asking questions – What is this? What am I able to see that I have not noticed before? The answer was I had to be more than the photographer who used light I had to be the light. The work knew this from the beginning but I did not. A new relationship formed, a book emerged and a live performance began. It is spirit in action and I call it Spiritual Matrices – breath of the womb.
We note from your cv occasional long breaks between works is this life or more to do with finding inspiration?
There are many reasons why I have taken long breaks. The first break shortly after starting the Penlights was fear. I did not understand why I was so called to the dark night and some images were haunting. I was asking myself why would I want to continue with such otherworldly ghostly imagery even though I enjoyed doing them and loved the outcome? I came to realize my exploring darkness with photographs conflicted with my personae that feared the dark, it was later that I discovered that unknown dichotomy. I also started a family and I was doing other photographic work in between the Penlight Series. I was commissioned to do a few Penlights and started feeling more removed from the process so I took a break. Years went by we moved to San Francisco colour entered my life and a transformation took place. Becoming more connected to my surroundings and my creative spirit was sparked and new work emerged. Ten years later another move and the work transforms yet again. I take breaks from actual finished photographs yet my inner self is always working on the next series. There is a continual transcendence of exploration as the work guides me out of the cave of my old self.
From a technical standpoint take us through the processes involved and the emotional aspect of seeing the Light Pen Series work come to creation.
From a technical stand-point the way I do Penlights is time consuming. It can take me several years before I complete one image as I add many images onto one sheet of film over time. I use film not digital so I do not see the results until the film is processed and printed. The exhilaration escalates as I go from, ‘Yes’ this is the image I want to take to, ‘Yes’ this is the image I will add and so on. When it is complete I drop the film off to be developed waiting in anticipation for the results. I see what appears to be showing up and I have some excitement but the real fun begins in the darkroom.
You speak about the creation of the Penlight series and state it opened the door for ‘self-reflection and renewal’ please expand on that idea-on a deeper level how important are these ideas of renewal to us as a species?
Within the finished photograph are stories within stories. During the live performance, photo sessions, I share and ask questions while bringing light to the participants’ bodies. As they experience the light an opportunity opens for self-reflection and renewal and a new story emerges. It helps for reflection on ourselves as bodies of light/energy beyond the physical appearances and emotional entrapments allowing for more thought about the space we occupy during the miniscule time we are here. Transformation is renewal of the self as we incarnate all aspects of who we are. The renewal awakens us to our true and natural state as a being of light. When a new story is revealed, seeing ourselves as one light interconnected to all earth’s energy rather than viewing ourselves as separated parts and so bringing renewal for humanity.
Maybe this has already been answered but what about ideas of discovery as well?
As an evolutionary pioneer, I feel every cell in my body calling out to be awake to the changes occurring now on planet earth. Discovery is a necessary process of life for new patterns, connections and relationships not only to be observed but to be embodied. Art is my tool for discovering and strengthening my intuitive knowing to see and be in harmony with the omnipresent universal patterns.
While you have these ethereal light images, they are placed within places almost like two different worlds co-existing -explain why that is important?
The creative imagination provides a portal to other dimensions. With layers of landscapes added there is an invitation for visual intelligence to enter and explore patterns that may not otherwise be evident.
Also, wanted to understand how ‘poetic prayer’ and the series interact- would it be a mistake to call you religious?
I am a spiritual being not confined by a religion. There are many paths for awakening to our spiritual truth and religions can provide one of many ways. My spiritual awareness is shaped by my Christian upbringing along with a later discovery of my hidden Judaic roots and today I merge these paths as a Spiritual Evolutionary Woman. A feminine co-creator incarnating the creative intention of the universe, consciously self-evolving for my own good and that of the human community. The interaction of the Poetic Prayers with the Penlight Performances is a call and response of spirit in action, illuminating how words and images are symbols of our essence. I turned the book, Spiritual Matrices, into a live performance where something passes between me and the audience. A true collaboration of connecting and transforming together where something greater than ourselves is created.
We touched on it in emails ‘discomfort and art’ what does it mean to you?
As an artist one must become comfortable in a place of discomfort to find the hidden jewel within. The creative impulse can get stuck or thrive in moving forward by the discomfort, chaos and confusion of life. We are surrounded and programmed by visual and verbal messages from society. The artist reveals the way we see the world and that is not always visually, physically or emotionally comfortable. My artistic path finds beauty in the uneasiness, that is where I learn the most about myself and humanity. Being able to move through the discomfort has allowed me to move through the fear of freedom.
What is the next stage (if you know) of your Light Pen Series and indeed other aspects of your photography?
The next stage of my work is yet to be revealed. There are many ideas in my journal to revisit and current work to complete.
If Susan Sims Hillbrand was a classic book what would she be and why?
If I was a classic book it would be from the future describing the dark cave humanity emerged from by connecting our light transforming the world by transmuting our shadows. Perhaps a sequel to Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s, Republic where we come out with a new awareness truly enlightened.
Anything you want to add?
I spoke to a class for writers called, Publish Before You Perish and told them what that title means to me giving them a new perspective: to prepare and produce something before your spirit suffers from not being expressed. The professor and attendees asked me to repeat it so they could write it down. We are being called to express our true nature before humanity suffers more. This is an exciting time to be alive and we are here for a purpose. The world needs us to think big in this time of crisis. What do we most deeply desire to create? What do we have to fulfil our creative intention? Who can we co-create with to transform the world? Be empowered and know you we can make a difference.