Susan Contreras \ Biography

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Born in Mexico City to a mother who was a portrait painter and a Mexican jeweler father, Susan Contreras moved with her family to Santa Barbara, California when she was age 5. The family traveled frequently to Mexico where she became fascinated by ceremonies involving masks, such as the Day of the Dead. It was the bringing together of drama and color, and that combination underlies her paintings.

In 1968, her family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico so her sister could attend the School for the Deaf. Susan got interested in photography from a high school class. Then she studied at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and completed a degree in photography, later receiving a BFA and MFA from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She also studied at Maine's Skowheagan school of Painting and Sculpture. Her greatest academic influences, though, came Nathan Oliveira and Wayne Thibeaud at the Santa Fe Institute of Fine Arts while her early work as a photojournalist gave Contreras an interest in visual narrative that has informed her paintings from the beginning.

Her passion for masks began in childhood with the costumed figures of Mexican street celebrations. Scenes filled with masked figures have become the most recognized feature of her paintings. Contreras believes that masks do not conceal their wearers so much as lead them to express their individual feelings through abstract exaggerations that reveal their common humanity. Emotions are carved plainly into the masks and implied in Contreras' vivid contrasting palette, but her concern is not with some interior psychodrama. She wants instead to portray the transformative power that masks impart, a freedom that comes from leaving our separate anxieties behind and joining the archetypal dance. Like photographs, her paintings seize an instant, with the implication of momentous, perhaps frantic action beyond what we see. The viewer can never escape a sense of strangeness, unpredictability and even unease.