Dive in to the Pondering Pool and you’ll find not just beautiful art and clever poetry but a brilliantly twisted world. We meet its creator, Susan Mrosek. By Gillian Drummond. Artwork courtesy of Susan Mrosek.
Susan Mrosek remembers her dreams in detail. She writes them down, tries to analyze them. But it’s not always easy.
The other night she dreamed she was dismantling an artichoke bomb. Even in the realm of dreams, it’s a strange one. But then when you learn about the world Susan has created through her art – one that’s twisted, funny and comforting all at the same time – the dream seems to fit right in.
Her world is called Pondering Pool. It’s a place where characters – almost all of them women – come together to contemplate and escape. They’re found trying to free themselves from crises of confidence or self-esteem, or celebrating friendship, personal growth and (usually new-found) self-belief. They’re trapped, or have just escaped. They’re troubled. They’re also hilarious.
The figures are languid, bony, with over-sized hands and large noses, and they take on surrealist forms: extra heads, arms, legs, elongated necks, bulbous bellies. It’s not surprising that Susan counts Tim Burton, Dali, Picasso and Joe Sorren among the artists she loves.
The messages that go with them – on her greeting cards, posters, luggage tags and pendants – are wordplay and poetry, pieces of writing that Susan has created in her own daily journals. Many of the messages take common turns of phrases, pick them apart and reformulate them – brilliantly.
“It is what it is, isn’t it? Never sure,” says one. Another: “It was time for Stella to ‘pay it backward’ – to take care of her inner little one.” And another: “She took time, plucked it and twisted it, tried to fold it in two, ended up chopping it in half. It never quite fit after that.”
Since Pondering Pool began in 2000, its women and their droll musings have been quietly causing ripples; sales, online and in gift stores, are nationwide and in Canada, and enough to financially sustain Susan and her best friend and business partner Bill. They’ve also attracted some prominent followers, among them actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Sharon Gless, author and self-help guru Louise Hay, and “self-care” expert Cheryl Richardson.
Tucson artist Liz Vaughn, another of Pondering Pool’s devotees and an acquaintance of Susan’s, relates to her work on a couple of levels: as a customer, a female one; and as a fellow artist who, like Susan, uses words and phrases alongside her characters. “Susan captures things that we are thinking but won’t say out loud because we don’t want people to think we’re crazy. The women she portrays are very real. They might be at times wispy but there are a lot of sags, a lot of expanded noses. It’s humanity,” says Liz.
The woman who opens the door of a one-bedroom Tucson studio looks not dissimilar to her characters: the angular features, the nose, the lithe figure. She’s had her troubles. And she’s hilarious.
The studio where she lives and works is straight out of one of her creations: shabby chic, very feminine, with lots of lace, antiques and Victoriana. In the words of Susan: “It’s like a grandma’s house.”
Her dark, sharp humor “came early and just blossomed”. It saw her through a sexually and emotionally abusive childhood, and it glued Susan and her sister Diane together during rough times both as children and as adults. Various disorders plagued Diane, who was also an artist. She had severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and was at various times diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and Tourette’s. “In the end the doctors called it Diane Disorder,” says Susan. “She was really messed up. I was messed up, but I could function. She couldn’t. She was extremely creative but she was unable to get her work out there.”
Diane encouraged Susan to write, something this long-time sculptor and painter hadn’t tried before. “I had no idea I could write. My English teacher once said I had as much brains as his briefcase. Diane was the writer [among us].”
Susan tried daily journaling and amazed herself. “By God I could write, and then I had a voice so I could express myself. And goddamn it was fun.” And as Susan began to write, Diane began to draw. “It was like we morphed into each other,” says Susan.
The two shared their writings and drawings, connecting three times a day – mostly by phone, sometimes in person – and making each other laugh. They were taking their troubles and Diane’s mental health issues and turning them into something joyful. Diane became Susan’s muse, and the world Susan created became Pondering Pool. “It was tragic and a treat at the same time. It was very therapeutic. It was so cathartic for her and for me. It was the most wonderful time in my life. I couldn’t get enough of it,” says Susan.
And then therapists suggested to Susan and the rest of the family to practice some tough love, and stop communicating with Diane. The two sisters didn’t talk for two years. They reconnected eventually, although Susan says their relationship wasn’t the same. Seven months later, in 2008, Diane died from complications related to Hepatitis C.
Although Diane’s death left a hole that can’t be filled, it was freeing too, says Susan. “I felt like I was just out there flailing, and asking other people to take her place. It’s been hard to hold onto the feeling we had, but at the same time I’m healing. Now that she’s gone I’m allowed to heal.” She adds: “I became all about her instead of about me.”
Diane and Bill, who has been instrumental in creating and running the business, encouraged Susan to sell the work, and sell it did. John McNulty, retail manager at the Tucson Museum of Art, believes the TMA’s store was one of the first in the country to carry her cards. “The cards have been a huge success for me. I just think it’s her thoughts and images. They evoke lots of giggles and thoughtfulness. People buy them ten at a time, although I don’t know if they ever send them. They wouldn’t dare send some of them, they are very to the point,” he says.
Susan’s writings and musings come first, and are usually taken from her journals. Then she sketches and scans the drawings into her computer, and finally paints them using Photoshop. Transferring her painting skills to Photoshop was “seamless”, say Susan. “I was enthralled and overwhelmed, exhausted, by the endless creative possibilities it provided.” Fellow artists, among them John McNulty, a Tucson ceramicist, and Liz Vaughn, say they are amazed that such finely detailed work is produced on Photoshop, especially given Susan’s oil painting background.
Dotted around her studio, among the giclee prints of her work, and books and family photographs, are her latest creations: sculptures, her beloved characters in 3-D. It’s one of the areas Susan has been exploring lately – a way to take Pondering Pool in a new direction.
She’s been considering YouTube videos, film, book illustration and children’s books. There have been offers and discussions – one to turn her work into animation, another, with Jamie Lee Curtis, to produce children’s books. She didn’t feel she was ready for either.
Her cards are used as catalysts and aids by many therapists, she says. Her work has also been used by an elementary school in Tucson to help students understand poetry, and to develop their writing skills. “Though my art was at first cathartic, I’m beyond thrilled that it helps others,” she says.
She was a keynote speaker at a domestic abuse fundraiser, and wants to do more public speaking. She would love to give a TED talk on mental health, in her sister’s honor. “The people who ignored her or shunned her or were afraid of her missed out,” she says.
Pondering Pool’s themes are not as dark these days – a sign, says Susan, that she has moved on from her sister’s ill health and subsequent death. “Now [my work] is more explorative. I would say it’s more thought-provoking, more healing. These characters have served me well but they exhibit what I’ve gone through and what my sister has gone through.”
Those characters, though, they won’t go away. They literally jump off the page as she creates her art.
“Then I feel like I’m meeting them. That’s something I love about being an artist. You get to meet all these people that weren’t even created before.”
* Find Pondering Pool at the Tucson Museum of Art’s gift store, Chocolate Iguana and Antigone Books in Tucson. They are also sold in stores nationwide and in Canada, as well as online at www.pondering pool.com
* Liz Vaughn’s work can be found at www.lizvaughn.com and in shows and artist fairs around Tucson. Look out for a solo exhibition from her this November.