Susan Hockaday in conversation with Cameron Schiller

Our most recent visit features artist Susan Hockaday in conversation with Cameron Schiller and Rachel Steinberg at her studio in her house in New Jersey. Hockaday uses photograms, aerial photography, and large scale drawings to depict the human ecosystem and human interference with nature, incorporating plastic into much of her work. With her work, Hockaday sends a “wake up call” to her audience, forcing them to  realize the proliferating damage that society impinges on the environment.


SH: I think the place to start is the impact of growing up in a family where everyone is concerned all the time with architecture, city planning, photography, painting, and everything else…

Its funny, I never consciously thought about it as part of my work until recently, but as I look back through my work, there are a couple of things I can see. One is that I am clearly thinking about maps, and the other is that there are a lot of elements of flying and being up in the air. Something I have loved forever is aerial photography. Pulling these threads together is what my work has been about.

Another big part of my childhood was living next to a family of scientists. There was this doctor when I was growing up, a big local research doctor, who introduced my family to dissecting. As little kids, we  learned how to dissect things – I never got over it. From that moment forward, I thought: outside, things are so astonishing, but if you open them up, they’re even more amazing. As a result when I finally went off to college, I majored in human physiology and art, and I thought I would be a medical artist when I was finished.

C: I read that you have sat in on cardiovascular surgery?

SH: I was a part of a team of cardiovascular surgeons, doing lab work, but part of my work had to take place in the OR, where there was open heart surgery. I would walk in the OR with my blood sample and I could stand around and watch. It was amazing to see how people worked as one organism, and I also did drawing of these procedures.

One thing I have continued to do from early on, is when I get interested in something, I collect a lot of it and look at all the differences in it.

SH: I became interested in maps- I realized that I was making an image of the surface of the earth, and the stuff accumulating on it. At some point, I realized that maps were just the first step, and the second  was going to be looking into the past or future, through technology like iPads and iPhones.

C: How do iPads and iPhones relate to your repeating theme of human interference?

SH: It is a symbol of what’s down the road – and with that comes industrial development. I want to indicate what is coming, and how it is changing landscapes. This is the landscape of the past, but what is the future going to be? I am not going to have the literal landscape in there, but I will have the tools that have the power to change the landscape.


One time at one of my exhibits,  this guy came up to me and said, “Why aren’t you doing aerial photography?” I told him that would be my heart’s desire and I would give anything for someone to fly me around. He then told me that he was a pilot and would be happy to fly with me. So, we went flying for several years, and I have to say, after looking at open heart surgery, that was the most exciting thing I have ever done. We started flying around New Jersey, and I realized how it was all so greedy, looking at the massive amounts of land that are used only for people’s pleasure.

C: It’s very unnatural.

SH: Very unnatural! The little suburbs freak me out too.

Then we began flying along the Hudson, Manhattan, and Staten Island. We flew over a ship graveyard, and I decided that I had to go down and take a look. When I got there, I photographed some amazing piles of trash. For me, these things suddenly start to look like creatures from the bottom of the earth, or the bottom of the ocean – they just cross so many boundaries. And here’s all this junk growing in them!

C: How is the trash you pick relevant to your pictures? Or is the trash itself the point that you are trying to get across?

SH: The two crossing lines are “design to manufacture” (boats), and “permanence/impermanence.”

R: But there actually is a kind of impermanence to all of this trash, because as soon as they get a hole in them or are cut, the functionality disappears.

SH: This was the moment that I started getting interested in those questions: “What is this stuff?”, “How do i feel about it?” and “How am i going to portray it?”

Susan with plastic small

So, I had another show where I continued to take pictures from an airplane. I paired each aerial picture with studies of plastic.

C: Were you trying to make a statement here? Or is this more of an observation?

SH: It’s more of an observation. The way I work is to juxtapose things and let people work it out by putting two things together and saying, “So what do you see? What is happening?”

C: You’re leaving it open-ended.

SH: Mhm. But I’m sort of tilting the playing field…

If I were to tell someone what to conclude, I would say, “Look around you! Look at what is going on. What do you think about it, and is it a good idea?” I want people to look.

Then, I knew I had to start making photograms, but I didn’t know anything about it. So, I just gathered up things around the house- all kinds of trash- and I began putting things down under the enlarger.

 wall small

C: It looks like most of your objects seem to loose their original purpose- You just see it on the surface, for what it is… in these weird shapes that you didn’t realize were there before. But at the same time-

SH: -It becomes just design. It’s just lines and space and just formal qualities. Infact, there is no such thing as just a pure depiction, because decisions and designs are made when you put things down on paper. So part of the way that I do things is to open up some door and just go completely nuts for a year, trying to find everything I can possibly think of, fooling around with it.

SH: One of the things I began noticing in Holland is this wonderful tension and landscape between all this orderliness, and lines of canals- grouping people into small spaces, and then the ways in which the landscape fought back. It is unruly. You would see this beautiful rectangular field with canals all around it, and the grass fighting back.


So then I really began collecting plastic in a serious way. I had begun noticing the design qualities of these objects. I realized that I need to draw them, and this is what happened-

R: By turning them into flat shapes.

C: It is very chaotic

SH: A line is just a line, and then it becomes a contour, and then it becomes a shape.

I decided to include everything I had in the spaces. That was the rule. I don’t care if I don’t like it, I’m just going to do that. So the rule was to kind of go big from small.

R: It looks like the big ones help define the larger spaces…

Also, to bring this into the more scientific realm of randomness and chaos – in the second law of thermodynamics, when something is put into a particular temperature space, it only  becomes more general and not more specific…

SH: That is exactly what’s happening! And I just did it. Then I started thinking about what I haven’t done. I decided it represented the categories of being animal, vegetable, mineral, and plastic.

I had this friend who was a big time mathematician, who said to me “Susan, this is a picture of clutter!” and I said, “Of course it’s clutter!” But then he told me that clutter was actually a mathematical concept, “Clutter is shadows, occlusion, and transparency.”

That gives you a different way to view your bedroom.. I was wondering what was going to be the antagonistic element. So I was thinking, oil is the big demon of our time… And I began thinking- “What is oil?” I wanted to find out specifically where does oil come from, so I got into the entire territory of pre-cambrian… plankton… amenities… So I thought, primordial soup is what i’m going to do. I made millions of drawing of these creatures, and that’s what the next layer of my drawings are. I’m thinking of them as being the basis of oil. This enormous amount of wealth and development in the world came out of the residue of literally trillions of these little creatures because they filled the ocean and went down to the bottom and fell apart. And layers and layers crushed downward- chemically returning to their most basic chemicals. And out of that- oil was formed.

R: It sounds like magic.

SH: It is! you have it!

C: It is interesting how you’re playing with scale because these things are so miniscule. You’re forcing people to not look over it, and reconsider-

SH: – Reconsider things that are microcosmic, and think about things that are tinier than anything we can see. All of these little processes turn it into something, and then that gradually controls the world.