The words of painter and illustrator Susan Paradis are sometimes infused with a touch of gallows humor. For example, she provides her age, 65, with a refreshing lack of hesitation or regret—as if there’s no age she’d rather be.
But later, the Merrimac artist jokes about her entrenchment in life’s “final demographic,” an amusing yet grim reminder that she is closer to the journey’s end than its beginning.
This ability to playfully confront life’s darker side is evident throughout Paradis’s work. She is up-front about the travails she faced as a child and beyond, which inspired three, soon to be five, children’s books.
“I take things loosely rooted in my life that are stimulated by watching my children and grandchildren. And then I relate them to broader themes, flipping them so they turn out well.”
As an only child in Arlington, MA, Paradis was raised by “a grandmother who was tired and a mother who was one of the only mothers who worked.” She did not meet her father until later in life, because he was “off at war.” Or at least that was the story her family told in a predominantly Catholic community, where divorce was frowned upon.
In Catholic schools, Paradis doodled through class and eventually horrified the nuns by announcing her intent to attend Massachusetts College of Art.
“They went berserk when they found out, worried about the atheistic influences I’d be around,” she recalls. But Mass Art proved to be a welcome refuge, where Paradis could finally pursue her craft.
“I can still remember the smells of oil paint and varnishes and cigarette smoke,” she says. “There was this sense of danger and excitement. I was surrounded by people with ideas and energy and so much creativity. It was an enormous difference from anything I’d experienced.”
After graduation, art took a backseat again. Paradis got married, moved to Haverhill, and became a full-time mother of three. Before long though, she too was divorced and suddenly in need of a job. So she returned to Mass Art for her teaching certification.
Almost immediately after completing her coursework, Paradis was hired into the Haverhill public schools. She spent three decades teaching at Haverhill High, working with students who, like her, found their voices through art.
“I loved those kids,” she says. “There was a range of economic and intellectual levels, but they all came together in the art room. That was the one place that allowed all these open-ended possibilities for their creativity.”
Throughout her teaching career, Paradis saw art empower students “who had something to say but just needed an avenue.” She remains in touch with several of them, and is especially proud of the many who went on to successful careers in the arts.
Among them are critically-praised illustrator Mister Reusch; sculptor Dale Rogers, who has appeared in these pages; and heavy metal hero Rob Zombie, who Paradis notes was an exceptional and well-mannered student.
To supplement her income, Paradis also worked as a freelance illustrator, taking on projects for advertising agencies and textbook publishers. Spending nights on the phone with finicky ad execs and editors was oppressive at times, but necessary with three tuitions to pay.
“I could do the work really fast; I didn’t even have to think. But that’s not a good thing for an artist.”
The kids eventually finished college, freeing Paradis to retire and focus on art. Her first children’s book, My Daddy, explores the relationship between father and son, which was a mystery to the author given her personal history.
“I had this gap in my life, and I thought, what are fathers for? I understand it to an extent, but what do they do? What’s their role?”
Paradis’s books intertwine fantasy and reality, showing the world through a child’s imagination. As Daddy mows the lawn, wild animals scurry about. Coyotes howl outside the bedroom window. In Snow Princess, a young girl anxiously waits for her father to return from work, dreaming up increasingly wild scenarios as the minutes tick away.
That tale also stems from Paradis’s childhood, when she would watch men disembark at the train station and imagine that one of them might be her father.
“When you grow up in that sort of environment, you tend to retreat into fantasy,” she says.
Even her portraits, painted solely for pleasure, convey a hint of life’s complexities. A middle-aged man stares from a sofa with a blank expression that implies all is not well. A woman kneels at a confessional. In the nude. In a snowstorm. Paradis laughs when discussing that one, uncertain where the snowstorm imagery came from.
Despite the obstacles that inspired her, Paradis feels quite fortunate. Her comfortable home is filled with pictures of seven beautiful grandchildren whom she adores. She travels with family and friends, and she can work at her own pace.
Recently that work is gaining national recognition. Several illustrations from Snow Princess were selected for the Smith Kramer traveling exhibit “Fairy Tale Art: Illustrations from Children’s Books,” which will cross the country and eventually wind up at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA. You could almost call it a storybook ending.
“I can pretty much do what I want,” she says. “I love being able to paint. I wake up in the morning and I’m never bored. It’s wonderful.”
To see Susan Paradis’s work and get more information about her books, visit www.susanparadis.net.