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Creative Connections: Finding the balance between chaos and control


Sarah Valentino
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Steamboat Springs printmaker Sue Oehme poses with some of her new work that she created during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sue Oehme began her journey as an artist when she was around 5 years old. She remembers loving to draw as a child and throughout high school. She studied at the University of Michigan, where she found a passion in printmaking.

Printmaking differs from standard digital printing in that each impression is a unique piece, not just a copy of an original. Prints are created by coating various surfaces with ink and transferring it to paper. The style of printing depends on the technique and material used to transfer ink; this includes metal, stone, wood, linoleum, silk screens and many other materials.

Oehme said printmaking is a practice in zen.

“A lot of my pieces, it is this fine line — this balancing act between chaos and control,” she said.

The amount of ink, placement of colors and pressure of the press can add unpredictable, albeit beautiful, elements to the work.

“It can be very magical,” Oehme explained. “Things happen that we don’t really understand.”

Her artistic journey and the impact of recent events on her work follow a similar path.

Oehme moved from Michigan to New York City in 1981 to pursue her dream of working as an artist. She worked there for 16 years, studying under renowned masters of the craft before being offered a job as a master printer at Riverhouse Editions in Steamboat Springs. Oehme moved her life to Colorado in 1996.

“I literally had never been west of Chicago,” Oehme said. “The whole drive up I was screaming. I loved it. I felt like I had already lived here.”

Oehme left Riverhouse Editions in 2010 in the wake of the financial crisis that the business never recovered from. She then opened her own studio, Oehme Graphics. Along with creating her own work, she also collaborates with other artists and continues to gain skills to run her small business. She compares demands of these three endeavors to a skill she gained long ago.

“I used to be a waitress in New York City … and it’s that kind of mentality of juggling all of this different stuff at the same time,” she said.

Printmaker Sue Oehme creates monotypes using recycled materials.
composing-a-print

In her own work, Oehme creates monotypes using recycled materials.

“I kind of like that reference to our contemporary culture, especially our consumerism,” Oehme said.

She describes two recycling bins at her house — a standard one and one designated “for Sue’s studio.” She uses old toothpaste boxes, six-pack rings, shards of plastic and even scraps from other artists that she finds interesting. A close look at her work will yield recognizable shapes among the composition. When she creates her pieces, she builds them directly on the press with no prior plan — her own balance of both the familiar and the new.

Oehme also works with nearly 60 artists across the country. She considers her work with them to be collaborative, combining her printing expertise with their aesthetic vision.

“As a collaborator, my role is really to guide,” Oehme said. “I’m sort of the coach and the cheerleader and the player with them.”

“I feel like I’ve learned so many things from so many different people and how they approach their work and how they solve (problems),” Oehme added.

Sue Oehme, left, works with another artist to prepare a print.
Preparing-a-print

Lastly, Oehme juggles business operations and sales. Figuring out how to sustain her business and support her employees has been the biggest challenge since a fateful day in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Friday the 13th — I’ll never forget that day, because I lost $15,000 to $20,000 of projected income in 30 hours,” Oehme said.

Oehme’s small business has been able to survive with support from the CARES Act and grants for art and small businesses. Since teaching had been a big part of her income, she has adapted by pre-selling classes and planning to do some collaborative instruction online.

During the few weeks in which her studio was closed, she said she sought balance in other ways. She laughs as she says, “I have never worked so hard in my life on my yard as I have over the last six weeks. It’s so rewarding to be able to control some blades of grass, even by planting seeds and pulling weeds.”

Though she said the future is unpredictable, she is grateful for the business-sustaining resources she has found so far. More than anything, she is happy to have been able to return to problem solving in the studio.

“If and when I’m not making art, I don’t feel complete,” Oehme said. “It is part of me.”

“Living in House” by Sue Oehme
Sue-Oehme-Living-in-Glass-Houses-2020-OG20SHO1659

You can view more of Oehme’s personal work at sueoehme.com and her various collaborations at oehmegraphics.com. She is also an active member of Westside Creatives and will be participating in June’s upcoming virtual First Friday Artwalk at steamboatcreates.org/first-friday-artwalk

Routt County is home to a diverse collection of creative people and practices. Inspired individuals thrive at our crossroads of the wild outdoors, rustic grit, and fun lifestyles. To share your creative story, contact Sarah Valentino at sarah.e.valentino@gmail.com.


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