Susanne Dotson has a way with her paintbrush that would make artist James McNeill Whistler turn over in his grave — that is, if he knew she had replaced his mother with the silhouette of a chicken. She’s not the only painter to imitate the iconic piece of American artwork from the late 1800s, but like Whistler’s black and gray oil on canvas, her strange work sparks curiosity. Instead of using drab Victorian era subjects, she paints beautiful chickens that are dressed to the nines in bright baubles.
Dotson, who works as a manufacturing representative during the week, didn’t start out painting poultry; she was also once interested in fashion. But agricultural experiences from growing up on her family’s farm in LaGrange have influenced her area of expertise.
While studying in the early ’70s at the University of Akron, Dotson, 65, developed some insight into her future. “One of my professors way back when [said], ‘You have to paint what you think about, or what you are,’ ” she says.
The combination of life experiences — she raised Angus beef and cash crops — and interests made her land on an original concept that has kept her fans both intrigued and amused over the years: farm and fashion.
Dotson experimented with her new vision and eventually created a painting she calls The Three Muses of 4-H, which consists of three dress silhouettes hanging on a clothesline on a farm against a background of cows in a field.
“When you’re from the country, you go to 4-H in the summertime,” she explains.
The 4-H women concept evolved, and Dotson began painting chickens in 1997. She started small with an idea of painting chickens in bridesmaid gowns wearing necklaces and other accessories.
“The irony of having the chickens with jewelry is fun, but it’s not cartoony,” she says.
Then, when a friend suggested she capitalize on her work by creating a series of chicken paintings, she found her niche. Dotson says she wanted to relate the images to modern life, like they were women out on the town. Her signature painting, hung on the wall of her home like a prize, is Cocktails at the Coop, a portrait of three chickens in pearls who sip martinis in the wire-enclosed coop.
Chickens aren’t the only subjects in Dotson’s repertoire. When she decided to focus more on fashion, she began creating small paintings of elegant sandals and pumps with bright backgrounds. The titles she comes up with for them are just as interesting.
“Most women are shoe addicts,” she says, adding they come up with excuses for buying shoes. So Dotson named each painting based on that notion, such as “I just won’t pay the rent this month” for a pair of emerald green Christian Louboutins with brilliant red soles. She even accents some with rhinestones to add an extra special touch. And like most beautiful shoes, they’re not cheap: she sells the small paintings for $600.
Dotson showcases her work at craft shows and fairs throughout Ohio, but she mostly sells her art from her home in LaGrange. Her house resembles one giant art gallery, with paintings lining the walls paired with furniture the artist paints herself. Her belongings hint at her other inspirations, from history books to Grecian urns and art by renowned talents such as Richard Diebenkorn and Henri Matisse, both known for their use of brilliant colors and edgy work.
Indeed, Dotson’s life revolves around art, and she encourages others who are interested in painting to try their hand at the craft. “Take a class that would create a jumping off point, whether it’s a life drawing or simple painting class.”