Hampshire artist Suzanne Poursine Massion [pronounced Mas-ee-ōne] can’t recall a time when she didn’t like to paint or draw. It’s a passion she inherited from her late mother, Lillian Kimball Doss Poursine, also an artist.
“In my mother’s world, there was no boredom,” Massion says. “She handed my sister and me crayons and said, ‘If you can draw, you’re not bored.’”
At 65, Massion’s hands have seldom been idle, thanks to her talent. Although she has done many kinds of work, from running a dairy farm with her former husband to working in the investment department at a bank, Massion’s sketch pad, crayons and colored pencils have always been within reach.
An accomplished impressionist, Massion uses thick, short strokes to capture the essence, rather than the details, of her subjects.
“Suzanne has a real passion for her work,” says fellow artist Marge Hall. “She does large paintings, as well as small paintings that spontaneously capture the moment. Her work is on both ends of the spectrum.”
Massion is a juried member of Oil Painters of America and the Illinois Artisans Program, and a member of the DuPage Art League, where she teaches art class. Her paintings and drawings have won numerous awards and are collected by private and corporate art connoisseurs throughout the country, many of whom discovered them through her Web site.
Born in St. Louis, Massion has called the Midwest home for more than 30 years. The region is the backdrop for a body of work she calls “Heartland Images,” an evolving collection of oil paintings showcasing farmland, prairie remnants and grassy, open spaces, as well as unpolished urban areas. “I began painting landmarks because I was intrigued by the look of gritty, blue-collar, Midwestern river towns and disappearing rural areas,” she says. Many of those early works were sold to collectors. Massion wanted to continue the project, but with a twist. Instead of local landmarks, she went searching for common places, areas that people pass by every day but don’t always notice.
Massion’s paintings are remarkable for the spectacular colors and dramatic shadows that fall across the end of a lane, a highway’s edge or a fence. “I find alleyways, backstreets, old buildings, even dumpsters that look more interesting than the picture postcard,” she says. “I get a thrill when people ask, ‘Where is that road?’ or ‘Where is that bridge?’ It’s like noticing something that no one else thought of.”
Much to her dismay, however, many of her subjects have disappeared over time – burned down, demolished, paved over or sacrificed to new development. But she smiles and looks at the upside. “I guess that makes my paintings historical.”
Massion and her family moved around a lot when she was growing up, due to her father’s service in the U.S. Army. Early on, she lived in New Orleans; later, she attended high school in East Lansing, Mich., where she took her first art class. She earned an art degree from Michigan State University, before moving to the Chicago area in 1969. She’s been here ever since.
Life interfered with her art for several years, as Massion tended a dairy farm with her first husband, then worked as a restaurant hostess, followed by a job in the mortgage department of a local bank, mostly out of necessity. “I had to earn money to pay the rent and my art was kept at bay,” she says. “I call those ‘the lost years.’” In 1990, she signed up for an art class at Elgin Community College, taught by Chang Li, a visiting professor from Beijing. She became smitten with Li’s paintings when she saw them at an art show. Eventually, Li became her mentor, even after he returned home. “My style is more influenced by him than anyone else I’ve studied,” she says.
But it was husband Ray, whom she wed in 1989, who convinced her to reassess her life and prioritize the things that mattered most. She ultimately decided to leave her full-time work in pursuit of her art dreams. “He asked me if I wanted my tombstone to read, ‘She sold the most annuities in the history of Elgin Federal,’ or do I want to be known as ‘the world’s most famous artist?’”
Massion chases this lofty dream from inside her Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced prairie style home and studio in Hampshire. The house features low horizontal lines and open spaces, and was designed by Mark Zinni to blend in with the flat, prairie landscape surrounding her property. Massion’s vibrant oil paintings are on display throughout her home. Tall grass prairies, somber wetlands, bright pastures and homey farms grace the long hallways leading from one room to the next. She paints in a tidy studio overlooking a spacious wooded backyard, while listening to an eclectic range of music, or sometimes to the chatter of radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.
The radio is the only distraction Massion can tolerate, however, during her daily three-hour work sessions. “If I have cooking, cleaning or ironing to do, I get it done,” she says. “I have to clear the air and clear my mind. If I have a painting to do, I mentally make a list of things that need to be corrected. And I’m stubborn. I will make that painting work, even if I have to bleed. I will not give up.”
Massion, who works in oil, pen and ink and, for portraits, graphite, is a plein-air painter, meaning she begins her projects out-of-doors, in natural light. At some point in the process, however, she photographs her subjects and returns to her studio to complete them. Occasionally, she experiences what she calls “white canvas anxiety.”
“I paint quickly to cover the blank canvas, so the white is no longer there,” she says. There are plenty of other challenges along the way, too, like trying to capture the sun shining through the trees, re-creating moving waters, or capturing a sunset.” Although generally pleased with the outcome, Massion always looks forward to the next assignment. “Something always pulls me forward to do it a little bit better the next time,” she says.
Among her vast collection of paintings, Massion is especially proud of “The Grandstand,” an historical perspective of the Elgin Road Race commissioned by a local dentist for his waiting room. “I have never gotten over the rush it gives me when someone plunks down hard-earned cash and buys one of my paintings,” she says.
Jerry Goldstein of St. Charles met Massion several years ago, through his late wife, Rose, an artist who owned the Artists’ Cove in Elgin. Massion and Rose collaborated on several projects, including public showings in downtown Elgin. The couple was instrumental in promoting Massion’s paintings to others; in fact, Goldstein has purchased eight of Massion’s paintings.
“I absolutely fell in love with her work,” he says. “My money speaks as loudly as my voice about her work. It is very realistic, yet it’s not like a photograph. There’s great depth of field, and great interpretation, in the work she does. Her paintings are just fascinating. It’s a matter of what you like, and I really like how she approaches things.”
It’s an approach she’s willing to share with the young art students she instructs. Massion’s advice? Paint often, come to class prepared and handle your brush with care. “Put paint to canvas,” she tells them, “and be willing to make mistakes. It’s the only way you’re going to learn.” ❚