Susan Stillman knows the meaning of home.
After all, the White Plains artist has spent the last 25 years creating keepsakes of the subject.
And through Home Portraits by Susan Stillman, she works closely with her clients to immortalize something far greater than simply the place you go to sleep.
Whether it’s a sprawling estate on the Sound, a country home nestled in the woods or a straightforward Victorian on a quiet street, Stillman pays close attention to architectural and natural details. But she also knows there is a more telling – and very personal – thread running through the bricks and wood beams, pristine lawns and lush gardens.
The homes, she shares, are also filled with memories – and it is that aspect of home that connects most deeply with her clients.
“Our homes are a part of us,” Stillman says.
Stillman nurtured an appreciation of homes, architecture and design from her earliest days.
“I grew up just driving with my parents, just looking at homes,” she says.
Art, too, was a part of those years, formalized with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design and then a master’s degree, also in fine arts, from The City University of New York-Brooklyn College.
Stillman would spend the next 15 years as an illustrator, her work appearing in books, magazines and national newspapers, and would also begin teaching at Parsons The New School for Design in 1983, something she continues today.
The home-portrait business was launched in 1989 and complements Stillman’s fine-art work. In the latter, she explores subjects ranging from the tranquility of a picnic table covered in snow to the delicate play of shadows cast on a neighborhood home’s façade. She exhibits both locally and in the city.
The portrait work, though, is her mainstay and most commissions are based in the region, though she has ventured beyond. Particularly memorable was working with a Mississippi family, their memories and a couple of photographs to pay tribute to their longtime home lost to Hurricane Katrina.
Over the years, Stillman has perfected her process. Ideally, it begins with a visit to the property and talking to the clients in detail.
What season will be featured? Will their children, perhaps in earlier days, be depicted? Is there a tree that once held a swing that must be shown?
Stillman will then take countless reference photographs, from varying angles and in varying lights.
“Most of these, especially the big houses, they’re by nature impossible to photograph in one piece,” Stillman says. She uses multiple images to create an overall impression. “It’s like putting together a puzzle.”
She will then get to work in her cozy attic studio, drafting a proposal that details the project. Once finalized, she progresses to creating a “full-scale sketch.”
Of course, there’s always room for a bit of interpretation, whether it’s forcing a few flowers into an early bloom or adding a pet that has long passed on.
“We can throw everything in that’s important to them,” she says.
Stillman says it’s also a learning process for her. She has worked with many a gardener who shares his or her secrets and sometimes collectors, like the one who invited her inside to see his Civil War memorabilia, for example.
Such encounters, she says, add a depth to the project and enhance her connection.
“It’s really personal and the people are really collaborative,” Stillman says.
Finally, she begins to work with acrylics on canvas. When a project is about 70 percent done, Stillman then begins sending progress reports, via email, all leading up to the big reveal.
“The process is so much fun, for both of us,” Stillman says.
Her work is often created to commemorate milestones, from a couple’s anniversary to the purchase of a new home to the relocation from a longtime home where a family was raised.
While Stillman can’t rush the process to create a work in time for this holiday season, she can certainly be secured for a commission that will play out over the coming months.
“I give them a beautiful folder with articles, postcards,” she says, offering the recipient a glimpse into what is to come.
And just what that is, Stillman says, is something that resonates far beyond the holiday season.
“It’s really a forever gift.”