Fashion, accessory and costume designer, painter, illustrator, museum exhibitor… Susan Obrant basically embodies the word creativity.
Stepping into her Cortlandt Manor home, an eclectic, expansive space on the former grounds of a fabled hotel and spa, one quickly realizes these are also surroundings like no other.
Dressed in fashions of both her own design and making, Obrant offers first a warm welcome and then a tour, which seems quite natural.
After all, her home is where she meets potential – and many repeat – clients by appointment. But it’s also home to her studio, an airy space that anchors the three floors that serve as both informal art galleries and, taken together, a de facto career retrospective.
There is, it must be said, not an inch of unadorned space – and that’s not a complaint.
A walk through her home is a walk through her history, each painting, drawing, shawl or dress telling a story.
Together, it might trigger a remembrance of “A Serious Art Discussion,” Obrant says in reference to her two-year installation at Hudson Valley MOCA in Peekskill in which mannequins wearing Obrant’s crochet designs studied her paintings on the wall.
Such an integrated display is clever and unexpected and totally works, drawing one completely into Obrant’s life in art.
Born in Philadelphia and growing up in its suburbs – though she’s been “in Westchester forever” – she would start out as a psychology major but transferred to Parsons School of Design “based on a summer’s worth of (art) classes.”
In her 20s, Obrant would work as an illustrator, one whose work would go on to include a nomination for the 1971 Grammy Award for Best Album Cover for “The Music of Erik Satie: Through A Looking Glass.”
Her art would come to encompass countless other media, from magazine illustrations to designing T-shirts for the Metropolitan Opera to paintings, including portraits by commission.
Her paintings are continually inspired by family, travel, history, music and even sobering subjects such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Local scenes are no exception, such as a work devoted to the Croton Dam: “I knew it was done when I could hear the roar of the water.”
Movement and depth are key to her fine art.
“I like the idea of a video camera, for a painting to do what a still camera cannot.”
That sense of movement, of vibrancy is found in her fashion and costume work, which is noted for its daring use of colors and textures.
Obrant pauses as we walk through her home to show off a particular purse: “This is the bag that began my business.”
She was asked about its origin – and then asked to start making them. From then, it’s been a whirlwind of dresses and vests, shawls and bags, hats and gloves, all one-of-a-kind yet clearly of her signature approach.
“Performers love them because there’s no seams. It’s like wearing air,” she says.
She knows what works from experience.
“I trained as a dancer which is why I dress dancers. Everything has to move.”
Obrant has dressed Audra McDonald and her dancers for the musical movie “Hello Again,” creates performance wear for classical-rock violinist Daisy Jopling and has worked with numerous dance companies.
She credits her grandmother for teaching her “one stitch” when Obrant was 8 that was the seed for her work in yarn, which she calls “couture crochet.”
“I have no fashion training,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “I couldn’t follow a pattern to save my life.”
Thought fashionable, her work is hardly created with trends in mind.
“They’ll never be out of style. They’ll never be in style. They just are.”
And they are for anyone, young or old, male or female.
“There’s no appropriate age or style,” Obrant says. “If you put it on and you feel good,” as she says, then it’s for you.
While Obrant sees many clients one-on-one, she enjoys showcasing her designs in shows, as well. A favorite is Crafts at Lyndhurst, which gathers some 300 of the nation’s leading contemporary craftspeople, artists and makers twice a year to the grounds of the historic mansion in Tarrytown.
Laura Kandel, director of Artrider Productions, which is the longtime producer of the show, shares that Obrant has been participating in Artrider events since 2007.
“Susan has found a way to take the very traditional and often undervalued craft of crocheting and make it modern, hip and wearable by women and men of all ages,” Kandel says, also recognizing her work in fine art.
And, Kandel adds, Artrider shows are designed to offer the unexpected.
“I feel that we are able to blow our customers’ minds because of artists like Susan who take traditional media and turn it on its head.”
We have a feeling Obrant would appreciate those words, since her life in the arts has been all about creating her own path.
As she tells us, “The main thing is to trust yourself as an artist.”