Sue Latta has always had the drive to create. "I make stuff," she says, "That's just what I do. I can't help it." Her role as an artist has taken several twists and turns to get to the point where it is now, as a sculptor working in various mediums. It is precisely the sort of path that takes an individual on a journey of discovery that creates not only who they are, but also determines what they create.
Latta grew up in Hawthorne, a small town "kind of in the center" of Nevada. It wasn't until she entered college at the University of Nevada-Reno, that she found her calling as an artist. "I started as a psychology major," says Latta. She took a photography course as an elective and everything changed. "I had a professor who described one of my prints as 'a photographer's photograph,'" she remembers. "That changed everything for me." She switched her major to art and became a photographer. "It was kind of an ego thing," she says. "I went from being nothing to being something. I've never regressed from that." It took 11 years, three schools in three states, and two kids for Latta to finish her BFA in Photography at Boise State in 1994.
After 10 years of working in the realm of photography, Latta needed a change. She took a sculpture class during her senior year; then she took another. "Everybody thinks they're a photographer," she says, "but not everybody can bend steel."
Latta sold a welded metal piece in her first show as a sculptor, and the next phase of her course as an artist was set. "Sculpture is the polar opposite of photography," she says. "Photography is clean, pristine and flat. Sculpture is dirty and gritty and not flat, but fully in the round."
Latta found herself on the verge of being a college graduate, and realized she had to make a living; if she could do it as an artist, so much the better. She started making functional art, combining her new interest of working with metal with her lifelong love of furniture. She made lamps and tables and did custom work for clients, including the City of Boise. "People can justify buying things that serve a purpose in their lives," she says. Creating functional art was a way to continue making things while generating some income. Latta also had her first solo show of her work as a sculptor, in 1996, in the now-defunct Phantom Gallery.
After a decade of making functional sculpture, Latta was once again ready for a change. "It got to a point where people recognized my name and recognized my work," she says. "I felt like I had welded myself into a corner." An ad for NPR on a bus bench gave her the prodding that she needed. It read: "Are you tired of what you already know?" That single question provided her with the impetus to change her artistic path again. She decided to enter graduate school in sculpture, and started the program for her MFA at Boise State in 2004.
There was little familiarity in going back to school. "I had been out of school for 10 years, so the faculty had almost completely changed over," she says. She knew that she didn't want to make functional sculpture anymore. "I want people to have a visceral reaction to my work," she says. The first thing that she was told was to hang up her welding tools that had served her so well for the last 10 years. "They told me not to make anything out of steel, which forced me to try new things," she says. "I went to rubber, concrete, resins, glass, latex, aluminum, paper."
"It was completely refreshing," says Latta. "Steel has limitations as a medium. These other materials do things that steel can't, translucency for instance."
At this point in her artistic career, it is all about the materials. She has developed a way of working with her mediums intuitively. "I just let the materials do what they do," she says. "Sometimes they give me the format, and I just let them drive." Her use of materials is a sort of "experimentation with an agenda," as she describes it.
Latta has started collecting textures in latex, and has found herself using forms that are the by-products of other work. Her latex texture molds have become their own representations of materials, from swirling skin-like forms to a cracked earthen surface. She is also working with resins, experimenting with different forms and colors as she adds and manipulates the materials at hand. "I like to misuse things," she says. "I also appreciate material ambiguity, objects that make you ask, 'what is it?'" A glance around her studio shows the spirit of her experimentation: ice cube trays are filled with resin; a crock pot and a bottle of Simple Green cleaner stand at the ready. When cleaner and resins are combined, the cleaner "turns into a really cool orange color."
There is also the ever-present option of heat that comes from her years as a welder. "I like to burn things," says Latta. "Who knows what's going to happen when you add heat?" Her experimentation with the manipulation of materials has led her to refer to her current work as the "Alchemy Series," as she discovers the results of different chemical reactions.
Latta is in the midst of finishing her graduate work, and is in the precarious position of having to speak and write about her work while trying to create art that transcends language. She is working with the over-arching idea in her work of what she describes as the sublime moment. "It is that moment where there is nothing else. There is no reasoned thought," she explains. "It is that moment in life when that's all there is. These things that I make attempt to be the embodiment of that moment." She lists her examples of what "that moment" can be to her: "Death; birth; sometimes sex; committing an act of violence; getting into a car accident; etc. ..." To these concepts, she brings her own personal aesthetic, a dark sensibility, which includes the color red; depth of texture; and shapes that she describes variously as "vulvic" and "scrotum-esque."
Her influences are reflected in her current work; she cites Eva Hesse, Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois as among her favorites. "It inspires me that these are woman artists that can get away with working across mediums and pull it off," she says. "I don't want to be bound by medium."
Latta's most recent work from the Alchemy Series will be shown at the Visual Arts Collective as part of their first anniversary show, "Small," which runs from September to November. She will be one of 10 artists who have created smaller works. "The idea is to have work that can be lower in cost than the usual gallery fare, so artists can afford to collect some art," explains Latta.
Her immediate future is well booked, but what happens after she finishes with school? "I'll keep making stuff," she says. "It's that thing that I can't not do."