Suzann Kingston - Touch The Art Exhibition

I first met Singer/Artist Suzann Kingston through her daughter Shay Leah (owner/designer at Occulto Masks) at VALT (Vancouver Alternative Fashion Week) in 2013.  Her looks are exotic - her smile 1000 watts strong.  After being introduced I think our conversation was limited to hello and a few brief sentences. I had no idea what a talented artist she was in her own right - she was just Shay's mum.

Then when attending a charity event at Hycroft Manor I was blessed to hear her sing several opera selections. Amazing. It's always a great surprise to find out a chance encounter has brought someone new and interesting into your life, especially when you love interviewing.  Unfortunately with my upcoming book launch, I haven't had time to sit face-to-face and hear her story.

Three days ago I received a poster advertising Kingston's upcoming art exhibit called Touch The Art. I had no idea she was also a talented painter and I loved her concept for this exhibit (explained in her own words below).  That was it - I instantly went into plan B - a Q and A. Fortunately she is a lovely story teller. What you'll find here is her journey from childhood to singing and finally to her new exhibit.  

I enjoyed reading about her life immensely, as I know you will. Be sure to read all the way to the end as her concept for this exhibit is unusual. And consider this your personal invitation from Kingston to come to her launch on January 25th at the Havana Gallery on Commercial Drive.

= = = = 

 In front of a floor to ceiling mural of Van Gogh's
Starry Night she painted in her hallway
Where were you born where did you grow up?

I was born in Montreal and moved to the Maritimes when I was 5. I grew up on Cape Breton Island minutes from the vast expanse of the Atlantic ocean which explains why I have such a passion for water and why nature shows up a lot in my work - even if it is abstract nature.

What were you like as a child? As a teenager? 

I've always been an introvert/extrovert (typical artist's nature). I've always been shy but I've also always put myself on one stage or another so people never believe that I could be shy because of my strong stage personas. I fake being outgoing very well.

I loved to draw and sing from an early age. So art class and high school musicals made me happy. I had no other hobbies, didn't do sports, wasn't popular. I was a gawky, awkward, lonely and shy teenager who spent a lot of time in my head and in my art. I would get lost for hours just drawing pictures. My mother used to get the National Enquirer magazine and there was often a full page photo of some wild animal. I would spend months creating large reproductions of those photos in pencil and ink. In fact, I still have one that I did when I was in grade 9. It's a picture of a mother and baby tiger. Took me 3 months to complete. 

Left - The Sky is Falling #2, Right - Perfect Storm

Looking back can you remember a story from your child/teen years that are an early sign you would choose a career as an artist?

I have been artistic since I was a teen. I wrote short stories. I drew pictures (I used to draw portraits of my classmates from their grad photos). I sang in high school musicals. In high school, I took a correspondence course in art: If you can draw this picture, maybe you could be a commercial artist! I never made it through the whole course but the seed was planted in my head. But the real choice of trying to pursue a career as an artist was simply my way of escaping an unhappy home life.

When I graduated high school, I applied and was accepted to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. I was going to become a 'commercial artist'. I didn't even know what that was but it meant I got to leave home and that was all that mattered to me. When I got there, I studied photography, design and took lots of courses but I was clueless. I felt there were real artists there but I didn't consider myself one of them. In my eyes I was simply cash flow for the college. So, after a couple of years I quit and started to pursue what got me really excited - singing.

In opera costume ready
do hit the stage.
I think you are most known locally for your career as a singer. Can you talk about your journey to this profession? What is the most rewarding and the hardest in pursuing a musical career?

My family was musical - both my father and brother played guitar. My brother is an amazing guitarist. My first singing performance was singing, 'Born Free' in a beauty pageant when I was 15. I won the pageant - to my utter amazement and became Miss Black is Beautiful. When I left home to go to art school, my brother gave me a guitar and taught me some basic chords. I spent a lot of my time in my dorm room with my guitar singing Barbara Streisand songs. I taught myself to sing by copying her vocal stylings. I loved singing more than anything.

When I quit art school, I applied and was accepted into the music program at Dalhousie University in Halifax. This is when I was introduced to classical music and opera. I had an amazing voice coach who helped to build the foundation of the voice I have today. I fell deeply in love with opera. A few years into this, I married and had my daughter. My voice coach was encouraging me to go to Baltimore to study opera seriously. I couldn't imagine being anywhere but with my daughter, so I declined the offer and have never regretted it.

In the years to come I would perform opera, musical theatre (I sang with the Charlottetown Festival for several years), dinner theatre, I sang in churches, at conferences, weddings... you name it. I wrote my own material. I competed in vocal competitions and found my way to Vancouver where I fell in love with the city. I moved here (as a single parent) and tried to make my way. I eventually married again and we tried to build my singing career. I recorded an album of songs I'd written, made a music video, demo tapes, did endless self-produced concerts, sang in churches, submitted myself to record companies. I was never a flavor of the month and experienced a lot of rejection. What to do with a black woman who sounds like Barbara Streisand? :) 

In the 1990's, I stopped singing and performing because of a personal crisis. I literally lost my ability to get up on stage and sing. It was a devastating experience and time in my life. I truly believed I would never sing again. I was pretty lost. That effectively was the end of my pursuit of a 'musical career'. I dealt with it all by writing (therapy) and ended up writing several books. More art - just a different expression. 

Left - River #2, Centre, another in front of the floor to ceiling mural of Van Gogh's Starry Night
painted in her hallway. Right - Midnight Rapids

Several years ago my daughter encouraged me to start singing again. She said I had finally come far enough that my music could now simply be about sharing my love for the craft. I ended up joining a small opera company here in the city and became a principal lead. My love for opera was reborn. The best thing was that when I started working my voice again (and singing opera is pretty hard work) I discovered it was better than ever - bigger and stronger than it had ever been when I was young.

The most rewarding aspect of singing is that you get to transport people to another place with your voice and storytelling. You tap into their emotions and make them feel things. Most people are so fiercely in control of their emotions at all times but music sneaks in and ambushes them when they least expect it. They listen to music, are touched by it and then they get to bask in those feelings and blame it on the music. Knowing that you can touch people and make them feel is the sweetest joy.

These days I've returned to being a solo performer. Now my singing is purely a selfish pursuit. I sing only when I want to and because I love to - no other intent but to share music with people who enjoy the kind of stuff I sing.

With daughter Shay at
her Hycroft Manor performance.
Image by Norm Lee
I knew you sang opera, but recently noted a reference to you singing jazz. They are quite different styles. What draws you to each?

When I first started singing, I was listening to Barbara Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine, Porgy and Bess... I loved the way these women told the stories with their voices. Lush and intimate, passionate and precise.

I love singing opera because of the passionate storytelling (no place like opera for drama!), the difficulty of the pieces (they challenge me to work really hard in order to make it sound like it's easy to sing this stuff) and the sheer beauty of the sounds I get to make when I sing opera arias. I go to a place where I become the character, get lost in the story and pour out my heart and emotions via the written music.

I love the old jazz standards because where opera is big and dynamic, jazz is intimate and luscious. You bring it down and make it small and tell your story in such a way that you bring the listener into your lap, into your eyes, into your arms, wrap them up in the music and take them to another place for just a few minutes. Then you gently put them back in their seats... like pouring warm honey over them.

Do you have a favourite performance or a funny moment from your singing career you can share?

I think my favourite performance was when I was singing with the Charlottetown Festival when they put on the show about Elvis Presley called: Are You Lonesome Tonight? It was controversial at the time because there was swearing in it (on the Anne of Green Gables stage - imagine). I played Maryanne (his maid) and sang the opening number and a duet with Elvis later in the show. On the night that was the anniversary of his death, the theatre was packed (as it was for every show). We had just finished the closing number, the lights had gone out, the theatre was pitch black and our announcer said: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building." (This is something that was said after Elvis' live shows.) We waited for the audience to applaud... we waited and waited and waited. The theatre was dead silent and the silence went on and on and on... People got caught up in our performance, in their own memories of Elvis and the realization that the King, was indeed, gone. The emotion was palpable. You could have heard a pin drop on the carpeted floor. It was magical.... Then they finally burst into applause that seemed to never end. I've never forgotten that.

When Autumn Leaves Start To Fall.

You are holding your first solo art exhibition on January 25th at the Havana Gallery on Commercial. How long have you been painting and what mediums do you work with?

I have been painting for about 8 years and I work with acrylic paint on canvas and sometimes wood. This will be my first indoor solo exhibition, but for the past 2 years, I have been displaying and selling my paintings outside at English Bay during the summer. I set up a large, semi-circular, open-air art gallery on the grass near the seawall at English Bay. This allows people to basically walk into my 'gallery', explore the art and then continue on their walk along the seawall. It's a fascinating experience and I have the greatest time.

I started painting as a moment of impulse because I was feeling creatively stagnant. My daughter and I had been to see the Masters show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I saw a couple of Van Gogh's works (my favorite painter and inspiration) and was enchanted - as always. When we walked out of the gallery, I said to her that I wanted to try painting. So she brought me some paints she had and I went and bought more and got canvas and then came home and set everything up on my balcony in the sunshine. I looked at all of those colors and just about lost my mind with happiness. I let my instincts lead the way and just dove on in. My style evolves as I go... I just give my imagination free reign.
Left - Anxiety, Right - Blood on the Water

What do you love about painting - what is challenging? How do you approach inspiration for a new work and/or each new series?

Color excites me, stimulates me, triggers my imagination. I am inspired not so much by the things I see but by the colors of the things I see. Texture and movement is equally important to me because the heavy textures I create allow me to engage my sense of touch when I explore my art... a flat canvas turns into a 2-dimensional art piece.

I love painting abstracts. With abstracts, I never know what the finished product is going to look like until it's done. I like that. I like being surprised. The challenge with my work is that every painting is completed in one sitting. My main goal is have the colors blend seamlessly while they are still wet. So I paint fast and furiously! I let my instincts tell me when it's done and then I force myself to walk away from it. I don't go back to make corrections because they are not necessary. There is no such thing as perfection in life and I don't want to create 'perfect' works of art. In the 'flaws', I find beauty.

The goal is to embrace a moment in time and during that moment, let my mood, emotions, the selected colors, canvas and tools create a work that is begun and completed within that window - however long that window is open. When it's done and viewed, everyone sees something different. I want the paintings to be touchable - so that people look at them and instantly want to touch them to see what it feels like. When I create a 'series', they come into being only because I've created something that excites me and that I want to create more of with different variations. 

Dancing For Joy

I know there is something very special about your current exhibition. Can you fill us in on what to expect?

My current exhibition is called 'TOUCH THE ART'. The interesting thing about this exhibit (which will always be an aspect of every exhibition of mine) is that I invite the viewers to actually touch the paintings. My art is interactive.

There is a barrier - seen and unseen - between works of ART and the people who gaze upon them. We are told to look but not touch because presumably, ART is too 'precious' to be handled by mere mortals. I have removed that barrier with 3 simple words: TOUCH THE ART. To fully experience my art, you need to see it and touch it.
People of all ages instinctively reach out to touch my paintings when they see them and I am happy to let them. When they touch the smooth and rough surfaces, feel the thickness and thinness of the paint, see the sensuality of the colors, many people get this look of wonder and awe on their faces followed by smiles of delight. And for a moment, they are kids again - exploring something new.

I want people to experience ART in a different way so I give them permission to do something that is forbidden: I invite them to TOUCH THE ART - a safe little act of rebellion. I think a little rebellion is good for the soul especially if it spurs you on to start thinking outside of the box. We have had the wonder beaten out of us on so many levels. I just want to bring a little of it back.

Anything else you want readers to know?

People are always surprised when I tell them they can actually touch the paintings. Sometimes I have to work hard to convince them it's okay. So, when you come to the show and see the signs that say: Yes, you can touch the art. I'm not kidding! Please touch the art (clean hands please) and enjoy the experience. The paintings all have a protective finish on them.

For more information or to check out Kingston's art, books and music please come visit her website at