Artist, teacher, and arts advocate Susan Irish soldiers on after the closing of her arts space, Fabulon 

Keeping the Faith

click to enlarge Susan Irish teaches students out of her home studio

Ruta Smith

Susan Irish teaches students out of her home studio

It's been one year since Fabulon, an art school and art gallery, closed its doors on Wappoo Road. Owner of Fabulon, Susan Irish, had to vacate the space when the building's owner informed her that it would be torn down. Now, a year later, Irish is painting and teaching out of her home studio in West Ashley — and continuing to champion the growth of art in the city.

"What's missing is a gathering space," says Irish of West Ashley. "A gallery may not be as profitable as it would cost [to run it], but we definitely need a meeting space." Irish hasn't given up on finding a new location for Fabulon, which at the moment exists online and in curated exhibitions around town. Irish curates the art in Avondale Therapy — the therapist there wants people to feel more comfortable coming into the space, and the result is a lot of good art — and at a mortgage company in Park Circle.

Still, that's not quite fulfilling her gathering space dreams. "People don't think of, 'Oh let's go gallery hopping in Avondale or Park Circle,'" says Irish. So she's rethinking the whole gallery idea, mulling over what a gathering space may look like. Similar to how she creates art, the future is a day-by-day, messy, exciting, and beautiful process. And Irish wouldn't have it any other way.

"One day I came up here and I said 'I'm going to paint like a real painter.' And I got my palette and I got my colors on it," says Irish of an attempt at a more "organized" style, of creating. "I got partially through and said, 'this is not me. I can't do that. I can't work in that constraint.' And I cranked up the music and I did my thing."

Irish's studio is filled with her things: her paintings, her supplies, her students' works-in-progress. Her dog, Bridge, lays on his doggie bed, intermittently squeaking a toy. "He stops after a bit," she promises. Natural light streams into the space and paint absolutely covers every surface of the work table. It's an artist's studio if there ever was one.

"I'm blissfully happy," says Irish. "I didn't think February of last year that I'd be happy.

I was a tiny bit catatonic, on the verge of hyperventilating." Leaving the Fabulon space was hard, not just for Irish, but for so many in the community who used the space as a classroom, as a place to show their work, as a location for cool events — ones that may not usually make their way over to West of the Ashley.

Irish continues to teach students both in her home studio and at their homes; she's late to meet me after teaching one student, a young man interested in graffiti. We're still on her front porch as she pulls out her phone, showing me the work he's currently creating. Irish is invested in her students, in her work, and in the impact both of those things can have on the community.

click to enlarge Irish creates abstract works with her dog, Bridge, at her feet - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Irish creates abstract works with her dog, Bridge, at her feet

"I'm still 'Yay, West Ashley!" says Irish, who opened Fabulon four years ago. She's embedded herself in this community, advocating for artists and even working on a West Ashley artist census — the West Ashley Arts Initiative. "Whoever makes their living, poet to playwright to painter to pianist, whoever makes their living in the arts," says Irish of the people she's looking for. And if that means you, then Irish would love it if you could fill out the census at surveygizmo.com.

On March 23, Irish will be at Avondale Therapy with folks and supplies from Artist & Craftsman. Guests will join artist Nancy Amis as she demos her style, one that Irish describes as using "big, bold swaths of color," and a palette knife. The event is free and open to all skill levels. You can also catch Irish as a speaker at the North Charleston Arts Fest this May.

Irish even has a Q&A style column in West Of, where she chats with local artists. "They're questions I ask of everybody. Why does art matter? What makes you an artist? And then I make people tell me why they're beautiful," she says. And she knows that makes people uncomfortable, but that's what she's here for.

No matter who she's talking to or where she is, Irish is always tapping into her teacher identity. She's even learning to use it on herself. "It has been the best year, it has been the worst year," she says. "I'm trying to listen to what I tell my students. I don't brag about myself very often, but I'm a damn good teacher. And I know that and I feel that about myself. So I'm listening to my own self now — I would never let my students talk to themselves the way I talk to myself."

Last year, after feeling morose about the loss of Fabulon's physical space (and likely not talking very nicely to herself), Irish had a friend recommend an app, what she calls a "calm, meditative thing," where you stare at your phone and look at an image for 30 seconds. "I thought, '30 seconds, that would be good,'" she says. "And then I had students ringing the doorbell. I had to get to work. And I thought, 'OK, I'll get to work.'"


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