When artist Susan Vosburgh curls up into a cozy, cross-legged sitting position on the floor of her Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, home you can expect a virtual Noah’s Ark of animals to be shortly unleashed from her creative mind. Beasts of all kinds soon begin to flow from Susan’s pen as she transforms the letters of people’s names into drawings of animals.
“I’ve changed ‘Danielle’ into a Dalmatian, ‘Coco’ into a cat, ‘Amanda’ into a panda, and ‘Dillon’ into a penguin,” she says.
Vosburgh’s unique art style, bold in its child-like innocence, infused with brilliant colors and personalized backgrounds, has a loyal following throughout the world. “Many people buy them as baby or children gifts, and they’re great for decorating a newborn’s room. But I have had many adults order for themselves, or for others for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays or weddings.”
She can also incorporate a person’s hobby, favorite sport or special theme into the background to give the picture more personal relevance. Her animals can be seen jumping over the moon, rollerblading, driving a tractor, in the gym, or playing golf. No background setting, nor any animal/name combination, seems beyond Vosburgh’s whimsical imagination.
The dazzling images are drawn on mat boards that conveniently slip into 8-by-10-inch frames, ready to grace the wall of any nursery, office, den — or castle. Larry Steigrad, owner of Steigrad Fine Arts Gallery in Manhattan, first met Vosburgh as a street artist in Greenwich Village two decades ago. Since then, he has purchased more than 50 of her works and given many as personalized ‘thank you’ gifts to customers.
“We sell very expensive pictures worth several hundred thousand dollars,” he says, “But I have seen tears in the eyes of multimillionaires when they view Susan’s art. Her works hang in castles and palaces across Europe and are treasured as much, and sometimes more, than the old masters hanging nearby.”
Her artwork has also found its way into celebrity homes, including those of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Mary Tyler Moore. Some years ago, when she learned that David Letterman had adopted a German Shepard, she drew a dog wearing Letterman’s clothes, sitting on the familiar television stage with a coffee cup and old-fashioned microphone nearby. A friend passed the work along to the Late Show host. “He wrote me a thank you note: ‘I’ve always wondered what I’d look like as a canine’,” Vosburgh recalls.
The petite 47-year-old Pennsylvania native first created her charming illustrations 35 years ago when she began drawing the colorful images on her father’s shirt cardboards as a child. She recalls setting up a table outside her suburban Pittsburgh home and selling her first piece to a neighbor for ten cents at the age of 12. With a little promoting from a proud mother — also a talented artist — and cleverly marketing her drawings as “The Beast in Me”, the colorful ‘Beasts’ soon began spreading throughout Westmoreland County.
More than just a hobby, the sale of her works later helped pay Vosburgh’s way through college where she studied theater and music. Los Angles author and screenwriter Dylan Brody recalls Susan from their time together as students at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. “She wrote and directed some fairly brilliant plays,” says Brody, “But she also drew me a ‘Beast’ which included or implied each element of the persona I so carefully cultivated at the time.” Twenty-some years later, the ‘Beast’ — an elephant — remains on display in Brody’s office.
Surprisingly, Vosburgh never studied art at college. “My only art teacher was Ann Peterson of Winchester-Thurston School in Pittsburgh,” she said. “She was brilliant, but brutal, forcing us to think like professional artists. She would teach wearing a hefty bag over her dress! She made me so self-confident that I didn’t take any art classes in college.”
Vosburgh estimates she has produced more than 1,000 pieces over the years. “Each ‘Beast’ is unique,” she says, “Even for the same name/animal combination.”
Much of her work was sold when she became a street artist after moving to New York City in 1984. “I moved into what may have been the smallest apartment in the world,” says Vosburgh, “But it was a perfect location, surrounded by fancy of restaurants visited by people with plenty of spending money. I began selling on the sidewalk in front of my building at Columbus and 71st Streets. People would order a drawing and then come back after dinner and pick it up.”
In 1993, when the former Giuliani administration began eliminating sidewalk vending from the streets of New York, artists like Vosburgh were ordered to “shove off” under a new city law, forcing many street artists to find new avenues to display their works. While employment prospects for fledgling artists were not always rosy in the Big Apple, Susan found other areas to channel her creative talents, including performing as a singer/songwriter in a number of local clubs and colleges.
Then there were the odd jobs. She worked for a law firm as a proof reader, and for a publishing company that hired her to draw the black squares in crossword puzzles.
She eventually found her way to Atlantic Highlands, in northern Monmouth County, overlooking lower New York Bay. It’s from there, the highest point on the eastern seaboard south of Maine, that she continued to find inspiration to create her ‘Beasts’. “Being able to walk down to the water is absolutely inspiring for an artist,” she says.
Although Vosburgh enjoyed the close customer contact during her years selling on the noisy and sometimes chilly streets of New York, she now reaches a much wider audience from her home studio via the Internet. Through her web site, BeastInMe.com, she has sold ‘Beasts’ to customers in all 50 states and many countries. Currently, her works sell for $40 and up, including shipping.
Transforming the letters of a name into an animal takes her anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour. “It all depends on how I feel and how involved I get in the details,” she says. “I first look at the name, then think of the animal, and determine which way the animal should be facing, depending on which letters make good tails and legs. It’s my familiarity with how far you can bend a letter, and in what direction, that makes it still recognizable as the correct letter.”
Susan Vosburgh at work
Over the years, Vosburgh says she has received some interesting requests. Usually, though, she is commissioned to create art that celebrates the many blessings of life. A request came one Christmas from a Midwest couple who had lost one of their cherished dogsleding huskies in northern Minnesota. Miraculously, the dog was later found. The couple sent Susan a photo of the dog and asked her to draw it with a snowy background to commemorate their story and its happy ending.
“They are such personalized gifts that people are just thrilled with them,” summed up Fred Warshay from Westchester, New York, who has ordered more than 40 ‘Beasts’ for friends and family. With grateful patrons like that, Susan Vosburgh’s ‘Beasts’ will never become extinct.