If you walk into Susan Contreras’s home and studio in Santa Fe, prepare to don a mask—and not the pandemic kind. “Look at these masks,” the painter enthuses, carrying a box to the porch. “They’re fabulous.”
She thrusts a Venetian commedia dell’arte visage at me and sets a makeup mirror on the table. “See what you look like,” she urges. I hold the checkered harlequin mask to my face and peer at the rigid, imposing stranger in the mirror. I’m a bit frightened.
“Now,” she says, masterfully twirling the mask up to her own face, “look at the difference in what I look like.”
She puts a hand on her hip and cocks her body jauntily, complementing the whimsical expression on the painted wooden face. She commands attention.
The moment is filled with possibility. Just as in her kinetic, circus-like paintings of both surreal and everyday events, the mask somehow changes the particles in the air. Anything could happen.
To stand in front of one of Contreras’s large-scale canvases is to go down a weird rabbit hole—one teeming with color, mysticism, and human drama. In her paintings, the absurd keeps close company with both the vulgar and the mundane. Clowns bob for apples in the air, a motley crew of masked figures belly up to a bar, a pack of sleek greyhounds watch a jester eat pasta. As has been her trademark for decades, nearly every figure wears a mask, elevating the everyday actions in each canvas to new dramatic possibilities.
“Masks are my vehicle in the process of painting,” she says, “and now the world has a realization of what it’s like to be behind a mask.” This fall, Contreras’s signature vision won her a 2021 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, placing her in a select club of the state’s most esteemed artists, philanthropists, and arts organizations.
A week or so after that honor was announced, we sit at her outdoor table, sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of an artist’s life filled with travel, adventures, friends, and, most of all, fun.
“I am back!” she tells me. Over a short period this summer, Contreras garnered both the Governor’s Award and a large commission. Her painting Los Trabajadores was also selected for the prestigious Bennett Collection of Women Realists, based in San Antonio, Texas. It’s not a bad run for a career painter who spent the past several years caring for her husband, acclaimed artist Elias Rivera, who won a Governor’s Arts Award in 2004. He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease in 2019.
“I said, ‘Why are they giving this award to someone who hasn’t been painting for years?’ ” she says wryly.
You wouldn’t know it, given the creative dross that surrounds us. Her studio, back up and running, is crowded with jars full of Rivera’s brushes and two works in progress. Masks obtained from travels to Mexico, Guatemala, Europe, and a West Coast shop run by the artisans who made the carnival masks for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut line the walls.
A collection of pizza boxes holds years of quirky inspiration for paintings both completed and not yet begun. One, marked “Chickens,” holds a trove of photographs from a long-ago county fair show of backyard chickens. Contreras reveals the result of that venture: a painting of a youth cradling a prize hen, an innocent occasion made more complex by the youngster’s masked face.
“I had wanted to go to the Deming duck races for the longest time,” she says, opening another box, her mind ping-ponging through her inspirations. “My imagination of them was 10 times better than what actually happened. I got the biggest duck, and it fell asleep in my arms before the race started.”
Penny Spring, her friend and a multimedia artist, says that in any given setting, Contreras likes to latch on to the weirdest possible people. “In Sue’s paintings, things are always just about to get a little bit out of hand,” she says. On Contreras’s canvases, there’s often a party, or a raucous bar scene with wildly different carousing characters. Even in a study of a solitary figure, strains of intoxication, mystery, and madness creep in.
Contreras attributes her preoccupation with masks to a long-ago suggestion by a gallerist that she devote an exhibition to them. “When I did that show, it was like, wow,” she says, looking around wonderingly. “I don’t have to paint people’s faces or look for my characters anymore.”
Born in Mexico City in 1952, Contreras inherited a heady artistic legacy. Her grandfather Jesús Fructuoso Contreras (1866–1902) was a sculptor whose statues lined the Paseo de Reforma, in the heart of the city. Mary, her American-born mother, was a portrait painter who also collaborated with Contreras’s father, Baudelio, on jewelry designs featured in Vogue magazine. When Susan was four, Mary moved the family to Santa Barbara, California. Susan and her siblings subsequently spent a nomadic childhood in Europe and Canada before landing in Santa Fe in 1968.
After Contreras spent years studying photography and illustration, both of which form the basis for her paintings, two books on circus life sparked her inspiration: Step Right Up!, by Dan Mannix, and Jill Freedman’s Circus Days. “I’ve always loved clowns,” she admits, “probably from being a kid at circuses in Mexico.”
As a child, she also frequently dressed up and engaged in mime artistry with her sister Patsy, who was born deaf.
Intrigued by the photojournalistic possibilities of circus life, Contreras traveled for a time with small itinerant family circuses, including the Hoxie Brothers and Big John Strong Circus. On the circuit, she took pictures of “clowns having parties on boats and hanging showgirls upside down.”
When she realized that painting meant she could further manipulate such a moment, adding her own dimensions of light, positioning, and color, she began chronicling the funky array of carnival life—and circus-like aspects of the humdrum.
“I was attracted to her colors. They’re bright and fun,” says contemporary santero Arthur López, a 20-year acquaintance of Contreras and Rivera. “Her paintings invoke a kind of playful joy.”
Contreras takes more wooden and papier-mâché masks down from the corners of her home. “They really start to paint themselves,” she says. Contreras insists that her best work is done when intuition takes over, “when you’re unconscious of what you’re painting.” The masks take on a life of their own, dominating the scene and altering the mood with the slightest tweak of expression.
I study the spectrum of faces before us, then peer down at the scattered prints of Contreras’s paintings on the table. The equal measures of darkness and light on every canvas come from a place of pure delight: Contreras says she is unable to paint when she is unhappy.
Even in the most frightening scenes—a grinning witch, a masked figure running from a flock of ravens—a timeless sense of humor twines with the absurdity of life.
“I think I have great empathy with humanity,” Contreras says quietly. “I’ve been part of the deaf world, the Parkinson’s world, the circus world. And I’ve been with clowns, who really are as weird as you think they are. I see exaggerations. It’s all the extremes. My paintings just kind of hit you over the head.”
She stands in the doorway of her studio, an impish expression on her face. She looks just like a jester.
The 2021 Governor’s Arts Awards crown a new set of achievers. View the full list of winners.