Back to the drawing table… in a good way

After an intense month of Kickstarter fundraising, I’m now diving back into the story, conjuring up the final scenes and incorporating the new cameo appearances. I’m really glad I decided to go with that option for one of the pledge levels. This allows people outside my family and close circle of friends to be featured in the book and gives me totally new material to draw from! This new, more inclusive model of art making is really interesting and makes me really very happy with my decision a few years back to start drawing people. I started off this project with rather subpar figure drawing skills and now, after almost three years of figure drawing boot camp (aka The Circus and the Cyclone) I find myself confident enough to offer to draw strangers as circus freaks and even lead a live drawing class. Whew! It took a lot of horribly bad drawings along the way, but I guess there’s a lesson in that.

Over the next two months I’m going to be working to the bone getting the final illustrations, text, and page layouts complete with the hopes of getting the whole thing printed and bound and sent out to the good folks who backed the project before the holidays. Yikes. Ambitious? Yes. Doable? Perfectly. Although I will be sad when it’s time to move onto something new… there will be a big circus-shaped hole in my heart when this is finished and it’s time to move on. Maybe I’ll switch to sci-fi writing and illustrate Ingrid von Aviary’s moon adventures!

Otherwise I might just drown in post-circus depression, while listening to this sad violin…


Still kicking

Actually we’ve only begun to kick. Start. At five days into our kickstarter campaign, we are already 30 percent funded! It’s been giving me so many warm and fuzzy feelings seeing not only pledges, but encouragement and support flood in. We have such a great support network, both here and abroad. Thank you!  And, of course, if you know of anyone else who might be interested in seeing “The Circus and the Cyclone” become a real, physical, honest-to-goodness book, with pages and everything, then make sure to send them here

We’ve also added a new gallery for the circus illustrations onto this very website Exciting, no?! I spent yesterday evening preparing stripy tent backgrounds to add that extra circus ambience.

Also in the works is a possible live circus (of sorts) descending on Milwaukee. This book started with my friends in costumes, so perhaps it is appropriate to conclude the same way. We’re still working out the details, but I’m always up for costumed antics. Always.

Friday Kickstarter Kick-off and Gallery Night

It’s happening again… Gallery Night in Milwaukee is this Friday and the Hide House will be buzzing with all kinds of activity. Up on the second floor we’ll have a bunch of artists, a bunch of food and drink, and live music by The Vitrolum Republic! I’m also using this as the kick-off event for my Kickstarter campaign to publish the book, so it will be extra exciting.

It’s been interesting doing these open studio events this year. It’s something new for my studio partner and I (Jason Krukowski) and welcoming the public into a private creative space still seems a little weird, but also fun. I try to clean up our pack rat museum and make it look presentable, while still keeping it functional and comfortable to create in. In many ways though, it’s futile to “clean” our room, which is full of years worth of thrift store finds, dumpster dives, and rummage sale beauties. Not to mention the slightly embarrassing yet endearing student artworks I can’t just toss or hide away. Also, there’s Jason’s toy collection, my jewelry boxes and doll furniture, and more clocks than anyone actually needs that are all showing different times… kind of like Doc Brown’s art laboratory. I’m working on some adjustments to the Gaius Baltar shrine (aka Baltar Altar) so please excuse its current state.

In creating a set for my kickstarter video, we just pulled interesting and fancy looking items from the room and arranged them in the hall: instant circus ambience!


Stay tuned for more details as the Kickstarter campaign begins! And if you’re in the Milwaukee area on Friday night, make sure to stop in at the Hide House in Bay View for a spectacular evening of art, music, and revelry.

History: in their own, sensational words

As we gear up for the kickstarter chaos and I head into the final lap of creating the book, I’ve decided to revisit one of the inspirations that lead me to this story in the first place. I’m currently re-reading “History of the New Richmond Cyclone” which you can find in it’s entirety at the Wisconsin History website. Immediately following the New Richmond tornado, a woman named Mary Adeline Boehm (or “Mrs. A. G. Boehm ” as title page confusingly names her) wrote a book detailing the stories of the survivors.


Written in the most lavish, uncensored, over-the-top prose imaginable, Boehm gives us everything from the (now sort of out dated) science of tornadoes, to horror novel-esque scenes of personified fire (not kidding here) slowly approaching its victims, trapped helplessly under tornado debris. There are numerous accounts of seeing the storm forming which all seem to match up and be reasonably factual. But then there are also stories that seem mildly embellished and still more that were probably made up all together.

Published less than a year after the event, it already held the feel of a legend. Without the proliferation of cell phone cameras, hand held video recorders, and 911 calls, the stories of the survivors were the closest thing to coverage of what actually happened that day. Much like the newspapers of the time, Boehm ads literary flourishes that would make any modern writer blush with embarrassment, for example, breaking mid-paragraph to exclaim “Merciful God!” or “Oh! The sights that met the gaze of the survivors!” In fact, there are a lot of exclamation points used in general! More than a modern reader would think possible! More than any document needs really!

The language of it is simultaneously fascinating and totally distracting. It feels embarrassing to read about a natural disaster in this way, because it affected real people and would now be considered insensitive. It’s hard to imagine reading about Hurricane Katrina or the Joplin, Missouri tornado in this writing style. The dead are named and often described as being “burnt to crisp” or “mangled beyond recognition” and even “head severed completely from body”. Then the grisly details are hastily followed by more kindly descriptions: “Mr. Martin was much esteemed by his acquaintances as a congenial good fellow, possessing many engaging qualities, which endeared him to all who knew him.”

Given the intense power of tornado winds, it’s difficult to separate the facts from the tall tales. While it’s feasible that the tornado picked up a three-ton safe and dropped it several blocks away, it’s not so likely that black-haired men had their hair turned white by the horrors they witnessed. Or that a man driving his stage coach down main street was lifted up, horses and all, and deposited safely some distance away, with the horses never missing a step. There are countless stories involving the whereabouts of parlor pianos and iron cook stoves.

The reason I’ve returned to this endearing work of literature, is that it is the voice that I’ve adopted in writing “The Circus and the Cyclone”. It didn’t feel too outlandish to invent my own story here, because the event itself has become a tall tale of its own. The language is topsy-turvy and sensational enough for the two  topics and I’m really enjoying working with both the historical materials as well as the imaginary ones.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Mrs. Boehm. I took this as a personal challenge of sorts when I first read it:

“The bare truth of the New Richmond storm is so vastly superior to the tale of a dreamer that one hesitates to repeat it.” – Mrs. A. G. Boehm, 1900

The Circus and the Cyclone… and its gypsy band narrators

Today, after much folly, I finally finished the cover image for the book. As you can see, it’s pretty complex with a lot of fun stuff going on. And a lot of fun stuff sometimes means more opportunity to mess something up. Which happened. So I started over from scratch and did it right the second time… which was utterly time consuming but totally worth it in the end.


The band members serve as the narrators of the story and I thought it would be really cool to feature them as the cover image. Their look and sound really capture what the story is after, even though they don’t have any songs specifically related to circuses, tornadoes, or moon landings.

It’s hard to describe how, but certain types of music seem to go well with particular images while others obviously don’t. Some of my favorite bands work with specific visual artists to create their album art and posters in a way that truly compliments their sound and helps to identify what they are about. Some of my favorite examples are RadioheadThe DecemberistsJoanna NewsomFleet Foxes, and Sigor Ros‘ Takk album. The visuals are gorgeous and identify perfectly with the sound. I’ve always, ALWAYS wanted to work with musicians in that way.

But some of my past band art experiences have been, shall we say, not the best match. However, a few years ago, my husband joined a band that became The Vitrolum Republic. And it turned out to be a great match for both of us. It’s been a rewarding experience to pair my ascetic with their sound and watch everything come together. There’s been some casual talk of doing an animated music video together at some point, so that will be a story all its own!

But alas, dear reader, I get ahead of myself. For the task at hand is planning our kickstarter campaign for the book.Yikes! It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. My circus tornado yarn as an actual, physical book?! Hopefully we’ll be launching by the end of next month. Stay tuned.

Lenora’s Portrait and some thoughts on tornadoes

Oh, such a pretty machine! I just finished a portrait of Lenora Lovelle, complete with rusty gears and blushing roses. And those vacant, glassy eyes…


Every week gets me a little closer to finishing the book. I’m excited and a little sad. I think I could keep doing these illustrations forever. Last week we did a photo shoot for a freak poster. The “World’s Only Pair of Conjoined Fraternal Twins!” features two good artist friends, Heather Chapa and Lauren Grudzinski in a role that is not that far from the truth. Then tonight will be another photo shoot with The Vitrolum Republic as the circus musicians who narrate the story. It should be a fun time, as I anticipate many unique hats, things covered in sparkles and feathers, and above all, the music!

As “Water for Elephants” is now in theaters, I’ve just begun reading the book. Between the circus buzz of the movie and the wake of several destructive tornadoes, the timing for this work seems suddenly more relevant. I’ve been struggling this week with the absurdity of my story in relation to the tragedy of the real event, especially as stories from the recent tornadoes come out. For all of our technological achievements, we are still vulnerable to the whims of nature. A column of air that can throw trucks and rip trees out of the ground is horrifying no matter what time period you live in.

A lot of my writing tends to pair absurdity with tragedy, though, now that I think about it. For some reason they need to go hand-in-hand. There is nothing more absurd than the reality of our existence and nothing more nonsensical than mortality. It’s part of why I was attracted to this historical anecdote in the first place. Circus + Tornado = Absurdity + Tragedy.

The Cellar Stairs, OR: where not to hide in this particular story

In the real life story of the New Richmond tornado, the greatest tragedy was that buildings were not built the same way as they are today. Many people died because they took shelter, which would seem like the smartest thing to do. A larger group hid out in the basement of the town’s dry goods store, only to get pummeled by flying bricks and splintered timbers. I tried my best to portray what I imagine that would have been like. Nothing short of horrifying. The somber colors and diagonal elements are a departure from the other circus-themed works.


Destruction and Chaos, as promised

A new piece is taking shape, slowly. It’s one of those big, crazy compositions with lots of figures and stuff flying around and whatnot. This one depicts a group of people huddled in a cellar under some stairs and behind some wood barrels. The tornado is ripping the building apart and rain and wind are blowing in. Still working on the color choices, but it will be pretty dreary given the subject matter!

Here’s the most finished looking portion of it.


Now Featuring a Live Bear

The three new Lenora drawings were completed this afternoon. Yay! I’ve got a wooden frame with some oval openings all ready to go. I also have a new facebook page started. I promise to actually pay attention to this one and post stuff… 🙂

Sue Lawton Art on


“Fezzes are cool.”

After all the craziness of two shows in one month, it’s time to get back to drawing some characters! I’m working on a series of small, oval shaped pictures of Lenora and her bear friend Mr. Pibbles. The idea behind these is to make the bear seem more human, more alive, than the girl. The bear is as fooled as the clowns into thinking the beautiful contortionist is a living, breathing woman. I’m trying to make her look like a doll next to the giant, shaggy bear. Oh yeah, and the bear wears a fez now. Fezzes are cool!


In the Wreckage

Busted my butt to finish this today, but felt it needed to be in the show on Friday! She’s just so sad on her own. She needs to be up on the wall with her friends. The brave heroin of the circus tale stands amongst the chaos of New Richmond after the tornado. Poor, poor Johanna Wyeth! I gave up on this piece a year and a half ago because every draft was worse than the last. Then I found an amazing oval frame with all kinds of etched metal detailing and the only the thing I could picture in it was her. So I gave it another shot and turns out that the insane amount of figure drawing I’ve been doing since my first attempt has paid off. Huzzah! Can’t wait to pop it in that killer frame.



My esteemed studio associate, Jason Krukowski and I have been working to put together a little group show for Milwaukee’s gallery night this weekend. I’ve been framing up more circus pictures and Jason’s been painting saucy dames and dapper gents! There will also be several other artists showing and selling work as well: Brittney Biggs, Jackie Steffen-Bublitz, Brent Bublitz, Christopher MacDonald, Lauren Grudzinski, and Heather Chapa. Also featuring live music (Friday night) by the Vitrolum Republic! We’ll be working hard all week to get the show hung and lights set up and ooooh it’s going to be extraordinary!!! I’m hoping to get the band to bring the giant willow tree backdrop I painted for their photo shoot. Spectacular! RANDOM!


The Bendable Beauty and a Band Poster

I finally finished the Lenora poster! It took some serious thinking for the colors because I didn’t really think it through when designing it. Sometimes I know exactly what colors I want where, other times not. This time was sort of like “hmmm, I think she should be wearing a pale yellow tutu… or maybe pink.” So there was that initial choice that determined all the others. Went for a combo of delicate and bold. Her character is a balance of tender, slender lady candy and, well, the man-made machinery that lies within.


In other news, the Vitrolum Republic and a slew of other great bands are going to be playing at Mad Planet next month and are using my bugle boy as their poster! Nick Waraksa added some fantastic effects and replaced the text.