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Memorial exhibit demonstrates late artist's joy

There is no shortage of creative types who've lived on houseboats. Shel Silverstein, author of "The Giving Tree," lived on a houseboat in Sausalito. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour not only resided on his Richmond-on-Thames houseboat, he had an entire recording studio there. And if renowned crime writer John D. McDonald didn't actually live in a houseboat, his most beloved character, Travis McGee, solved crimes in 21 novels whilst living happily on "The Busted Flush," a houseboat he famously won in a card game.

The world NEEDS these houseboat characters because there's an innate spirit and charisma associated with those folks. That was certainly true of Susan "Houseboat" Hurley, who for 17 years was a fixture on the Lenore D., her two-story, cedar-shingled houseboat, which was docked in a slip on the Mystic River just across from the Captain Daniel Packer Inne. From the decks on the Lenore D., she oversaw ongoing seasons of parties, events, and even hosted entire crews of foreign sailing ships.

By all accounts, Hurley, who died in 2016 at 58, was an e'er-happy, delightfully curious people person whose hunger and thirst for experiences were reflected in Renaissance fashion through hobbies and careers. She loved gardening, cooking and music and was an events planner, graphic designer and stand-up comic — among other things.

In terms of hands-on artistic engagement, Hurley was also a photographer, painter, sculptor and writer whose creative expressions further embodied her enjoyment of Life Itself. Hurley was always busy with one project or another — a sort of evolving quest that continued until, only a few months after being diagnosed with brain cancer, she passed away.

After taking time to grieve and slowly absorb and appreciate Hurley's prodigious output, her widower, Kam Ghaffari, was at last comfortable with the idea of assembling an exhibition of her work. The result, "The Art of Susan Hurley," originally scheduled for last year but postponed because of the pandemic. is on display in the lower gallery at New London's Hygienic Art and runs through May 22.

Emotional choices

"It's been an emotional time," Ghaffari says by phone recently, "but almost immediately after she died, friends and family said we should do a memorial exhibit. And I wanted to. But it took me a while to get comfortable with the idea — in a lot of ways because it was really difficult to choose what would be in the exhibit in any sort of representative fashion. I finally ended up just picking my favorites."

For the actual installation of the exhibit, Ghaffari credits close family friend Cherie Powell, who for years owned Artisans Gallery in Old Saybrook and, in 2019, was managing director of the Hygienic. "Cherie came out and helped me lay out and organize the show. She was invaluable because it was at times overwhelming."

There is almost as much variety in "The Art of Susan Hurley" as there are pieces in the show, which mirrors the artist's range of expression. Photographs demonstrate an appreciation of the possibilities and moods of color and shade and range from gorgeous but lonely landscapes and water views to neon-lit carnival nights and a wonderful candid image of the back of a shirtless, tattooed father whose daughters are peering over his shoulders at the camera.  

Hurley had a gleeful, childlike fascination with toy monsters and used them almost in the way '50s sci-fi filmmakers did when they were depicting a King Kong or Godzilla. The difference would be that the special effects folks 70 years ago were doing the best they could; Hurley echoes those techniques in fondly ironic ways.

The show also includes one-off elements such as a pair of knee-high cowboy boots Hurley painted in black, turquoise and white, mixing folk art and psychedelic patterns in a way that several rock stars of yore would have salivated over. 

Bittersweet experience

Once he'd selected the work for the show, Ghaffari had to size and digitize the pieces, a task he describes as rewarding but also quite challenging. He also made the decision to sell some of the material so friends and admirers could have a keepsake. To that end, he says, he priced the work very inexpensively.

"The whole process was bittersweet. I was reminded of so many things. It brings up a lot of emotional stuff. It was a good experience, but it was also difficult," Ghaffari says. "Is it a comfort to have done it? Yeah, But ... well, I have a pal who is a widow and her late husband was an artist. She sent me a message and said I was brave. Maybe that explains it."

For all her joy in making art and acting on the inspiration of her experiences, Hurley didn't talk much about her role as an artist or her place in any artistic communities, per se.

Art reflecting life

"Susan didn't go to school for art and design; she was mostly self-taught. I think it was more that making art was just in her DNA," Ghaffari says. "I encouraged her to take it more seriously, but part of her makeup was that she was not into much self-promotion. I think she thought artists who talk a lot about their work come off a little pompous. I told her, 'No, artists talk about their work. It's part of it all.' But she was never comfortable with that."

She was comfortable, however, staying active in various philanthropic causes. Ghaffari says Hurley was a regular volunteer at Mitchell Farm Equine Rescue in Salem. "In her obituary, in lieu of flowers, I requested donations to them," he says, "and it generated quite a bit of money to rescue a retired horse."

In conjunction with an outfit called Operation Happy Note, a nonprofit that provides deployed and wounded soldiers with musical instruments, Hurley also put on a benefit concert called "Instruments of Hope." "These were just the sort of things she was always doing," Ghaffari says.

Hanging on one wall of "The Art of Susan Hurley," almost easy to overlook, is a wry but tender poem she wrote called "That's What Cats Do." The opening lines read: "Sometimes when you ask cats to dance / They'll give you a lazy blink and ask / Does it involve food? / That's what cats do."

The subsequent stanzas contain several whimsical and evocatively described feline scenarios that are maddeningly, bewitchingly familiar to any cat lover in their spot-on accuracy. The poem concludes:

"Sometimes, when you asked cats to dance / They'll sidle up to you like a sidewinder and give you a rakish rub / Cats will love you sweetly and fiercely / That's what cats do."

Ghaffari would suggest the poem is not just a metaphor for the gung-ho and teasing nature of Hurley's art, but a subconsciously apt metaphor for the woman herself.

If you go

What: "The Art of Susan Hurley," a memorial retrospective

Where: Lower gallery, Hygienic Art, 69-73 Bank St., New London

When: Through May 22

How much: Admission is free; some of the artwork is for sale.

Hours: Noon-7 p.m. Thurs. and Fri., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.

For more information: (860) 443-8001 or visit www.hygienic.org

 

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