Susan Fenton, 69, St. Joseph’s University faculty member and artist
“Fenton’s figures – silent, composed, aloof – represent aesthetic idealism,” an art critic wrote. “By avoiding eye contact with the viewer, they maintain emotional distance and anonymity. While being gazed at, they do not gaze back.”
Susan Fenton, 69, of Bala Cynwyd, a St. Joseph’s University faculty member and artist who used alternative methods of photography to fashion her own vision of reality, died Friday, Nov. 23, of brain cancer at her home.
Her illness was sudden and devastating, said her husband, Larry Spaid. Three months ago, she was having an exhibition of her work in Guatemala. Soon afterward, doctors discovered the fast-moving brain cancer.
Ms. Fenton was prominent and well-respected in modern art circles, especially in the world of photography. St. Joseph’s, where she was an associate professor of art, released a statement saying, “Ms. Fenton will be dearly missed by her many friends, colleagues and students.”
Ms. Fenton joined the St. Joseph’s staff in 1997 as an adjunct and then served as gallery coordinator and a visiting assistant professor. In 2005, she was hired as a member of the tenure-track faculty, and she became a tenured associate professor in 2011.
She taught introductory and advanced courses in traditional (black and white) fine art photography involving darkroom work, with an emphasis on film-based and alternative processes of embellishment.
Before joining the faculty at St. Joseph’s, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Arcadia University, and Temple University, as well as at St. Mary’s College in Rome and Temple University Japan in Tokyo.
Ms. Fenton’s photographs investigated the human figure and selected objects, such as birds’ nests and clods of earth with grass growing atop them. At times, she intermingled forms from nature with stark, white shapes. Her works were tightly composed in the studio. She painted lightly with oils over many of her photos, especially in the early part of her career.
“The art that Susan Fenton makes is classical and pure, and lacks any unnecessary elements,” said John Thornton in a film describing her work. “She takes the raw and specific stuff of our world and structures a more perfect version of reality.”
Ms. Fenton said in the film: “It’s of primary importance that the work be beautiful.”
In one series of studies, Ms. Fenton made pictures of women that resemble paintings. In a second, she created nocturnal still lifes that appear to use light as a paintbrush. In a third, she fashioned abstract compositions by taking elements of the landscape taken from the coastline of Ireland and photographing them in her studio.
Ms. Fenton’s work has been shown in galleries and museums, in 30 solo exhibitions, and on bus stops and billboards as part of a public art project in 2002.
Nineteen of her compositions are on permanent display in collections as near as the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown and as far away as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She earned many awards and lectured widely.
In March 1993, Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski reviewed Ms. Fenton’s hand-painted photographs at the Paul Cava Gallery in Old City. She had just returned from Japan, and the images reflected Japanese influence.
“Fenton’s figures — silent, composed, aloof — represent aesthetic idealism,” he wrote. “By avoiding eye contact with the viewer, they maintain emotional distance and anonymity. While being gazed at, they do not gaze back.”
She was the matriarch of a family of artists and teachers. Her husband is a professor emeritus at Temple’s Tyler School of Art. Her son and daughter are artists.
Born in Philadelphia, she graduated from Little Flower High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Tyler in 1970, a master’s degree in art education at Tyler in 1975, and a master of fine arts degree from Rutgers University in 1980.
Ms. Fenton enjoyed travel. She lived in Japan and Rome. “These experiences helped shape her as a creative person, mentor, and humanitarian.” her husband said.
Besides her husband, she is survived by son Raphael Fenton-Spaid; daughter Petra Fenton-Spaid; two brothers; and four nieces and nephews.
A celebration of her life will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, at the Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine St. Burial is private.
Memorial donations may be made to the NRG Oncology Foundation Inc., 1600 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 1020, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.