Deirdre Saunder Profile

Deirdre Saunder (Rhodesia & Somerville 1978) is an art teacher at the Maret School in Washington, D.C. and leads workshops at the Art League School. She is also a public artist and a painter. She was a research fellow in painting at Harvard University, and holds an MFA in Studio Art, an H.D.E. in Higher Degree Education and a B.A. in Art from the University of Oxford.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Washington D.C.?

Deirdre Saunder: Going to the museums and the art galleries. There are so many of them and nearly all of them are free. And around Washington there’s hiking and biking, too.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Deirdre Saunder: My oldest daughter is about to go off to medical school, so I’ve got a pile of books next to my bed that I’ve been meaning to read. I just finished a novel that I think the whole world has probably read, called Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.  It’s all about his life as a doctor in Ethiopia. I just absolutely adored that book. It made me want to be a doctor! It’s wonderful, and I’ve passed that onto my daughter to read. I’ve just started another book called Brain Rules by John Medina. It’s about understanding human intelligence and how the brain works, which is very interesting to me - particularly as an artist.

Rhodes Project: What is the first job you ever held?

Deirdre Saunder: I had a summer job when I was fifteen. I loved geography and I loved math – I was very good at math for some unknown reason. I worked in an urban planning office which I thought was going to be really fun, but all I ended up doing was check data. I just had to add up of their math to make sure they hadn’t made a mistake. This was before computers. It was really boring. For the next two summers during high school I worked for an advertising agency and an architect’s office – I had thought I wanted to become an architect.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your current job?

Deirdre Saunder: I am both an artist and a teacher. I would say that it is the most wonderful combination of my two careers. I love teaching young people, especially high school students. They have so much energy and so many ideas – they’re just popping.  But I’m doing it full time and would love to do it part time, because the other part of my life is being an artist, which I just adore. Being an artist is very solitary, and by teaching you are inspired by young minds. Their inspiration keeps you young and your own mind popping and doesn’t allow you to get stale.

Rhodes Project: What kind of artwork do you specialize in?

Deirdre Saunder: Most of my work is painting, but recently it’s more mixed media. In the last 15 years I’ve been doing a lot of public art. When I lived in Europe in the late 1980s, I wanted to do something that would bring my art to the masses so that it could be appreciated by more people. Public art - mostly mosaics - is what I’ve been focusing on recently. In this way I can combine the parts of architecture that I loved: the design and innovation. But I still exhibit as well.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Deirdre Saunder: The most challenging part of my public art job is just getting the work done. When you’re doing public art, you’re working with construction companies, builders and technical plumbers etc. To get the job done usually takes so much longer than expected because everybody else is behind schedule. It’s difficult, when I employ helpers, having to tell them that they don’t have a job until three weeks while we’re waiting for someone else to finish. I find that very frustrating, but the end result is great. As far as my teaching, what’s most frustrating is email, which I despise. I can’t stand it.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your mentors or role models?

Deirdre Saunder: The wonderful thing about Cutting for Stone - this is what I wanted to tell my daughter - is that he really talks about people who were mentors for him.  I started out thinking I was going to become an architect because I didn’t think I could have a career as an artist.  What made me become an artist was a woman who gave me art lessons. I started taking lessons from her when I was fourteen because in the British system, which is what I had in Zimbabwe, art wasn’t an option if you were on a fast academic track. I took lessons with her right through high school. She was one of my first mentors, who guided me into choosing art as a career. She was a support for me when I started having my doubts, wondering if I was really good enough to make it as an artist. She inspired me to stick with it because I love it and it’s who I am, and she gave me a core of strength to keep going in something that is so difficult. Mentors are incredibly important in life. I’ve had a few, but she is probably my greatest one and most influential.

Rhodes Project: What inspires your artwork?

Deirdre Saunder: In my public art, the space dictates a great deal of what I create. Also, I listen to the people who live, work or travel in that space for what they want to see there and what would make them happy. Public art is supposed to be an uplifting experience, or at least a thinking experience on a positive level. My painting, however, can be much more angsty, personal and telling of my own truth; whereas the other art is much more about the people who use the space. It’s a challenge to be innovative within those constraints because in the studio you have no constraints; that is also incredibly freeing.

Rhodes Project: What does an ideal day look like for you?

Deirdre Saunder: I would be in my studio all day with no interruptions. Once I’ve had enough of being alone in my studio, I’d like to come out and teach for a little bit. That would be a perfect thing for me. I think the hard part for artists in general is the interruptions and daily tasks – having to juggle being a mother, a wife, an artist and a teacher. In trying to do all four of those things, something has to give in the process. Mostly my time in the studio is what I give up, because it can be given up more easily than the others.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Deirdre Saunder: It sounds so corny, like being Miss America and saying you’d want world peace, but I would love to stop the violence in our society. I guess we’ve always been so violent, but what human beings can do to each other is unbelievable. Even if I had unlimited resources I’m not sure how I would go about doing that to stop the violence. If there was some way to prevent violence, that’s what I would do.

Rhodes Project: What are you looking forward to?

Deirdre Saunder: There are things that I am looking forward to and not looking forward to. Getting older, watching my children grow up and be adults themselves - I am looking forward to that for them. I will also get some space so that I have time to paint. But there’s another part of me that doesn’t want that to happen, because I so loved being a mother and having my house full of children and people. And yet I am looking forward to this new phase, and having more time in my studio and with my husband. I still feel as though I have so much to give and so much to do that I don’t want to stop. So, having more time to do it would be a great thing.

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