Complete Immersion

Susan Roche’s underwater photography and resulting encaustic mixed media works invite viewers into an ethereal, healing space

Written by Kristen Hampshire

“Water is healing,” says Susan Roche. “Time in it, by it, near it—water soothes your soul and makes everything better.”

When the lifelong artist began photographing people under water, something “playful and alive and exciting” emerged. “Someone who might be old can get out in the water and say, ‘I feel like I am a girl again! I can do anything. Yes! Yes!”

This is basically what brought Roche to her passion and current focus as historically a portrait photographer who had been capturing extended family photos of sandcastle building, beach walking and ocean splashing since her now young-adult children were learning their ABCs.

Raising children in Bay Head, New Jersey, in northern Ocean County, the sea was their front yard. Having shifted from a job as a photojournalist at a local newspaper into portraiture, Roche grew a thriving Eastern Shore business—while putting on hold a desire to become a fine artist, she says. There just wasn’t time.

By the time her youngest child was a senior in high school in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit—a direct blast to Bay Head. “My gallery and frame shop business had five feet of water in it, and my home flooded,” Roche says, relating a shock that thousands of empathetic residents recall.

But water is healing. So, she went to it—and after reconstruction and cleanup, the town was quiet and there weren’t many families around to photograph. Roche took to her pool.

“We got our pool going right away because I love to swim and when I’m in the water, I find peace,” she says.

She also found an encore career and thriving fine art venture in encaustic mixed media.

“My work is about restoration,” she says in an artist’s statement. “Through it, I strive to capture the beauty of hope and change after devastation.

Diving In
“I’ve had people who have had major crises, whether personal or health-related, and they feel like this process changes them,” Roche says of the process and a final product that is empowering. “I feel like I’m a conduit.”

During those post-Sandy pool days, Roche started experimenting with professional cameras equipped with underwater housing so she could combine her two escapes: water and photography.

There was some trial and error, mainly with the equipment.

“I’ve learned how to be very thorough, so I don’t ruin cameras,” she quips, citing some costly casualties when the watertight expectation didn’t quite happen. Now, she has a setup.

“When I was mostly doing portraiture, I always wanted to make sure I had enough equipment, so if there was a failure, my client never knew,” she says. “If I’m photographing a model or a client, I have complete underwater setups with dive-quality housing.”

Clients literally dive in, and Roche conducts the shoot. It’s a full-immersion experience.

“It’s quite fun,” Roche says. “People want to do something special and create something personal. I show them how to move underwater. I have people who don’t know how to swim do this.”

A heated pool is a must. “No one wants to go into a cold pool,” Roche quips.

She has tried photographing underwater in the ocean and in rivers or in Florida springs. But nature stirs things up and you get salt, sand and not quite the clarity required to continue to the next parts of Roche’s process. Because the impactful underwater session is only the beginning of her work.

Depth and Layers
Much like the cameras, Roche also experimented with layering finishes before finding the right fit. “It didn’t come instantly,” she shares. “At first, I was painting over top of the printed photographs with resin and shellac, and then I thought, ‘What would I do if I was a kid?’ I started pulling out wax and I thought, ‘I’ll do encaustic.”

Experience the work of Susan Roche
July 11-14: Hamptons Fine Art Show,Southampton Fair Grounds, New York
August 2-3: Rehoboth Art League’s 51st Annual Outdoor Fine Art & Fine Craft Show, Rehoboth Beach

The overall process evokes layers: depth, as in the pool; all-the-things life when clients dive in and dissolve their stress; and ancient wax theory.

Encaustic wax is how Egyptians preserved colors in artwork. Roche applies up to 20 different layers over each art piece, building a waterlike texture with a smooth finish. “There is a tactile, organic feel,” she says of the beeswax and resin she builds on top of large-format prints. “I might add colors into that.”

Here’s how it goes. After what is usually a life-changing swim-art immersion with Roche capturing images that feel acrobatic with a tinge of mermaid. Though she’s quick to add, it’s not about mermaids, “it’s about an ethereal beauty that is calming and peaceful.”

Then, it’s off to her studio, where she prints on fine art paper—think big. “When I learned retouching, we had to use pastels, oils, cold wax and did layers, and that is how we created the background, way before Photoshop,” she says.

“I take these historic techniques and create layers upon layers,” she continues.

It’s really the ultimate hands-on tactile Photoshop.

She says, “It feels like everything I’ve learned since doing art as a little girl is just refined and coming together, and it’s the best work of my life.”

Roche’s home is on pilings now. Her studio is underneath, and her shows are flourishing. She, too, experienced a rebirth at the crossroads of disaster, water and photography. And the healing is an ultimate gift to her clients.

“We’ve all gone through things that aren’t easy,” she says. “I want my work to make people feel good, feel at peace.”

Superstorm Sandy was a disastrous trigger to pivot. Roche was striving for peace, too. “I’m in a good place and I want my work to take that goodness and share it.”

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