Show­case: Cul­tural Jour­ney

Meet artist Sue Cole­man, a Cana­dian with Bri­tish roots whose work spans cul­tures.

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Sue Cole­man, Vic­to­ria

Years back my brother in­tro­duced me at a Ro­tary meet­ing by say­ing, “When we were chil­dren, ev­ery Christ­mas I re­ceived a Mec­cano con­struc­tion set from my grand­par­ents and Sue re­ceived ‘Paint by Num­bers.’ I care­fully fol­lowed the in­struc­tions in the box, but Sue never, ever fol­lowed the num­bers. By mix­ing the colours she changed the pic­ture com­pletely.” Look­ing back, that ap­proach pretty well de­scribes my gen­eral ap­proach as an artist to­day.

Dur­ing my school years, an art teacher told the class “a paint­ing is not just a pretty pic­ture. It should tell a story.” I have never for­got­ten those words and I credit them in part for trig­ger­ing an idea I had when I was just start­ing out as a painter, and that was in­ter­pret­ing Na­tive art­work. The lit­tle I ini­tially learned from a Na­tive carver dur­ing a craft show ex­cited me. I wanted to learn more but, be­ing non-na­tive, find­ing some­one to men­tor me proved to be fu­tile. My hus­band, Dan, says, “If you tell Sue she can’t do some­thing, she will fig­ure out a way that she can.” There is an el­e­ment of truth in those words, and so I set out to teach my­self about Na­tive art. My goal was to learn and help other non- Na­tives and vis­i­tors from for­eign coun­tries un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate the art form.

De­ter­mined to do my best, I vis­ited the Vic­to­ria archives, read the his­tory and stud­ied ev­ery book available on the art form. On my trav­els up the West Coast, I vis­ited mu­se­ums, carv­ing sheds and book stores. I have gath­ered more than 40 books for my per­sonal ref­er­ence library, in­clud­ing sev­eral col­lec­tor’s edi­tions from the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, vol­umes that were pub­lished in the early years of Cana­dian ex­plo­ration.

The many carvers and an­thro­pol­o­gists I talked to added to my knowl­edge. My time spent with the multi- tal­ented and sadly now-de­ceased Bill Reid and his wife, Mar­tine, gave me a valu­able in­sight that has guided me over the years. Bill explained that Na­tive art is not just a pic­ture of an an­i­mal or a bird, but a de­pic­tion of the life force within the crea­ture. Al­ways look­ing for new and exciting ways to por­tray Bri­tish Columbia, I have since in­cor­po­rated the use of “life-force lines“into many of my land­scape paint­ings; for ex­am­ple, us­ing ovoids and split-u forms to de­pict the life force in rivers, plants, trees and moun­tains.

My work has taken me as far afield as Tokyo, Ja­pan, where my art was dis­played in the Cana­dian Em­bassy. Trav­el­ling with tourists on cruise ships and with BC Fer­ries gave me the op­por­tu­nity to share my knowl­edge and help many un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate Na­tive art.

As a strong sup­porter of many an­i­mal so­ci­eties and bird sanc­tu­ar­ies, I have do­nated prints of my work to help fund the char­i­ties. A re­cent print run cre­ated for The Na­ture Trust of Bri­tish Columbia sold out in less than two months, and raised $15,000 for the pro­tec­tion of a vul­ner­a­ble piece of land called San­sum Point.

My most re­cent works have more than a touch of Celtic inspiration be­hind them. Grow­ing up in one of the old­est towns in Great Bri­tain, I see this art­work as a re­turn to my roots—but with the added in­sights ac­quired dur­ing my 52 years of liv­ing here in Canada. It’s a new di­rec­tion and an­other turn­ing point in my art ca­reer. My years spent study­ing the Na­tive ap­proaches to art are not for­got­ten; in fact, those in­flu­ences by now just seem to work their way into my paint­ings, as if by os­mo­sis. I can’t help it— thanks to Bill Reid, I see life-force lines in ev­ery­thing, and have come to view them as a re­flec­tion of the nat­u­ral flow and balance of na­ture.

I’ve been told I’m a Raven in the Na­tive tra­di­tion, maybe be­cause, in learn­ing, I like col­lect­ing ideas. But I like to hide things, too, such as ot­ters hid­ing in a snow­bank in a paint­ing I call “Ot­ter’s Play­ground.” I also love dig­ging into the past and my lat­est paint­ing is of the Old But­ter Church, which stands at the end of our road. It was built on Na­tive ground by the lo­cal Na­tive peo­ple in the 1870s, for Fa­ther Peter Ron­deault, who paid his work­ers with but­ter from a dairy herd on the mis­sion farm.

I have no idea where my art will take me, or when a new idea will strike. I’m cur­rently edit­ing my sec­ond novel, White Raven, a follow-up to my first fic­tional story called Re­turn of the Raven. That’s the exciting part about be­ing an artist—there are so many paths to follow. I read some­where that you have to let go of the ground if you want to fly, and that’s what I aim to do ar­tis­ti­cally. ■

See more of Sue’s work at www.suecole­man.ca and watch a video clip of her Celtic themes on the Our Canada Facebook page.

Clock­wise from left: ”Old But­ter Church,” a scene from Sue’s past; “San­sum Point,” an area at risk in Bri­tish Columbia; “Celtic Salmon,” re­turn­ing to their birth­place.

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