Showcase: Cultural Journey
Meet artist Sue Coleman, a Canadian with British roots whose work spans cultures.
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.