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I GREW UP in the beauty of the Allegheny Mountains and Laurel Highlands area of western Pennsylvania, in a family where creativity was highly valued. One of my first memories of drawing was trying to figure out how a dandelion flower turned into a ball of small seeds with fluffy tops that could be carried by the wind. 


I was probably five at the time, and at that early age I was drawing what was in front of me—bugs, flowers, clouds, trees—realistically, so I could attempt to understand how nature worked.


My mother and three aunts were all artists, and my father was trained as a classical violinist, but became a jazz enthusiast, along with my mother. My fascination with Carolina landscapes began on childhood vacations to Southern beaches.


I had my first thought of really being a painter was when I was 13 or 14. My mother and I were discussing whether the pink in a bank of oyster shells was a reflection of the pink sky or in the shells themselves. We were on the south end of Pawleys Island, SC witnessing a glorious sunset. I said to myself, if I could paint the joy I feel in this moment, then I could be a painter.

Most of my work, as it turns out, is exactly that — fleeting moments of light in the sky, on water, or on wet sand. And there’s no place I’ve experienced this in a more compelling way than at my beloved Emerald Isle. These moments do something to me that I can only express by trying to capture them on paper or canvas. I like to approach a subject realistically at first, so that it gets filed in my brain somewhere, to be called on when I want to express how I feel about the moment of a sighting that has moved me.

I live for these moments of joy and wonder and reverence. Whether or not there is a human figure in the work I create, I may also be influenced by a conversation, visit, walk, or relationship associated with a particular moment I am trying to capture. And although water-related subjects are the ones I most frequently choose, there are other landscapes that I have painted over the years, particularly rural settings of trees, fields, and aging barns and houses.


Mixing a palette of colors for an oil painting is very intense for me. This ritual signifies the commitment of many days, weeks, or months of painting to capture this one moment. The application of a medium onto a surface can transport me to that first inspiration. I may hear the water, wind, birds, or a song I was humming. My senses are filled as if I were witnessing it for the first time.


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I work from memory. My memory is sometimes sparked by the notes and sketchbooks that are filled with these moments that I don’t want to forget. There are a lot of notes and sketchbooks. Sometimes I do see something and immediately paint it. But there can also be a long process of distilling an experience to its essential elements and then working to capture those in my work.


Oil, pastel, acrylic, pencil, gouache, watercolor, oil pastel, pen and ink, and mixed media all have a station in my studio. I like to have options in my choice of medium, and also in the music that accompanies my workday. My tastes there are eclectic, as well, ranging from jazz to rock-and-roll, to classical, to folk and other genres. All of my artwork seems to have a soundtrack.


I am fortunate to have a studio that gives me access to my main sources of inspiration and allows me to mark my time by sunsets, tides, moon phases, solstices, and equinoxes. My studio looks out onto the marshes of a tidal river, the Shallotte River. A short drive takes me over a bridge to the Atlantic Ocean, as at Emerald Isle. It's  the place I feel most alive — where that powerful body of water meets the soft sand, with the ever-changing play of light on water. I am so very thankful.


Sue’s watercolor brushes
Sue’s hands frame a painting
Sue’s shell shelf in her studio

“I could live in that ... reflection of light”
“She taught me about ... that spark”
“The reverence of these moments ... of wonder”
“Emerald Isle did its emerald green thing”
“One of my favorite ... children stories”


Sue was interviewed in 2021 by Liza Roberts for her book
The Art of the State (UNC Press, forthcoming 2022). Roberts has kindly shared excerpts from her recording of the interview.

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