A Glimpse Into My Life as a Wildlife Artist
Before I came to Ruaha, I lived a nomadic life going anywhere that my paints took me. Sleeping under the stars with a mosquito net or sometimes canvas, in beautiful wild places. As a result I have enjoyed 36 years filled with innumerable adventures, which appeared in many different shapes and sizes. It has been a fabulous journey. Learning first hand about nature and wildlife and how they are so tightly connected. Nothing and no one can stand alone, we are all part of the vast cycle of life. From this, what I have learned most, is how insignificant I am, and yet, paradoxically, how every moment of my life, my actions, can affect the destiny of the whole. Thus it is incredibly important for me to honor and respect every second I am alive.
For 26 years my partner Rob Glen and I have lived a dream, here in this wonderful paradise, Ruaha National Park.
I would especially like to thank Tanzania National Parks for understanding the role that wildlife art plays in the conservation arena.
I feel incredibly privileged to have had the life that has unfolded thus far.
An Interview With Sue
Where were you brought up? Tell me about your childhood.
I had an idyllic childhood growing up, first in Jamaica where I was born, and then to Tanzania when I was 4 years old. We lived smack on the beach, my sister and I swam, snorkeled and had oodles of pet animals… it was a very care free, and magical childhood.
Where did you live after that? And what inspired you to return to the place of your childhood? How long have you been back for?
I left school at 17, I never went to any art college or had any instruction. Instead, after leaving school, I spent more or less, the first 10 years learning, teaching myself with whatever means I felt was right, how to paint from life. I lived in Kenya for 8 years and in Italy for 2, and the rest of the time has been in Tanzania. I have been living under canvas since I was 25. I have had so many adventures along the way and done so many things that I don’t know where to begin to talk about it. Its been a wonderful 36 or so years, of living in nature.
I loved going on Safari, my Dad loved adventures too, so every holiday we went somewhere. When I was 12 we did an epic trip to Ruaha National Park. I remember thinking then, that when I grew up, I wanted to live in Ruaha. For some reason that thought remained in the back of my mind, and when I was 34 I found myself driving back down the track that led to Ruaha, I have been here ever since… that was 23 years ago. Amazing!
What is the best thing about living in Ruaha National Park?
It is a large, remote wilderness, with extremely varied landscape, habitat, altitude, and vegetation. So there is limitless choice of subject matter. You can paint a huge sweeping landscape or the smallest insect or flower. It is an extremely beautiful place that never stays the same.
What makes the park special?
Gosh! That is a very hard question. Probably the best thing is its remoteness, its size and authenticity. It is a pristine wilderness, still untouched by man and human intervention. It has its own soul and beats to its own drum, and this is tangible.
How and when did you become interested in art?
I don’t remember when I started painting, it is something I always did. My mother painted or enjoyed doing 'arty' things and I guess I started that way. I always wanted to paint.
What is life like for you? What does your usual day entail?
Its a charmed existence, at least I think so! Waking up as dawn begins to glow on the horizon, my neighbours and friends are birds and animals that go about their daily life around me.
I choose to have a simple camp. Everything is powered by solar. My water comes from rain, harvested during the rainy season and stored in tanks and buckets. I sketch and paint outside, whatever inspires me that day. Or sometimes I use my sketches to create a more detailed, designed painting in my ‘studio’. This is a tent, but I paint outside on the verandah and only use natural light. At night I am usually in bed early, sometimes I may read, but often I just go to sleep. I love to get up early, I never like to miss the dawn.
Tell me about your style and ambition with your art.
I don't know that I have a style… and I don’t have any ambition either!! I just love what I do. Each subject that I paint tells me how to do it… I am not 'trying' to create anything in particular save for what speaks to me with each inspiration. There probably are messages inside the creations that the viewer may or may not see.
Why do you enjoy painting birds in particular?
I love birds, they are amazing creatures. They have incredible design and colour, even the brown ones. The combinations of colour that they exhibit is often extraordinary, and yet it works beautifully. Their beauty is generally overlooked by humans, just watch a bird flitting about in foliage, or soaring in a clear blue sky.. its breathtaking.
What is the most amazing wildlife encounter you've ever had?
I don’t think it is possible to answer that question, there have been so many, and they continue to appear. Every day I see, experience, or feel something new and incredible.
The longer I live in such a pure environment, the more I realise the depth of it and how we are, for the most part, just skimming the surface of what is really here. That is probably my most amazing experience… I know now, that the true depth of this world is unfathomable. It is perfection. We can't see that until we stop thinking we “know” things. We need to wake up to reality, because the fact is we don’t know, … our blinkered vision is killing this planet. Once you see that, know it in your heart, you begin to see life on Earth in another way altogether.
But, if you are talking about the most dangerous encounter,…. well I don’t think I have ever really had one, if you find yourself in danger, then you have probably done something wrong or read the situation incorrectly… wild animals are generally not dangerous unless you provoke or surprise them in some way. There are of course exceptions.
Is there an animal you really want to see/draw, but have yet to do so?
No, not really, I have more than enough paintings stacked in my head that I have seen and not yet painted. But, having said that, I would love to see a snowy owl, it would be a magnificent creature to paint. I am really fascinated by painting white on white.
Do you live alone?
I live with my partner Robert Glen who is a very talented sculptor. He actually lives ‘next door’ as we prefer to live in separate camps. This allows each of us to be totally present and involved in our creations. Obviously, we enjoy meals and many other pursuits together, but for us, this arrangement is very successful. We both are passionate about birds and spend many happy hours watching these incredible creatures, along side all the other marvellous plants and animals. We have a pretty full and varied day.
What involvement do you have with projects in the local area?
I have been very involved with many diverse programs. Together with Dr Dulle who is a Tanzanian vet, (now retired), we have been helping the communities outside the park for over 20 years. mostly the primary schools. We have taken more than 8,000 students into the park on safari, day trips, to see animals, we have built several libraries, helped countless individuals with education, or small business enterprises, and many other programs. If I see something where I can help a bit I try to do so. I am also committed to some ecological issues, such as the Ruaha River and have written a book on the common trees and flowers of Ruaha. I have another website (The Ruaha Notes ) which gives more information about these areas of my life.