If I could name one person on Guemes Island who is responsible for nurturing the creativity of the most people, it’s artist Sue Roberts. Sue moved to Guemes Island in 1996 and started offering classes a few years later as a way to meet new people. Flash forward 25 years and she’s still going strong! Her ceramics classes and workshops are very popular on the island for many reasons, one being her love of her craft and her enthusiasm when passing that joy on to students through instruction.
Sue was born in Philadelphia but was raised mostly in the Midwest until her family moved to Ft. Lauderdale just as she was starting high school. Her schooling went from a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramics/sculpture from the University of Kansas to life modeling at the Arts Students League in NYC, and then back to Orlando, Florida to learn bronze casting/metalwork in Central Florida.
When she graduated from college, she did a little teaching at an art school in Florida but was mainly focused on being a full-time self-employed studio artist. Sue shared “That meant I learned how to do a lot of different creative things, from making and selling jewelry, ceramics and metalwork at art shows to independent contractor building exhibits for Universal Studios in Florida.” Sue considers being able to be a self-employed artist throughout her career, supporting herself with what she loves to do most, one of her greatest accomplishments. “Making things and using my hands. Living a very creative life that I had envisioned from an early age. It’s been over 35 years of self-employment, and every decade I seem to re-invent what I do in order to be able to continue my art practice. Keeps me on my toes and I am rarely bored!”
To succeed at being a full-time artist takes a lot of work. Sue usually spends the early morning at the house getting computer/paperwork out of the way before she heads up to the studio to work by 8:30-9. Her studio, named Tower Arts Studio, is only a couple houses away from her home, so her commute is short and sweet. Sue described a typical day in the studio. “When I am working on a series of clay sculptures, I like to have a couple pieces going at once. That way if the clay is too wet to sculpt on the first piece, I can work on the other piece while I wait for the clay on the first piece to set up. When I’m working with a deadline, I’ll spend most of the day focused in the studio until around 3:30-4pm. If my schedule is loose, I may spend the day in the studio working on ideas for projects, loading kilns and planning out demos for classes. Either way, I go to the studio everyday no matter what. It’s my touchstone for trying to stay centered.”
Sue’s favorite medium is clay. What would have happened to all the budding sculptors on Guemes if she’d followed the path she envisioned in high school? “I thought I was going to be a cartoonist and animator.” Thank goodness she took a clay class in college and ended up majoring in ceramics. With that she found her passion. “I’ve always been object oriented and love learning new processes and making/building things with my hands. I especially love working with clay and sculpting the figure seems to come naturally to me.”
There have been times in Sue’s life when she moved around a lot and didn’t have access to a kiln or a studio. “I would work in wood, metal, found objects and whatever material I might have had on hand at the time. At one point I lived on a 28′ wooden sailboat on Lake Union and built figurative metal sculptures using a plumber’s torch, sheet copper, cutting shears and solder. I set up my ‘tiny studio’ in the stern of the boat and worked outside when weather permitted.” Now that she has a studio with plenty of workspace and a separate building for her kiln, she’s been working primarily in clay though every now and then she likes to switch it up and try a new medium. “I always go back to clay.”
Several years ago, Sue was doing a demonstration on building a head out of clay at the Anacortes Arts Festival. A small boy walked by with his dad, and they stopped just long enough for her to hear the boy say, in what sounded like disbelief, “she’s making that with her own hands!”. Sue has never forgotten that comment. Maybe that dad will be like Sue’s mom and will raise a sculptor by nurturing that amazement. Sue shared that “I grew up with a mom who was very creative and encouraged all of us kids to draw and paint. She also exposed us to museums at a young age, and I remember seeing a Rodin sculpture and being totally enthralled by the power of his work and detail.” Other influences were the colorful playfulness of Alexander Calder and how he surrounded his daily life with his art. Figurative sculptures by Duane Hanson and Viola Frey, as well as the poignant photographs by Diane Arbus had a big influence on her work. “I am drawn to irreverent humor, social commentary and things in life that are a little gritty and have an edge to them.” Consequently, Sue’s work is known for its humor and stimulating social commentary and has been written about in articles in the Orlando Sentinel, Metalsmith Magazine, Seattle Times, as well as featured in 500 Figures in Clay (Lark Books), 100 Northwest Artists (Schaffer Publishing) and Embracing Encaustic (Hive Publishing).
Of late, Sue has been thinking a lot about hair. Thinning hair, hairstyles, hair colors, and how we use hair and hairstyles to identify ourselves. “I became interested in Greek and Roman portrait busts and how beautifully abstract hair was depicted in marble.” Using those busts as a point of inspiration, she started to play around with the idea of hair and gender and the crossing over of the two. “My recent body of work deals with hair and how it can define us as we move throughout our lives. As I worked through my ideas, I wanted to try to create a more androgynous person, one who wouldn’t necessarily be defined as male or female. As I sculpted each head, I’d focus on who that person was as a person and how they wore their hair, without trying to think about a specific gender. It was a stream of consciousness process, and interesting for me to see who it was that physically emerged from it. I leave it up to each viewer to interpret who and how they see each head. I’ve made up names for each piece that in my mind don’t define gender, though one still might conclude man or female, based on their own gender references.”
Her work has been displayed in museum shows and galleries across the United States and in Japan and is in numerous private collections throughout the country. In 2002 Sue received an Andy Warhol Foundation artist residency grant at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and in 2012 was a Washington State Artists Trust Grants for Artist Project (GAP) recipient. Those of us who live near Guemes can see her work at Tower Arts Studio during one of Guemes Island Community Center Association’s Artist Studio Tours. She mainly sells her work through her website, www.suerobertssculpture.com, private commissions, and gallery shows.
Interested in an Artist’s Page?