I have been cleaning out my life lately, getting rid of old artwork, old clothes, selling things I don’t want or need anymore, giving what’s left over away to thrift stores, or charity, in a focused effort to live by the motto, “nature abhors a vacuum”.

I am ready for so much more than life has given me in the past few years, that I decided to create a vacuum where none existed, and while I know I am luckier than most to have survived the “economic downturn”,  I also know that I have been forced, by necessity, to let opportunities pass me by that I would have normally grabbed a hold of with both hands, and without thinking twice about in the past.

A few days ago, I found a signed and framed print by a Sioux artist named Ed Defender.  Ed and his wife Sue were among the first artists I’d ever met who traded artwork with me when I was just starting out. Shortly after we met, when I was still busy making a name for myself, they came to the Weems Artfest in Albuquerque to purchase my artwork to give as Christmas gifts to their collectors (among whom was the singer, Kenny Loggins).  Ed died of acute alcohol poisoning twelve years ago, and when I found that print, I decided to look him up online, to see if I could find out more about his life and what motivated him to create his innovative, tongue in cheek paintings of traditional Native American activities.  I found just a handful of references to his work and even fewer examples of his art.   It upset me greatly to think that this incredibly talented artist barely registered on a google search engine, like a passing footnote to a life I knew so little about and yet impacted me so deeply.

I was inspired by the memory of Ed Defender to write about an artist I know who is in the final stages of early onset Alzheimer’s.  I wanted to write about her, not because of her disease, but because I want people to know about her before she is gone.  I want to celebrate her incredible talents, her personal journey, and the man who was by her side along the way, so people to remember her, in the same way I hope they remember me, as someone whose life mattered, who was more than a name in a search engine that lead to a few photographs and a line or two on askart.com.

I first met watercolor artist Susan Guy, at Southwest Art in the Wine Country.  Created by gallery owner, Lee Youngman to celebrate the best in southwest, wildlife and cowboy art, I was honored to be included in such outstanding company, and felt I was in way over my head, despite having challenged Lee to be included in the first place.  Held on the grounds of a magnificent old winery and carriage house built in the 1800’s in Calistoga, California, Southwest Art in the Wine Country featured the talents of people like Leo Monahan, Neil Boyle, and Bob Boomer, artists I had only previously read about in magazines like Southwest Art and Art of the West.

One artist in particular stood out for me, even in such a stellar group of artistic talent.  Susan Guy’s work as a watercolor artist was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  I’d tried my hand at watercolor off and on throughout my art career, and I found it to be an absolutely maddening medium.  It is thoroughly unforgiving, in my opinion anyway, and yet, here was a herd of horses, thundering across a river, water splashing everywhere, each crisply rendered detail of every horse as distinctive as the landscape they emerged from.

I had never seen anyone do with watercolors what Susan did, and so effortlessly.  I fell in love with her work as easily as I did the woman herself.  Beyond the fact that she had a smile that could melt a polar ice cap, with wide blue eyes that made me swoon, she left an indelible impact on my life.  I had the chance to do a number of art shows with her over the years, and still kick myself for arranging a trade with her that never happened.

Susan was 22 years old when she met Wes Guy after a performance of Hello Dolly. Just back from a tour of duty in Vietnam and living with three kids from a previous marriage at his parents house, Wes was invited to attend the performance by his best friend, who was married to the woman Susan was in the play with.  After the show, Wes and Susan went to a nearby diner where they talked until 4 o’clock in the morning.  Five months later they were married, and Susan, who was the youngest of four, suddenly found herself living in an old farm-house with Wes and his children.  They raised quarter horses, and Sue continued to act, adding Nell (from South Pacific), Evita (in the title role) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (from The Lion in Winter) to her repertoire. Along the way, Sue continued to paint, but it wasn’t until she decided to enter a competition at a local bank that she decided to pursue her art full-time.

As an artist from Michigan, Sue found it difficult to make her way in a world where antiques and needlepoint were all the rage, so she talked her way into a spot on an invitation only Artists Ride where technique and subject matter were the focal point of each summer session.  Buffalo, Indians, elk and cowboys were brought in to allow artists to paint and observe in an up close and personal setting, allowing Susan to hone her craft to the point that her work was accepted into the prestigious Arts For the Parks.  Arts for the Parks was an event that started with the Top 200 paintings which were then narrowed down to the Top 100, and it was as hard as hell to get into.  I was never accepted into the show.  She was accepted on her first try, and the painting she hoped to sell for $600, was auctioned off for $1800.

Susan continued to gain entry to shows that would never consider my work, and it all came so effortlessly to her.  She managed to show at the Charles Russell Show, the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale and won the People’s Choice Award at the Coors Art Show, selling out every opening night for three years in a row, which, by the way, was one year more than any other artist was allowed to show.  People not only came out in droves to buy her work, what was shocking to both Sue and Wes, was that she couldn’t give her work away in Michigan, and in the West, she couldn’t keep up with the demand.

I met Sue just a few years before Wes was about to retire from his job at Xerox. She was over the moon about the fact that they were going to sell their house in Michigan and move to Wyoming, so she could be among the wildlife  she loved, and cowboy culture that inspired her work, and he could pursue a career as an outfitter.  Despite having been a performer most of her life, she was still painfully shy, so she decided to sew several beautifully crafted dresses from vintage patterns that would  act as conversation starters at her art shows.  I remember one outfit in particular; a deep, rich purple wool outfit with a bustle and fitted jacket that she wore to the Phippen Museum Western Art Show where I saw her for the last time.  Despite the incredible heat, Sue managed to look as beautiful and as collected as she had the first time I met her.

I hate the fact that Alzheimer’s Disease has taken this amazingly talented, incredibly beautiful, warm and engaging woman away from all the people who love and admire her, and I know that her husband of 40 years is suffering more than anyone over the loss of the woman he calls his “heart”.  Wes told me that the inscription on her headstone will read, “All my love, all my life.  Vows were kept”.  He told me he found a clay sculpture she had done of a grizzly with a fish in its mouth while packing up her studio.  He wasn’t aware that she had sculpted it, so he had it cast in bronze.  It is one of one, just like the woman who made it.

I am hugely fortunate to have met Susan and Wes.  My life is better for it.  And I hope, someday, when people are searching for her name online, they will find this blog, and know  how gifted and beautiful and amazing she really was.

Advertisements