Suzo Hickey is a painter who was born in Prince Rupert to Prince Rupert born parents. Her roots tie her to the city from way back. While she lived a long time away from the North Coast, her brushstrokes painted a path back to her origins and a studio workshop in the Museum of Northern B.C. building.
Suzo, not Sue, returned to the port city after being down south for more than 25 years. Growing up in Prince Rupert, she first developed a love of art from her father’s influence when he gave her a set of ink pens. While his passion was making beautiful ship models, he was also talented at drawing.
“My dad did a lot of drawings … So, he had all of these pens he gave to me with books on how to draw when I was quite little. I still have some of the books he gave me and the pens that you dip in ink. So, I kind of started from there,” she told The Northern View.
After high school, she ventured forth starting to paint the canvass of her own life by attending art school in Kamloops and later learning at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 1994.
“When you start in the first year, you take all these different sorts of disciplines. Painting I had never done, but painting I loved. Then everything fell by that. I did draw for a while, but painting was really what I wanted to do.”
With a developing art career, Suzo stayed in the Vancouver area, honing her talent and style while showing her work in exhibits throughout Canada and the U.S.A. She raised two children in her time away, one who moved to Prince Rupert five years before she returned.
“Vancouver is a beautiful place. There’s lots to do. It’s great to raise kids in Vancouver because it just had so many options. It’s quite lovely.”
But, she said, it is not what kept her down there so long as opposed to what drew her back to Prince Rupert. Her spouse was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the condition reached the point where the house they lived in was not navigable for accessibility purposes. Suzo’s son died in 2004 when he was 24. Combined with Suzo’s mother passing away in 2008, the family brought her ashes to Prince Rupert to be scattered, which resulted in life-changing decisions.
“We thought we could live here because there is already a built-in community. When you move off at a certain age and deal with the job market, it’s hard to meet people. So, you might as well go someplace where there is a community you already know.”
It’s that very community that features prolifically in Suzo’s art, illustrating a different perspective of the local landscapes she paints.
“My paintings never have cars, or people or anything. It’s all gone. It’s just that landscape – nothing. So, it has that post-apocalyptic feeling,” she said.
Having dealt with profound loss in her life and moving forward by altering the scenes outside her window, she said the loss remains, but it changes.
“Loss doesn’t go away. It mutates,” she said. Art has helped her through difficult times. “It can take you out of yourself. It gives you something safe to think about if you are having a hard time.”
As a multi-disciplinary artist, she said after her son died, she created a lot of installation pieces based on issues that were happening at the time, but eventually, she decided she just wanted to paint.
“I just wanted to become a better painter, and I didn’t want to have to think about hard things,” she said. “So that’s when I started painting my neighbourhood because I thought O.K. there’s no issues involved with this.”
There are tourist areas in every town, and they get well covered, she said. It was by walking up and down the streets of Vancouver where she was able to refocus her lens and capture the reality of the true metropolitan landscapes in which people live.
“I basically just left my house every day and started documenting [those surroundings] … it wasn’t the nice little arts and craft houses. They were just these big lots of monster houses – Vancouver specials. It was the neighbourhood where there hadn’t been any kind of urban planning.”
Despite the fallen shutters or boarded-up doorways, through her artist’s eyes, she sees beauty all around, she said and translates it with acrylic paint onto the canvas.
“They all had these beautiful views of the mountains and those gorgeous trees in the city. They had these streets where there were maples or cherries or horse chestnuts. They all had these beautiful vistas along the road, which I particularly liked a lot,” she said. “Then here in Rupert, it’s the same thing. There are nice houses next to little boarded-up houses, next to cute cottages. It’s also all over the map, which I really liked about it.”
Asked about how she sees an image to communicate with an art viewer, Suzo said it is more compositional.
“It’s sort of how everything fits together – how the mountains look against the sky, the houses if they are outlined and are backlit, or how the trees look against the sky,” she said. She is continuously thinking of how to paint subjects, like trees, to make them interesting.
“It’s more of big blocks of shape and colour and how I can mess with them. But, I think it’s the composition that is more than anything.”
As a full-time artist since 2008, she said it is a choice she is comfortable with. She snickered that it is a ‘paltry living’ at times, but some years are better than others. Despite being back in Prince Rupert for more than six years, she makes more sales still from the Vancouver area.
“It’s a very lovely kind of life. My time is my own. I get to come [to my studio] every day and do whatever I’m doing. It makes up for not having a new car, I guess.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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