For Sue Westin portraying wildlife began at the very early age of four. Confined to a body cast after an automobile accident, she could do little more than lie in a hospital bed and draw. And that she did in the form of making families of turtles using a pencil and protractor. How could one have known from those simple drawings that she would become a Master Artist of the Society of Animal Artists and a regular exhibiter at the world’s most prestigious and competitive bird art exhibition known as “Birds In Art”?
Raised in the Connecticut River Valley, Westin received early art training in the homes of local artists, including that of Bissell Phelps Smith. In her senior year in high school she was honored with the “Most Likely To Succeed in Art” Award and a free art course at the University of Hartford. Westin graduated from Hartwick College in 1972 and immediately headed to Alaska for a summer job at Mt. McKinley National Park. There she discovered Eskimo carvings and taught herself the art of sculpting in stone. A few years later she settled in Vermont, where she created her first large stone sculpture, a soapstone otter carved to fit the undulating curves of the driftwood log it was resting on. With that in her portfolio Westin gained entry into the Society of Animal Artists, one of the world’s oldest animal art organizations, and its 1979 exhibit in New York City. From then on she became a regular SAA exhibiter of not just sculpture but of a variety of mediums. Her works have toured museums and galleries throughout the U.S. via SAA and the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s “Birds In Art“ tours.
The art history of Sue Westin is a history of adaptations to life situations. Soon after entering the SAA as a sculptor, Westin quickly realized that it was nearly impossible to do the dusty work of stone sculpture while caring for an infant. She adapted by learning from an elderly neighbor the techniques of the two-dimensional, colonial medium known as theorem painting. Soon she began creating complicated, original theorem paintings of wildlife. These two-dimensional works were readily accepted into the competitive SAA annual exhibitions. Her last theorem involved 32 hand-cut stencil layers used to portray Evening Grosbeaks feeding in a Mountain Ash tree. In 1983 her family, consisting of a husband and two very, young children spent summers in a tiny cabin at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Massachusetts. Small space required another change. Westin discovered Albert Porter’s book “Expressive Watercolor Techniques” and off she went again in a new direction. What had once seemed like an impossible medium suddenly seemed easy. Through reading, practice and experimentation, she was soon selling watercolors of shorebirds, marine life, and other subjects. In 1991 when invited to participate in an exhibition in Bonn, Germany, Westin responded by making another switch, this time to oils, the medium of her childhood and of the Old World masters.
Westin’s flexibility in medium goes hand in hand with her versatility in art subjects. Because the enjoyment of animals has been a large part of her life, they have played a large part in her artistic endeavors. Well known for her realistic shorebird scenes and textural bison portrayals, she, nevertheless, has not allowed herself to be locked into just one artistic niche. There is a streak of independence that stands out now and then. When a painting depicting a small moth on wallpaper, a mix of realism and abstraction, was rejected from a wildlife art exhibition for not being wildlife art, she took it to Robert Bateman and asked his opinion. He humorously responded with “It’s off the wall, but a valid direction.” To this day that painting hangs on her own wall. Since that time, wildlife art genre has become much more diversified and that rejection in the early 1990’s probably would not occur in the wildlife art exhibitions of today. For Westin, it is important to allow herself to remain open to responding to life through art in whatever way life resonates or inspires. Her SAA painting of 2017 features an abstract arrangement of frozen water bubbles and a cadis fly nymph walking along the underside surface of ice and. Her 2018 SAA painting “The Gift Tree” is an environmental statement featuring Gray Jays feeding on the remains of a caribou hung in a black spruce tree in Labrador, memorializing the Innu custom of giving back to nature that which they do not use. Over the years one will find in Westin’s repertoire of works: animals, people, still-lifes, farm life and marine scenes and now environmental statements.
For Westin “Art” is a journey, a catharsis for the experience of life and a reflection of her life and the world as she perceives it.