by kathryn mcbroom
photos by angelina bellebuono
“Take a seat! Just let me turn down the music.” Susie George speaks softly as she points toward a swiveling office chair in the middle of her studio. I take a seat and she glides over to a boombox perched on an adjacent shelf and turns down the classical music that has been playing in the background.
Located in the basement of her Madison home, what could have been a rather dreary workspace is alive with color and light. There’s an airy feel to the semi-underground space. Dozens of canvases are stacked on top of one another in the four rooms that make up the studio. Many sit on easels awaiting their finishing touches or perhaps their first brushstroke.
“Don’t mind Picasso. He follows me everywhere.”
Picasso, George’s dog, lies at her feet, more gentle giant than watchdog. Like many things in George’s life, she just happened upon the rust-colored chow mix by chance.
“We were living in Fairhope, Ala., and he had been thrown out of a car. He was only six weeks old.” That was nine years ago. For the past five years, Suzita, or as most call her, Susie, has been living in Madison. Born and raised in the Philippines, she previously lived in Madison for one year during the early nineties, before moving away. After deciding to leave her Naples, Fla., residence, she bought her current home “sight unseen” off the internet and has been in Madison ever since.
From the neck up, George looks ready for afternoon tea. Her blonde hair is pulled back from her face, a cluster of pearls decorate each ear, and she’s chosen a lively reddish orange lipstick for that day. But below the neck, the day’s real plans are apparent as bursts of paint, some fresh and some looking years old, are scattered across her clothing.
For 25 years George has been painting, at first for relaxation and later on as her primary living. In 1985, while living in Washington D.C. and working as a paralegal in a bustling law firm, she had what she describes as “an epiphany.”
“I was working in this law firm and I was just overwhelmed by all the intensity. I was at my limit. As a child, it’s funny, I always loved paintings and color and everything. But at that point, I had the realization that I needed to get out of the pressure-cooker. So I decided to start painting at night.”
Having never had any sort of training, George wandered into an art supply and loaded up on the necessary supplies and then some.
“I had never painted before—it was just literally that I went to an art supply and they sold me everything I needed and everything I didn’t need,” laughed George, adding, “And to this day I still have bottles of oils and mixes and I have no idea what they’re for!”
From the first time she picked up a brush, she fell in love with painting. Rushing home from work everyday, George would paint until the early morning hours only to wake up at 7 a.m. to make it back to the law firm. The “charge of happiness” she received from painting is what kept her going through her subsequent years at the firm.
It wasn’t until fate moved Suzie to England that she realized she could make a living off her new hobby. Having stored away all of her 50 to 60 canvases in a cupboard at her real estate agent’s request, potential buyers visiting the home began to inquire about their origin. Upon discovering that she was the artist, offers began pouring in. George left for England with every canvas sold.
Once they were settled in England she began painting consistently everyday. It was also during this period, the early nineties, that she would have her first and most memorable gallery show.
Having fallen on hard times, as most of England had due to an economic slump, George was forced to look for a new place to live, a place which would not have room for the 200 plus canvases she had accumulated.
“I was in a panic. I couldn’t even fit them in my car to take them anywhere.”
On a train ride into London, George happened by a boarded up gentleman’s club in Mayfair, a very posh section of the city. Acting on “pure desperation” George asked the owners if she could use the space for a week to display her paintings to potential buyers. After receiving an enthusiastic response from the club, she began to set her plan in motion.
Working with a caterer and a printer who both agreed not to bill her until the end of that month, she procured 1,000 invitations and enough sparkling wine and hors d'oeuvres for the show’s opening night.
“Everything was banking on that night and making enough money to pay those bills.”
Mailing out invites to friends, publications, and every art gallery in London, opening night George sold over 120 paintings. Without even a bank account to put the money in, she suddenly had enough to pay all the costs of putting on the show as well as continue living in England for the rest of the year. One of the gallery owners in attendance even set up three separate shows for George’s work.
Following her stay in England, she moved back to Atlanta, and continued to travel all over the Deep South before landing in Madison and becoming deeply engrained in the art community here.
“I love, I love Madison. The artist’s guild and the cultural center is fantastic. I think the guild works really hard and they do a lot of things. And the cultural center is introducing all new types of art and music and films, which is very important for an artist. I’m very grateful that we have that here.”
For the woman who used to confuse the lawyers in her office by wearing a new hairdo everyday, George’s artwork is equally unpredictable. Never one to “paint the same thing twice,” at any time she can be working with oils, acrylics, or watercolors, painting a portrait of a small child or perhaps a herd of roaming horses. Depending on her mood and the balance in her outside life, a simple portrait can take her an hour or, in some cases, a year.
Twenty-five years later, her passion for what was once just a hobby is still there. She still refers to herself and an untrained and emerging artist, but to her it doesn’t matter.
“None of my skills are that good where I can paint proportions perfectly. I just get the motion and the feel of it and make it exciting. I put my expression into it, which for me, makes it a miracle.”
As I’m rising to leave, and while Picasso begins to roam around among the tubes of paint that litter the floor, she offers parting advice for those who may be considering their first foray into the art world.
“Do not be afraid. No matter what you put on that canvas, when you put it on with heart and without fear, it’s beautiful.”
Printed in the January 27 edition.