THE stunning colours in this week’s picture choice capture the spirit of the extraordinary landscapes produced by Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side.
Based in the village of Cumnor near Oxford, Sue uses graphite and ink to tell the stories hidden in the local environment of tree, copse, land and sky.
“My journey to saying ‘I am an artist’ has been a slow one,” says Sue. “I’ve had a pencil and sketchbook in my hand for as long as I can remember and despite choosing the teaching profession as a career, have never stopped creating, learning and creating.
“I’m head of art at a fantastic school [The Manor Preparatory School in Abingdon] and I focus on close looking with my young learners.
“We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture. The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.
“Their ideas and responses always surprise and excite. These inspire me and feed back into my own thinking.”
As an artist, Sue specialises in illustration and portraiture. She exhibits regularly as a member of The Oxford Art Society, takes part in Oxfordshire Artweeks annually and has been selected to exhibit with The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Royal Watercolour Society and The Society of Graphic Fine Arts.
She also exhibits in local galleries and in 2013 completed the artist teacher scheme at Oxford Brookes.
“My art has evolved,” Sue admits. “It is good to be able to explore different elements of art practice. I never get bored! I am at my most comfortable with a pencil or pen – they feel like an extension of my hand. I like the direct connection created between me and the paper as well as the range of marks you gain from using them. It feels elemental, basic. No fuss, no disguise.”
Sue finds herself particularly drawn to stories hidden in the local landscape.
“Here the human story seems insubstantial and fleeting against the vast stage of nature,” she explains. “I enjoy watching the slow interaction between trees and the way they settle in the landscape. From their mossy root systems to their light-seeking crowns, my work focuses on these incredible carbon storehouses and the symbiotic environment they are part of.”
Filmmaker Will Side produced a study of her artistic process filmed over a period of months and capturing the creation of an artwork from inception to completion.
Her work includes portraits, etchings and drawings, but the past year has brought her into intimate contact with the woods and byways near her home.
“Wandering deep in Wytham Wood, which I am so lucky to live near, always brings a lift to the heart and peace to the soul,” says Sue. “The last year, for obvious pandemic reasons, has taken me down every path and byway of Oxfordshire, giving me a wealth of new material.
“Our local poet, Matthew Arnold, used to wander the fields near Oxford saying that it helped him escape the ‘repeated shocks’ and the ‘harsh, heart-wearying roar’ of the world (The Scholar-Gypsy). How true that has been for me this year! Walking our woods and gentle hills has brought me some solace, as well as lots of new ideas for artworks.”
Using ink techniques, Sue explores the atmosphere of forest and tree in all their woody detail.
“I enjoy using ink – it can be both fluid and precise,” she says. “The clarity of inky colour is intense. It sits well in my illustrations; creating contrast between the inky depths of the deep woods and gentle translucent skies.
“It does have its own mind though. I like this – starting a work and not being absolutely sure how it will end up!
Sue is also fascinated by the behaviour of starling flocks as they settle in their treetop roosts at RSPB Otmoor Nature Reserve. She has a series of works capturing their amazing murmurations; thousands of individually ink-drawn birds overlapping one another again and again to create a quite remarkable fluidity of aerial display.
“It is only close up you see the pattern, the purpose and togetherness of these starling flocks,” she says. “A little like family, a starling murmuration is a story of protection, sharing, gossiping and the joy of homecoming on darker winter days.”