• Jo Armstrong

Susan Allen-Smith - Leigh's new Artist in Residence

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

A young Leigh-on-Sea woman moved to Canada in the 1950s. 30 years later, her Vancouver-born daughter returned to make it her home and has since played a significant part in the artistic community. After over 20 years’ involvement in the Leigh Art Trail, being part of the Two Tree Gallery collective and teaching extensively, Susan Allen Smith has now also achieved the coveted position of this year’s Leigh Town Council ‘Artist in Residence’.

From April, Susan will occupy residency space at Leigh Community Centre for a year, during which she will run community art projects. Her ideas include an emphasis on returning to the outside world, eg plein-air painting and walk and draw activities, mainly for beginners. Susan explains, “I want to help them record what they see …. Art is a way of making us slow down and really pay attention to what we’re looking at. I also want to reach out and use my teaching and art skills to give back a little”. A scholarship place to monthly life drawing classes she runs at the Centre may also be on offer. She observes, “I think this will be very appealing to A-Level students as they need it in their portfolio to apply for art school and they have nowhere local to go”.

An accomplished landscape / figure painter, Susan's Fine Art degree even took her to Florence for a year but her main inspiration is now the Leigh-on-Sea landscape and in particular, the Estuary. This is evident throughout her work and all the more meaningful given her family background and her “full circle” move back to their hometown.

The Estuary comes alive in Susan’s ‘Tide & Time’ series – an ongoing collection of abstract seascapes capturing a multitude of tidal movements and moods. A depiction of both emotions and thoughts received from the Estuary and a reflection of her own on a given day, the pieces offer a vast array of glimpses, from striking, bold colours and thick paint to depict its turbulence and energy, to soft simple and calm moments. The water is depicted in all its nuances, affected by differing climate conditions and times of day. As the tide recedes, they illustrate the grooves it creates and reveal what is lying underneath.

“When you look across the Estuary, it gives you a feeling of unlimited possibilities,” Susan remarks, “and that’s what I take back to my work – boats, reflections, the big expanse of sky. It is a huge inspiration in both my abstract and realistic work”. These abstract pieces feed directly into Susan’s larger, more traditional paintings which feature figures, boats and other objects in the landscape. However, Susan advises, “the looseness achieved through 'Tide & Time' feeds into these. One bit of art feeds into everything else you do and it’s so important to not be confined by just one way of working. I feel realism and abstraction are interlinked and I’ve got to do the abstract work so I can express what’s inside and outside which feeds into the other landscape work”.

Life drawing is also crucial in this way as she notes, “Life drawing is essential to figure painting; you can’t make figures look comfortable in a landscape without that”. The time-pressured drawing of life models “creates an urgency that feeds back into everything else I’m doing. I take the drawings and work them up into paintings”, she adds.

A ‘Short Stories’ series created by Susan during lockdown also illustrates this ‘feeding in’ process and her desire to capture moments in time. She began taking more photographs of people in emotive poses around her and started transforming the images into paintings. “When I looked back (into the photos)”, Susan reflects, “it was like going back into memories; they became important and I wanted to share them. When they become a painting, it becomes so much more as you put in the colours, the feel of the light and how you felt at the time – so I’m connecting with the past, my own feelings and trying to tell these small stories and glimpses of someone doing something. … little stories that have connected to a little moment in time and inner feeling”. As restrictions ease, Susan will continue with the series – “I think things you start during times of stress are things that you want to carry on doing that you’ve just not allowed yourself time for before”, she observes.

Free time will be thinner on the ground before long in light of Susan’s upcoming Artist Residency, the reopening of Two Tree Gallery, her current online teaching reverting to venues and the return of the Leigh Art Trail in September. However, I have no doubt exploring and capturing Leigh will remain a high priority as Susan remarks, “I love the people, the shops – ‘Shop Local is my new mantra’ – and in Old Leigh you can see a working fishing village as well as it being a tourist hub. The Leigh Art Trail provides a really good (artistic) network and it’s grown so much over the years. I love being a part of it as it’s so community oriented with a wonderful committee running it. There are so many facets of Leigh I love”. I think it was written in the stars for Susan to return to Leigh don’t you?!

Find out more about Susan’s work and classes on her Instagram, Facebook and website. Her work can also be viewed on the Two Tree Gallery website.


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