Star's Bear artist has a Sheffield secret

Meet Sue Guthrie - an artist who has never been to Sheffield but paints like a local.

Sunday, 13th June 2021, 7:00 am

She is the creative force behind The Star’s colourful contribution to The Bears Of Sheffield, the public arts exhibition which will raise money for the Cancer and Leukaemia Ward at the Children's Hospital. ​

Our bear is called City Of Trees and when you look at the detail, it shouts Made In Sheffield.

Instantly recognisable landmarks include Sheffield Cathedral, the Crucible, the Lyceum and the Band Stand at Weston Park. They are lovingly done, appearing to be from the brushstrokes of an artist so familiar with these places. But Sue couldn’t make it to Sheffield due to Covid restrictions so City Of Trees came to life in her garage in Birmingham.

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The Lyceum and Weston Park Museum are easily identifiable

“I couldn’t visit, it was lockdown,” she says. “I did put a lot of research into it online.”

It works as you easily spot Kelham Island Museum and Meadowhall. The now demolished Tinsley Cooling Towers also feature. “They say Sheffield to me and I wanted to include them.”

Sue got her bear last year and painted it during the summer. So why the name City Of Trees?

“I heard Sheffield was the city with the most trees in Europe and that’s where the inspiration came from.

This is a section of Gulal Graffiti, one of Sue's elephants, which fetched £6,600

“I was brought up near an ancient woodland and have got a bit of a thing around trees. They are really important.”

She is keen to see her bear in place. “I hope I can make it up to Sheffield for the trail. I’ve not done much travelling recently so I’m keen to get out and about!”

City Of Trees features lots of brightly coloured sections showing the buildings and monuments which Sue so carefully researched.

She used acrylic paint and the first layers look like a ghostly glow.

This is Elmer's Aunty, the second of Sue's elephants

As the detail is added you begin to recognise Sheffield landmarks such as the Botanical Gardens, surrounded by tree-like objects. “They are more a design based around trees. I wanted it to be bright and colourful.”

There is a lot of detail and Sue admits City of Trees proved challenging. “It was quite fiddly and took a long time, about a month.”

It is the second time she has contributed to our trail, having been involved in many sculpture trails organised by Wild In Art, including the Herd of Sheffield in 2016.

“The elephants were quicker to do because there was a bigger surface area to work on. It is the detail that takes the time.”

She painted two elephants, which were put outside Sheffield Station. One was called Gulal Graffiti which raised £6,600 and one named Elmer's Aunty which went for £5,000.

No wonder staff at the Children’s Hospital like her.

To get involved in the trail, artists pitch designs on an online template showing different angles of the bear. The designs are then shortlisted for a selection panel and the lucky ones are chosen by sponsors. Sue is hopeful her bear will match what the elephants raised.

“I hope it is really successful. I hope people can get out and see it and it raises lots of money for a very good cause.

“The trail gives great awareness to the Children’s Hospital and gives me a connection to the city. I feel a warmth towards Sheffield and really enjoy doing their sculptures.

“I get to see pictures of people interacting with my work, holding babies up to them, children playing around them. It is a really positive thing and is lovely when they raise so much money.

Bright and colourful, City Of Trees will be a great addition to the Bear Trail

“It would be nice if City Of Trees raised as much as my elephants.”

So how did Sue get to this point? “I’m always painting and drawing, I’m more interested in doing than studying,” she said.

“I wanted to go to art school so my mum decided she would take me to the Tate Modern.”

It was her first taste of an art gallery and from there she never looked back.

Having been inspired by what she witnessed at The Tate, her biography on buy-fineart.com says Sue let her imagination run wild.

She described her foundation course as the equivalent of play school thanks to the huge amount of fun she had in this freedom-encouraging space.

The biography adds: “Due to what Sue describes as her shyness back then, her tutors suggested that Leicester University would be the ideal next port of call because it had a policy of attracting and accepting the less extrovert – yet equally if not more talented – students.

“Going on to gain a place at Leicester, Sue threw herself into her studies and recalls having a great time, where she was able to work with many media and methods.

“One such project brief she remembers being involved in was the design and construction of a raft and to install a painting partially submerged under a canal bridge, bizarre as that may well sound.

“Of course Guthrie rose to the challenge, graduated and began to put into place her future career plans thereafter.”

This creative streek stemmed from her childhood. Born in High Wycombe in a hospital called the Shrubbery, she enjoyed an idyllic childhood, surrounded by fields and woods and afforded freedom to roam, explore and to discover.

Freedom is important. It is what she enjoys being an artist. She said: “It suits me, it wouldn’t suit a lot of people, it depends on your priorities. If wealth is high up your list, being an artist is not good, but if you’re happy to be doing what you enjoy then it is.”

Sue likes working on big projects. She went around the UK to paint huge murals for hotel, bar and nightclub clients, immersing herself in the diversity of everything.

Her biography adds: “She recounts one week painting classical figures for example on the one client’s premises, whilst the following week she’d be tasked with forging imaginary U.V landscapes.

“This whole period was a steep learning curve.

“In the artist’s own words, ‘One day I arrived on a building site with a spray gun and a compressor (watched by 10+ builders) and not a clue how they worked. Needless to say I learned a lot during that time, including how to erect scaffolding and operate a scissor lift”.

She has also worked as a scene painter. ”So I am used to working big, that is not a problem. Doing design where you go really small, that’s when I struggle.”

So what if she makes a mistake? “You get one bear so you have to get it right but because I use acrylic paint I can paint over it if things go wrong.

“I’ve been painting all my life so I know how to draft the design, get things in the right places, before committing to paint. I work the whole thing out so everything is in place.”

Other projects include an Otter Trail in Dartmoor, an Octupus Trail in Harwich and an Imp in Lincoln for a trail called Gratitude to thank the NHS for being brilliant.

Mum-of-two Sue won’t tell me her age but says she’s over 50. Based today in Edgbaston, she is as comfortable living the suburban life as much as the rural one which shaped her formative years.

She says the horizontal and verticals angles of the built environment are recently having a huge impact on her new visual direction and design language.

Sue adds: “My antidote to this, however, is just around the corner and I spend a lot of time wondering around Edgbaston reservoir.

“The way that we experience nature also impacts on my work, and I have become increasingly aware of the frequency with which I am viewing the open landscape from my car. Impressions of speed and nostalgia for the time when I grew up may also be attributable to this.”

Hence the love of trees and painting. She says: “I’ve been an artist all my life. I’ve not done a proper job!”

She also teaches art, a line of work she says is going from strength to strength. “A bit too much actually, I need more time in the studio and less in the classroom.

“I’ve no formal training but I go into workshops as an artist and am hands on. I go into pubs and bars to run art classes as a social painting event.”

Her biography backs this up, saying to explain what makes Sue tick as an artist is difficult to stereotype or pigeon-hole.

It adds she draws on all manner of experiences when painting - emotional, visual and the physical. Nature is the one common denominator which has always fascinated her.

Sue often has several paintings on the go at any one time, as this tends to be the way she works best, and ensures that her impatience doesn’t ruin an individual piece.

When we speak, she is doing a miniature version of City Of Trees alongside other pieces. As she’s quick to stress - nothing can replace the presence of paint or the joy of mixing colour. Which makes her one happy artist.

Artist Sue Guthrie has an eye for detail
This is City Of Trees in the early stages, with what Sue describes as a ghostly glow
City Of Trees catches the eye with its bright design
A section from City Of Trees
The Children’s Hospital Charity Bears of Sheffield 2021. The Star's Bear by artist Sue Guthrie. Pictured is Star Editor Nancy Fielder with Cheryl Davidson, Bears of Sheffield Project Manager. Picture: Chris Etchells