Wānaka Sun       

Susie Ruddenklau: grande dame of Wānaka art scene

Posted at 6:00am Thursday 16 Jul, 2020 | By Pat Deavoll editor@thewanakasun.co.nz

Susie Ruddenklau has been at the forefront of the Wānaka art scene for almost two decades. And this grande dame of the local painting scene says she has found a new depth to her art and is painting better than ever. There is more of a 'story' to her art these days, she says. She is less involved with detail, likes to paint 'bigger' and give a feeling of space and air to her paintings.

Ruddenklau became a professional artist in the early 1980s and hasn't looked back.

So how did you become a professional painter?

I got into the Arts Society up in Gisborne where I was living at the time in my first marriage and enjoyed it. I started exhibiting professionally then.

 My first husband died when  I was quite young, and I had two little children. I wanted to keep painting and had a good friend who said 'Susie, you are painting all the time, so why don't I build you a studio?'

So he got an old shed from my garden and rebuilt it for me into this beautiful studio. I had an exhibition there, which was a sell-out, and that launched me as a professional painter.

So how did you sell your paintings?

I had a sign on the road, and people would come up from the beach and have a glass of wine, and they would buy a painting.

What were you painting back then?

I was painting everything back then- flowers, animals, people, beaches.

Because my husband had died, I look now at some of the beach paintings – big ocean paintings with lots of skies, quite solitary – and it makes me feel quite sad.

There were often seagulls, but they weren't flying freely, they were crouching underneath the driftwood. It wasn't until later when I went back to see friends in Gisborne that I realised that those paintings echoed my life at the time. Big empty spaces with ocean and sky, distant headlands. A certain sadness.

Then you had a significant shift in your life.

I came from working right beside the sea to meeting my second husband John Ruddenklau and ending up on a high country station in Dipton, Southland. Suddenly I had mountains around me.  It was a big masculine landscape as opposed to the beach which was quite feminine

 So I started painting mountains. I also had the most splendid garden which John and I built together. I painted a lot of large watercolours of sunflowers and roses. Everything was bright and colourful and happy and has been ever since.

So when did you move to Wānaka?

I was down in Dipton from 1986 until 2000 then we came to live in Wānaka. We didn't retire because I have been painting and teaching the whole time since and John has been working on farms

We are semi-retired now, and I'm painting more now than I ever have in the past.

So how is your painting life now?

I have a great studio and my friends come round, and I teach them how to paint. Not exactly a course but I teach people of my age who have always wondered if they can paint. They come round, and chuck paints around in my studio, and we have a lot of fun.

But I have painted full time since I opened my studio in Gisborne. If I'm getting ready for an exhibition, I will spend up to eight hours in the studio. If I'm not then I paint in the afternoons,

John has come out sometimes and said to me you have to come and play with me because I get so absorbed.

It depends a bit because I also have a life and have three children and I am very close to all of them.

Do you exhibit a lot?

Not as much as I used to but I do like exhibiting. I exhibit in the house quite a lot. I take everything down off the walls and put all my paintings up. I advertise the exhibition, and people love them. I don't expect people to buy them, but I like to share, and I love people to come and have a look. And if they buy them well, that's a treat.

The good thing about having an exhibition here (at home) is that I don't have significant overheads, so the prices of my paintings are reasonable.

What about the local galleries?

The local galleries are quite exclusive and don't exhibit Wanaka artists, which is a shame. I've asked if they will have a local's exhibition, but they haven't been forthcoming.

Even the Art Society (of which I used to be president) which used to do two exhibitions a year, only does one now. I'll be exhibiting in the Labour Weekend event. And I'm hoping to have a show here shortly. Just before lockdown, three friends were going to stage an exhibition in the Community Hub, but of course, this was cancelled.

 We all had an amazing exhibition together when we lived in Southland at Centre Bush years ago. I was trying to get it off the ground again, but for various reasons, it hasn't happened. But I'll exhibit in the spring in the house.

So what medium do you paint in?

Watercolour is my first medium. I would stick to watercolour- it is my favourite medium- but framing them is very expensive – so you can't do a whole bunch of watercolours and frame them. It costs around $300 a piece. That's what holds me up as far as watercolour is concerned.

And I love pastels, but they have to be framed too. And that's even more expensive because it's chalk and if this comes off the picture it has to be caught by a 'gutter' in the frame rather than spill all over the mat. Expensive framing!

The acrylics are great because you can paint on anything so long as you prepare first. But whatever medium having a painting beautifully presented does everything for your work.

So has your painting grown?

Since we moved to Wānaka, my painting has developed.

I think it has got more of a story to it these days. I've also got better at drawing and better at painting people. It's hard to make people look relaxed in a painting.

Yes, I've got better, but it's hard to explain how. I guess I'm less tied up with details and more expert at the big picture.

So how do you want people to see your paintings?

When I do a landscape, I want to portray big air – so when people look at it, they feel open and full and happier. If you paint something small and tight, it's not as inspiring.

I want to put more space into my paintings now. If you can nail that feeling of space, it conveys emotion. It's got to be arresting, it's got to have the x-factor.

If a viewer can walk around an exhibition, spot your paint and be compelled to step up to it and not be able to take their eyes off it, then you have nailed it!

Read edition 982 of the Wānaka Sun here.

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