Sue Mcdonagh — artist, writer, I chatted to her to find out more about this well-known & vibrant Cowbridge character
Who inspired you to paint Sue?
Well, it was my mum actually — the earliest memory I have is of me sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, and she would be next to me painting. However, even though I was surrounded by art and creativity, I didn’t actually start to paint (and write) until much later in my life.
So what led you to pick up a paint brush?
I started my working life as a young police officer in Essex— I know! hard to believe isn’t it?! Whilst working there as a young woman of 24 I was treated for cancer, which led to my spending long stretches in hospital undergoing chemotherapy after major surgery. The days were long and I was pretty low after the ordeal, so my work mates had a whip-round and bought me a pad and some paints with a gorgeous little sable brush, to keep me occupied during my stay. I used to go from bed to bed sketching patients and their visiting friends and families and I loved it. I think it saved me in all honesty, because I was able to throw myself into painting my subject. It helped me massively in my recovery because I had something else to focus upon.
I never knew you wrote too — how did that talent emerge?
The police service were extremely supportive during my illness and after my recovery, because I could no longer fulfill my duties as a police-officer, I was given a role in their press office which I absolutely loved. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed writing and seemed to have a natural talent for it. I am a firm believer in things happening for a reason — my life-long loves of writing and painting were fostered out of my illness. I finally had a true direction in my life.
So how did you come to be in Wales then Sue?
A Welshman — what else?!! I met him whilst in the police force and by the time I was 25 I was married, I’d moved down here and had started to try and scrape a living together painting.
How did the business start? When did you realise you could make a living out of painting?
I tentatively booked a little stand at a fete in Llantwit Major way back in 1987, Year of Victorian Fair Day. Flying by the seat of my pants, promoted myself as an on-the-spot portrait painter, charging £2.50 a go. Fake-confidence took over and I just told myself ‘You can do this Sue!’ It was a slow start to the day and at first I wondered what on earth I was thinking taking on this ridiculous challenge, but by the end of the day I had painted sixty faces with a long queue of models still eagerly waiting to have their faces painted! That day gave me the confidence to launch my business and from there commissions started coming in.
How long have you been in the Wool Barn?
30 years now — I’m like part of the furniture!
I expect you have many people commenting on what a lovely easy life you must have being a painter? Is that true? What would you say to them?
That’s an insightful question: Yes, many people have a romantic idea of what it is to be an artist. It’s like any job, it has its pressures, stresses, deadlines, oh and there have been lean times of course. I have days when things don’t go right — maybe I’m not feeling creative, or I‘ve been under the weather and that can be frustrating and stressful when you have a deadline you are working towards. For example I’ve booked a stand at a trade show in Reading at the end of April, lots of spaces to fill with my work but I’ve yet to produce a lot of that work! I am a painter and writer, a creative person, but it’s also my business, my livelihood, so I get the same worries as anyone running their own business.
My work has been recognised along the way which was a big high point for me — I was short-listed for the regional finals of The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in 2013 which gave my confidence a real boost.
You are known for painting scenes of children playing on a beach, discovering new things — what do you love about this subject so much?
I love seeing children’s faces and reactions as they discover new things when they are on the beach. Their intensity of joy in play and interacting with nature and also with each other is a joy to watch and that is what I try and capture in my work.
You, your dog Scribble and your trusty Artist on Tour Van are synonymous with you, Sue McDonagh — Do you still tour?
Not as much as I did but I am doing a show in April in Reading. I love my van — it’s all kitted out with kitchen, bed and even has a shower! I don’t look like a hip and cool artist though do I let’s face it?! I’d love to be the one wearing a hand-crocheted hat, dressed all quirky and wearing odd socks, displaying my work from a hip VW Camper Van decorated with bunting and fairy lights, but no — this is me, in my cloth cap, practical coat and country boots, Scribble the dog by my side, behind the wheel of my seriously un-cool touring van!
What do you like about living in Cowbridge?
I love Cowbridge high street — when I see paintings of the high street it often looks so grey. For me it’s a really vibrant place, bursting with colour — not just in the buildings but also the people. I’ve done a few long thin quirky paintings and I also love what I call the street furniture, by that I mean the chimneys, the roof tops and so on, there’s just so much interesting stuff to paint. Painting makes me not just look — it makes me truly see, does that make sense?
How do you switch off, what do you enjoy doing in your down time?
Well now that’s easy to answer — I get out on my motorbike. I’m one of the few ladies in Wales with a First Class Advanced Riding Certificate!
I love getting out to places on my bike with The Curvy Riders, a ladies-only motorcycle club — obviously with my talent for writing my role in the club is Newsletter! Our next trip is to Durham — there are 100 ladies converging on the city to a spa hotel which we do annually. We did Wales last year, Llandrindod Wells, great fun — we left a trail of such happy memories in our motorbiking wake!
Are you always ‘up’? You seem like a very positive person?
Not at all, I’m up and down, typical artist I guess. How do I deal with it? Well, I write to myself — you can’t hide from yourself can you? So if I’m suffering from a creative block, I’ll wake up and write down what is in my head. I get all my feelings down on paper, then I can see what is in my head and that helps me get to grips with the issue at hand. I will also get out on my bike, or do some exercise, take Scribble out for a walk and that really helps to bring clarity.
Any new challenges on the horizon Sue?
Well, I’m on my second book which is a follow-up from my first (A Ticket to Ride, as yet unpublished, in which I was short-listed for major publisher’s prize last year — I missed out winning by 1 point). It’s about about a woman who wins a motorcycle in a raffle and about how this bike changes her life and her relationship with her partner, who has suppressed her freedom, self-confidence and self-worth for years.
Thanks so much for sharing your story with me Sue