What can do justice to the memory of childhood? Where once agility and alertness produced creativity, (the gumption of life so intense and delightful), there remains, in reflection, a desire to preserve the experience with dedicated and playful enthusiasm.
-from Artist Statement
Patricia Sue Vinson was born to Thomas Oscar Vinson MD and Roesel Stanford Vinson in December of 1944.
The youngest of three siblings after brothers Tom and Paul, Sue was an uncontainable creative spirit and lovable misfit. She and a schoolmate once clambered atop a rolling freight train (“to see from the top”), only to be apprehended by the conductor and removed to the caboose for detention with milk and cookies. Comfortable around guns, young Sue sometimes used her .22 rifle to clear the yard of snakes.
Sue would later tell the story of how her mother Roesel, assertive and formal, once deigned to instruct Sue on the art of portrait painting, only to discover that she herself entirely lacked her daughter’s effortless talent. Roesel quietly folded her own stick-figure and conceded a measure of respect; for Sue it was a coming of age.
An avid student, Sue double-majored at the University of Georgia, studying painting under James Herbert and sculpture under William Thompson. Graduating with honors, she went on to pursue post-graduate work under Lamar Dodd, and studied illustration under Alan Tiegreen.
Outside of her studies, Sue flirted briefly with normalcy, staffing at a local hardware shop (which?) and the First Bank of Atlanta, and engaging in an ill-fated initial experiment with marriage.
Before long the young divorcee met John Stewart, a dashing architect who would prove to be the love of her life.
They married. As “Tall John” built his career and reputation, Sue sang their newborn son “Short John” to sleep with old railroad songs, and cared for her own aging parents.
Sue renovated their new home, and together they put it up as collateral for the founding of John’s new architectural firm, in which he was a named partner. Everything Sue had, she staked on her trust in her partner.
Their venture was a success. As Tall John helped build Atlanta, the family moved to suburban Buckhead. There, in the basement beneath the sweeping patio of their garden home, Sue assembled her personal woodworking shop, stocking it with the familiar tools she had marketed as a hardware clerk. For Sue, the instruments of housewifery were table saws and drill presses. Never content to socialize idly, she worked with her hands to craft decorations for the neighborhood and local events, and organized her neighbors to join the effort. Together they founded the North Buckhead Home and Garden Club.
Sue’s life took a sudden tragic turn when her husband died in a plane crash on business, leaving her an untimely widow and single mother to a middle schooler.
Crushed by her loss, Sue never remarried. But as a single parent she proved efficient and capable. She sold off the luxury sedan, and put the proceeds towards sustainable investments; purchasing a neighboring home and renting out rooms. For a career, she experimented with landscape design. Meanwhile she scouted undeveloped homesites in the mountains of NC, to oversee the construction of a new home of her own design -- a vacation home, to cultivate and perhaps someday sell. The resulting construction was a masterpiece, and in time, the community of Scaly Mountain would appoint Sue to design the entrance for the neighborhood.
As her son left for college and a career of his own, Sue’s family commitments eased and her creative potential was finally unleashed. She had achieved publication as a landscape designer, but it was a career of blueprints and planning. Sue set it aside in favor of a new pursuit better suited to her adventurous spirit and independent character: painting plein-air -- hiking her canvas and easel out into the rural or urban wilderness, in search of a perfect moment to capture by hand.
Plein-air painting is a surprisingly difficult task, requiring not only an artistic eye but also focus and discipline, as the artist is constantly working against time. Sue found a natural coolness under pressure and a gift for color, both of which she honed in extensive workshops, study, and practice. She studied under Kevin Macpherson on location in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and New Mexico – and other nationally recognized teachers included Brian Stewart, Charles Sovek, and Kim English, Dolores Kennedy.
Sue’s own painting expeditions took her across the east coast, from Foley Beach to Acadia in Maine, but with a particular emphasis on the Southeast. In time, she became a successful professional and a recognized expert in her field. Her work featured in juried art exhibits, the Charleston ___ produced printed an interview. And Sue invited a new generation of students to visit her mountain retreat, to study under her, in workshops of her own.
Her style was marked by a measured application of confident, precise strokes, usually on a small canvas. Her eye for color was exceptional.
Sue’s paintings often explored landscapes; fields, shipyards, farms and city intersections -- but the world she studied was not vacant and timeless. It teemed with a transient population of shoppers and sunbathers, cars, tractors, animals... each observed in a glimpse of their daily business. Sue had a particular fondness for cows, which she regarded as uncommonly innocent and amiable subjects. Cows rarely appear in the background of a composition; they always come over to visit.
At the height of her skill and recognition, Sue put a capstone on her creative career by helping to create new organizations to advance plein-air painting, as an original member of the Plein Air Painters of Georgia, and a founding member of the Plein-Air Painters of the Southeast.
Sue’s work sold at galleries in Maine, Georgia, North and South Carolina. She was particularly successful at Wells’ Gallery in Charleston, and eventually moved to Charleston herself -- finally selling off the grand home in Atlanta to renovate the historic 12 State Street building in Charleston. There, living in the apartment above, she ran a gallery of her own: “Stewart Fine Art”.
Running a gallery was a curious compromise for Sue, being herself allergic to the salesmanship of art; the often pretentious introspective declarations about quests for meaning. Sue regarded her art as a craft, like pottery; the artist applies their skill, and the resulting work either resonates and merits appreciation or it doesn’t. In spite of Sue’s earnesty -- or perhaps because of it -- the gallery cultivated a following and ran from 2005? 2012? through 2016? (TODO: verify actual dates).
Each of the threads in Sue’s life suspended a weight. With womanhood came breast cancer, which she battled into remission. With adventures came hazards and mishaps. Ferrying students at an artistic workshop in the mountains, Sue was thrown from her ATV and crushed in the rollover; she pursued physical therapy and regained nearly full mobility. From gardening she developed a lung infection, which left her with a chronic shortness of oxygen.
Over time, age and accumulated injuries sapped Sue’s energy and focus. No longer able to conduct the demanding fieldwork and mental focus of plein-air painting, she sold her gallery in Charleston and retired to Baltimore to be near her son. There, while remodeling her house in Baltimore, she suffered the cruelest of her injuries: stroke.
The resulting short-term memory loss was permanent, but Sue recovered her vocabulary through great persistence, and was able to dance and hold conversation at her son’s wedding. Together they tried various care solutions, but being an object of care didn’t suit Sue. Missing Southern culture and independence, she checked out of her retirement community to spend her remaining days in the mountains she loved.
Sue passed away on March 23, 2023, walking with her loyal dachshund Juniper near home in the hills of North Carolina, having appreciated every moment that she could. When her body was discovered, Juniper was by her side, standing watch.
Sue is predeceased by her parents Thomas Oscar Vinson and Roesel Stanford Vinson, her brother Paul Vinson, and her beloved husband John Carroll Stewart Sr.
She is survived by her son John Stewart II, her brother Tom Vinson, and Juniper Underfoot-Stewart.
-John Stewart II