Aging artfully

Friday, April 1, 2005

Cape Girardeau artist Sue Burton Cole doesn't like age-based stereotypes.

"People expect people of a certain age to be a certain way," said the 82-year-old Cole. "I don't think, act or paint like an elderly person. Someone once told me, 'You look like an elderly person but you paint like a teenager.'"

Cole is lively and talkative, and as her watercolors hanging in the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri's Chapman Gallery attest, still a very productive artist. Most of the 17 pieces she has there were painted within the last two years, and most of her work as an artist has been done in the last 15 years.

Cole's love of art has been with her since she was just a child in Lee's Summit, Mo., where her mother would take her to the Nelson-Adkins Museum and encouraged her to pursue her love of art.

Since that time she's lived in a variety of places: from Kansas to Alexandria, Va. -- where she studied art at American University -- to Florida to Fort Worth, Texas, to Jackson, Miss., where she first began using watercolors after working with acrylics and oils. Changing locations became routine as her late husband got jobs in different cities. Moving around immersed her in cultural experiences she wouldn't necessarily have seen in Southeast Missouri, she said.

Cole also visited postwar Germany, seeing the devastation and the leftovers of the brutal Nazi concentration camps.

"All those experiences do something to you," Cole said. "You don't just remain static. I lived in so many places and moved so frequently that I don't really actually have a home. But I wouldn't have traded anything."

The artist has only painted off and on through her many years, sometimes going in spells of 15 years without touching a brush. But between brush strokes, her life experiences have shaped her as a person and an artist.

Cole's painting has picked up in the last two years, mainly in preparation for this show, she said.

Her work is diverse. But the latest run is mostly brightly colored landscapes that aren't simply mirror images of life, but images of how she takes nature and filters it through her mind's eye.

Three of Cole's watercolors featured at the Chapman Gallery -- "Autumn Wish," "Autumn Glory" and "Autumn Splendor" -- take the oranges, yellows and reds of dying fall leaves and mix them with yellow skies and shades of blue, yellow and pink on the ground. They create an image like a hazy dream or recollection of autumns past.

"I love her colors," said Arts Council director Rebecca Fulgham. "Her colors are just extraordinary. She combines them in a very unusual fashion."

Assistant director Margaret Dement said Cole is an inspiration both in her artistic prowess with color and with her productivity and perseverance.

"Instead of slowing down, she's speeding up. Art is ageless, and Sue Burton Cole proves that," Dement said.

Cole also paints abstracts, some using strange methods, such as blending detergent with paint in one piece to make a grid pattern of blue on blue. However, unlike many artists, she said she doesn't paint as a form of self-expression.

"When people say they paint to express themselves ... that's just stupid," Cole said. "I paint because I like to paint. I'm happier when I'm painting."

Nor is painting something that comes easy.

"Painting is hard work. You don't just stand there and put color on a brush and put it on paper. You have to be thinking. When you stop thinking, it's not good."

Cole's watercolors can be viewed at the Chapman Gallery throughout April, starting with a First Friday reception today from 5 to 8 p.m.

335-6611, extension 182

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