Spotlight On: Sue Clayton, a Local Portrait Artist With a Vibrant Colour Palette and a Social Purpose

by Jared Smith
Published: Last Updated on

Sue Clayton has always been interested in art. But it wasn’t until her mid-40s that she took the leap to become a full-time artist. Many of her recent projects—most notably Downright Marvellous and Heroes of York—intend to celebrate individuality and diversity and to recognise the City of York’s “great and good.”

Earlier this year, Sue immortalised the NHS Vaccination Centre at Askham Bar, York, in watercolour. Titled Tent of Hope, the work is on this edition’s cover.

Call of the Canvas

After leaving school at the age of 16, Sue trained as a chemist dispenser. It was not long, however, until she felt the call of the canvas: she began taking life drawing classes under the tutorage of the “phenomenal” York artist Patrick Smith, who, as it happens, taught art where Sue teaches art now: Wigginton’s old Victorian schoolhouse.

Sue’s artistic efforts were recreational for a time. But then, in her mid-40s, she was prompted by her son James to make a dramatic career change, to become a full-time artist. Now aged 19, James, who has Down Syndrome, would ask Sue what she wanted to be growing up, and she would answer, quite invariably, “I wanted to be an artist.”

Asked what she loves about art, Sue commented on its accessibility. She said: “We can all mark make [create different patterns, lines, textures, and shapes] in one way or another, and there is such a beauty and uniqueness in that.

“Art has the power to make us happy, sad, curious—even angry. It can inform and tell a story; it can distract and absorb us in equal measures.”

Celebrating Individuality

Sue has a particular interest in portraiture; and her works aim to represent, recognise, and celebrate individuals often “unseen” by society—something that becomes evident by surveying her work. On the appeal of the portrait, she wrote: “Every single aspect [ … ] reveals the personality and character of every individual person”.

Clearly inspired by her son, much of Sue’s work focuses on individuals with Down Syndrome. Step by Step—portrait by portrait—she is raising awareness the condition and challenging misconceptions that people may have.

She told us: “Whether I’m painting a drag queen, an award-winning photographer, a Special Olympian, or my own son, let me tell a story.”

In her 2015 exhibition, Downright Marvellous, Sue depicted children with Down Syndrome. But she has since shifted her focus elsewhere—to what she regards as the “unrepresented and significant” social presence of adults with the condition.

In 2018, Sue embarked on an ambitious project, titled Heroes of York, to paint six of the City of York’s “great and good”—six “unsung heroes”. According to Sue, the genesis of the idea was the floods in York on Boxing Day 2017. She explained: “It made me think about all those unsung heroes of York, of which there are so many.”

Sue met the chosen “heroes” in person to attain “an insight into their personalities and characters.”

The portraits were on display at a number of exhibitions. But they have now been donated to the heores themselves. “[It was] my way of saying thank you,” Sue told us.

One Hundred Fans

A casual chat in York Museum Gardens with Michael Miles, editor of Y Front Fanzine—a magazine by fans of York City F.C. for fans of York City F.C.—led to Sue’s latest project: to paint one hundred fans of the club to celebrate its centenary in 2022.

She said: “He was talking about the club with so much passion; then he told me about the centenary, and I knew that I had to do something.”

According to Sue, the collection of 30cm2 portraits, which will be displayed for the first time on 4 June 2022 in Cliffe, Selby, will use a diverse range of materials and techniques—“I’m letting each face dictate how I will capture it, what story it will tell.”

Some of Sue’s paintings in the York City Football Club One Hundred Fans Portrait Project.

The portraits will be displayed alongside the “exquisite” work of local photographer Tony Cole.

Yet to tally one hundred portraits, Sue is looking for fans, young and old, to feature in the project. If you are a York City fan interested in having your portrait painted, get in touch (visit Sue is also looking to receive old photos of the club.

A range of Sue’s recent work is available to purchase on her website. In addition, Nimbuscare are selling cards and prints of Sue’s Tent of Hope, with all proceeds being donated to charity.

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