Our Art Matriarch, Sue Hoya Sellars
Sue Hoya Sellars is, was, and will always be our Art Matriarch. She inspired us to commit art, taught us how to paint the cosmos, drank Racer 5 beer like it was water, chopped wood until she died, and was the most awesomely fierce artist we know.
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A legendary woman has left this earth, although her lineage continues through those who had the privilege of studying with her both on her land, and at the canvas. Sue Hoya Sellars has “accelerated into the future” as she so aptly referred to the aging process.
Sue Hoya Sellars
Master Painter and Teacher
April 20, 1936 – September 29, 2014
Sue encouraged everyone she knew to ‘commit art’. She told it like it is while never missing a beat, say most of the people who knew homesteader and artist Sue Hoya Sellars. With a groundbreaking futuristic, classical and anthropological approach to art, the work of Sue Hoya Sellars is the work of an American Master. Sue filled any room she entered with intellect, authentic eccentricity, unforgiving wit, humor and a fierce stand on the protection of women and girls.
Born on April 20, 1936, in Prince George’s County, Sue grew up working the cotton and tobacco fields in Accoceek, Maryland. During those times of her youth stubborn dreams and a pointed vision toward the future stayed firmly attached to her creativity, personal expression and her great wonder and connection to the natural world.
Sue began drawing at the early age of four, “to keep her occupied,” as her older sister Eva was given the job of babysitting. Eva would have Sue draw and redraw the same thing with a pencil about two inches long. So began the legacy of learning to see, to really ‘see’ that Sue was famous for in her circle of influence and to take her time.
“As a teenager, I made myself think about painting and drawing from nature all the time. I made myself do it. I made myself think about that instead of going out and partying or getting a new pair of blue jeans. What I knew was I was studying to be an artist.”
As a young girl she heard about an artist who lived in a town 7 miles away and she began to work towards building a “body of work” so she could show this artist her intent – to study art. It took her two years to get her portfolio ready and to pay off a bicycle and ride it those 7 miles to ask if she could study with her.
Her rare talent was immediately recognized and she became an apprentice to the famous artist, poet and sculptor Lenore Thomas Straus. It was in 1937, only one year after Sue’s birth, that Straus worked for the U.S. Office of President Roosevelt through the President’s famous New Deal art program. Called the WPA (Works Progress Administration) program for the arts that brought art to public spaces throughout the U.S., it was a time that gave American artists much needed recognition as well as money for their artwork.
Fifteen years following the push for the WPA, Straus officially became Sue’s legal guardian as she mentored and had her trained in sculpting, painting, writing, and clay work, as well as in poetry and zen sumie ink technique and found other artists for Sue to study with to expand her talent. An upcoming exhibit in at the Greenbelt Museum is planned for 2015.
“She got on the phone and called local artists that had clout, and set me up with a painter who gave painting lessons in exchange for babysitting, drawing lessons in exchange for doing yard work and sculpting lessons with her in exchange for babysitting”
In 1955, Lenore organized an official position for Sue Sellars where at the age nineteen, she became the youngest person to hold the position of head illustrator for the George Vanderbilt Foundation at Stanford University. And Sue made the journey from Maryland to the Bay Area.
She began a career in art, during a time when most women in the arts who dedicated their life completely to their own artwork were very scarce throughout the United States. Her diverse interest in the arts and sciences brought her many powerful opportunities to share her work and her vision. Sue studied biological illustrating with Jan Roemhild, attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC and the San Francisco Art Institute under the instruction with Wayne Thiebaud. She studied anatomy at the San Francisco School of Physicians and Surgeons while illustrating with Dr. Forbes and biological engineer, Hugh Hinchcliff. She was an illustrator for Janet Bollow and Associates for three decades, illustrating college text books covering Anthropology, Biology, Geology, Psychology, and Sociology. She attended the School of Electronic Art in San Francisco.
March, 1958, Vol. 13 Issue 5, p38
Her work has caused ‘stir in the West’… One of Sue’s early paintings, during the Beat period in North Beach recently turned up in Norway as part of a Beat Art Collection at a University, originally owned by Reidar Wennesland. Sue’s painting was part of his collection including Michael Bowen, Arthur Monroe, Jay deFeo. Notes for this painting are in her notebook for this period and was connected with her friend, the legendary dancer, Zack Thompson, called “Frisco’s Joyous Dance Master” by Ebony Magazine in a 1958 article.
Sue Hoya Sellars was part of America’s explosion for independence in the feminist movement of the 1970s. It was a time when she began to open to the great adventures of the world as she witnessed and participated in the beginning of the California revolution through women’s rights, feminism and the legions of activists that began to ‘wake up’ to what needed to happen in the lives of women and their families. Those were the years she lived bringing the issues of inequality and the needs for ‘woman-only power’ to the attention of the women’s community.
For years she was referred to as the “The Separatist”, both fondly and through the criticism of her peers. She worked to define spaces that were only created by women. Hence, her call to work the land with the hands of women from the building of structures to the chopping of wood to the raising and slaughtering of livestock. For her, everything was a part of the creative process – Sue could often be found having tea with the goats with her notebook in hand. She found joy through the eyes of the artist even in the hardest of times.
“My Separatist is gentler now in her sharing than she was years ago, but she was fierce back then for a good reason. When I was 5-years-old our family was part of the first group of pioneering women that started Women Against Rape of Sonoma County, now known as Verity, in 1974. As part of the group my family would open their homes to those women who were suffering from violence. Later in 1975, the YWCA Sonoma County was founded by a group of local women who volunteered their own homes as an underground network of safe houses. Two years later the YWCA Sonoma County opened the YWCA Safe House, which housed the first 15 domestic violence shelters in the United States. It was a time of empowerment when women were being encouraged to press legal charges when they were violated.” Excerpted from WNN Article by Shiloh Sophia McCloud
She invited, and at times schooled, her community to redefine thinking, language and images of women and family through art and history. Her move to the Anderson Valley in 1975 was a chance to put her vision into action through co-creating sanctuary and ‘safe space’ for women as well as the building an art studio to produce work for sale and teach others. Here members of the women’s community were harbored and protected – Sue would have them chop wood and carry water – and milk the goats. Working hard, and working your body was a part of Sue’s teaching for women to find their footing in a dangerous world.
When asked about her stand regarding woman only spaces, she said:
“no one is standing here, so I am going to, someone has to stand here regarding women – lots of others are standing in other places, I will stand here.”
Expanding the freedom that came with the women’s liberation movement in California, Sue’s professional work in illustration made its mark and could be seen throughout the country in academic and biological publications like McGraw Hill publishing, among others. One of her many accomplishments was illustrating a book by Rita Mae Brown, A Plain Brown Wrapper in 1976. Bringing image to the political climate brought Sue’s work into the forefront – if we were going to redefine women, image had to be a part of that movement.
Sue was a part of creating Gaia Wood Studio, producing illustrations and Object D’art in porcelain and stoneware. Her work was handled by a number of galleries throughout the country, and has been showing with Color of Woman and Wisdom House Gallery since 1999. Sue defined her inspiration in terms of questions. She said:
After illustrating biological structures for over 45 years, my questions shifted from: “What does life do in these structures…to how did life get into these structures?”, and “Who is this consciousness that lives in here? Who is it that is even doing this wondering?”
Skilled in all mediums of working the land, and in art, she was a frontier woman in another surprising way. In the computer era of the 1990s, Sue brought her brilliant and mind expanding work into the digital world as a demonstrated innovator with the use of a Macintosh computer in ‘fine art painting’ through MacWorld expositions in San Francisco and the new online dictionary called C-Bold. Printing some of the first large-scale fine art giclées in the world from her mountaintop studio in Anderson Valley California, Sue knew that the power of digital image was here to stay. She later began showing and selling her digital artwork to the public in Sonoma, San Francisco and Mendocino. You can see Sue’s fine art and digital prints at www.suehoyastudios.com – and even purchase prints of her creations which will continue to be updated throughout 2015.
Sue’s visionary activism remained an integral part of her work and art, advocacy for women suffering from domestic violence, as well as her concern for the safety of children who had been abused, also stayed with her for her entire lifetime. Her final series of paintings included abused children riding on horseback to safety.
In her 30s, with a diverse family focused strongly on creative arts, including poetry, painting, clay work, and working the land, the girls Sue so lovingly co-parented with Caron McCloud, and Janet Seaforth were pivotal in her life. She taught them to create with intention as young girls and in the Fall of 2014 was teaching Bridget’s daughter, Maia McBride to illustrated.
In 2000 Bridget and Shiloh asked Sue to begin teaching art at their schools. Both girls founded schools that they operate today – Bridget with a focus on Montessori based education in Mendocino and Humboldt County and Shiloh with an International Online school and classroom in Sonoma County serving 300-500 women per month. The girls took the wisdom they gathered from Sue and their creative mothers and firmly rooted it into the curriculum they were teaching.
Sue’s next evolution as an Artist was to become the Art Matriarch for a woman and girl owned tribe, gallery and school, Cosmic Cowgirls, where her art proudly hangs today.
The lineage that began with Sue’s mentorship by Lenore Thomas Straus continues through Shiloh Sophia McCloud with whom she has worked on a weekly basis for close to 15 years, but has co-parented since birth. Together they co-founded the Intentional Creativity Movement reaching over 100,000 people over the past 20 years, based in the root of Sue’s teaching, which she learned from Lenore. Tools, idea, philosophy passed down from generation to generation.
In Lenore’s writings she refers to a pivotal concept employed in the Intentional Creativity Movement: “What ancient knowing lives within these hands?” That the artist comes with her own information and by creating, releases it into the stone or canvas or art medium. And here how she indicates that the art also informs the artist – it is a mutual relationship and collaboration: “again and again the hands are formed that carve a stone.”
It was essential for Sue that her art mentor was acknowledged as a part of the gift she was passing on to her family and students. And so we continue that acknowledgment in the way of the Masters – to show were we have come from and where we are going. When asked what would she like Lenore to know after she passed – Sue was heard to say: I just want her to know I am doing the work.
Living on her land since the 1970s, Sue was as powerful in 2014 at the age of 78 as she was in her younger days. When she wasn’t at her easel on the mountaintop, she was still chain-sawing a fallen trees on her property and helping neighbors slaughter animals for food. Just this summer she was also teaching her approach to art in Paris and got to realize a life long dream of visiting the Mona Lisa.
Teaching that it’s important to “commit art”, some of Sue’s luckiest and accomplished students learned one-on-one from her in her northern California home. Named ‘Terra Sophia’, Sue’s land of rolling hills, and beautiful redwood trees and oaks helped art students gain an appreciation of ‘being on the land’ of deep listening, watching, seeing and integrating art with every aspect of life. Along with this came her sharing of quantum physics, human understanding and biology; and the importance of the work of opening the heart ever wider to compassion and love.
Sue taught us how to see, to truly see with the eyes of the artist. And to honor the gift of being incarnate in a physical body. She taught us how we were ‘sacks of cooling stardust’ with a choice of how to use our precious energy. She told us the best way to use what we had was through expressing it in art, with an intention to heal. And we listened, and were transformed. ~
Sue truly believed in the power of art to heal and was featured at the United Nations in 2013 as a part of an exhibit demonstrating how art could serve women post-trauma.
Following a workshop with twenty women at Cosmic Cowgirls, on September 12, 2014, Sue went into a Sutter Hospital in Santa Rosa, for what she thought was recurring back pain. It was time, as she had been suffering with this recurring pain for some time and finally agreed, after much cajoling from friends, to go to see what the trouble might be. She was immediately scheduled a few days later (on September 18) for triple heart bypass surgery.
Her biological family history showed that the majority of her family members had died from a similar challenge with the heart. In spite of her desire to live, and get the wood in before the rains, and finish those paintings… Sue never awoke. The complications were neither identified as a stroke, or a heart attack, so her journey remains a mystery in the minds of hearts of those who loved her. Most of her community believes she escaped her physical form and returned to the cosmos she loves so much to paint. The number of dreams and visions connected with Sue since her surgery and ‘in between worlds’ time is beyond counting. It seems she continues to guide the hand of the students she so loved to teach. Sue brought the cosmos into all that she created:
“Whether I am doing studies of deer in my meadow or painting an angel moving between dimensions,there is always a glimmer of the cosmos showing through their bodies and parts of the landscape. My work has one primary concept: exploring the formation of our bodies from the cooling of gaseous material originating from the beginning of the universe.
When it was clear that Sue was not going to re-emerge into this world, on September 25 Sue’s extended family helped her leave the tubes and machines of the hospital behind so she could return back home to transition on her treasured land in Anderson Valley. It made sense for her to return home to the land she had loved and tended for over 40 years. Five days later on September 29 Sue passed away peacefully with the ‘daughter of-her-heart’ Shiloh Sophia McCloud Lewis and her new son-in-law Jonathan Lewis by her side. Thankfully for those who know Sue, Jonathan was a “pre-approved” guest of the land and she had already begun to show him the ‘systems’ of country life at Terra Sophia.
In the last years of her life, were some of her happiest and most prolific times, as Sue was thrilled with the aging process. She said recently before she passed away that it was one of the best times of her life and encouraged everyone to look forward to the aging process. You can see a video of Sue talking about the creative process here:
There is no doubt she was not afraid to pass over to the ‘other side’, finding a very comfortable bond with those other worlds. But it is also clear that her desire was to live here as long as she could. Right before surgery she was talking about the next video class she wanted to teach, using a Hero camera strapped to her forehead so students could see what was happening at the end of her brush. She was always illustrating for us and in her paintings how we occupy this form, this vessel, as she says:
I am in agreement with the premise that shape is dictated by content. How we live in these bodies that is made from atoms that are older than the planet that we live on, has been an obsession of mine for some time. This obsession has compelled me to look into diverse materials…metaphysical, scientific, spiritual and how they’re all talking about the same thing.
Plans to continue to teach art on Terra Sophia are now in process with classes scheduled in the Spring. Sue’s family will be living at Terra Sophia and stewarding the sanctuary in collaboration with Sue’s community. In decades to come it is certain that Sue’s legacy of art wisdom and life will continue to expand and bless. At this time, no original works are being sold from the estate, there is a collection of about 15 fine art pieces housed at the gallery in Healdsburg and there are collectors worldwide.
In our community we say often share the legend that says: Those who are supposes to meet are connected by a red thread since before birth, that it may stretch or tangle but it will never break. Sue, we are connected to you by a red thread that goes on forever.
Sue believed in choosing to see such beauty in the world – and invited all who knew her to participate in that beauty. She showed you what you did not see and asked you to listen for what you did not hear just moments before. Each day at ‘cafe’ she would sit with her notebook and contemplate the mysteries of the cosmos in gratitude. This was her daily ritual for most of her life.
My precious Sue, we are doing the work. We know where to find you. In that Milky Way… you are always there/here. We can never ever thank you enough for what you brought to us and through us. You showed us how to find ourselves, and our own beauty and significance in the great mystery of this life. We are changed, because you taught us how to change ourselves through intentionally creating. You saw us, and we, see you. With mindfulness and love, we place brush to canvas, carving tool to stone, pen to notebook, foot onto the creative path. You showed us where to look. You are everywhere now. On behalf of the community we created together, I bow in humble gratitude for your mentorship and for creating a conscious lineage of art. Yes, a movement has begun that has changed the way women see themselves, and we shall never go back to the way we were before.
I know you know – that over these past 4 weeks since you entered into this dance that would be the last one….hundreds of women are creating art in your honor. This is the image I gave you when you went into surgery – that we were creating with you – connecting with our hearts as you connected with yours.
On behalf of myself, your lifelong student, and the daughter of your heart, you defined the universe for me and now the quantum field that once defined my ‘cosmic address’ has been altered. I don’t know where I end and begin since you showed me that in color, stroke, star and stand. But, I know what you would tell me to do… you would tell me to take it to the canvas, to talk to you there, and so I am. I am committing art and your love lives on in me. Show me. Show me the way to awe. ~ Shiloh Sophia
In her own words…
“Be prepared to hear and see things you never thought possible. Don’t be afraid of being overtaken by awe.”
This tribute was co-created by Shiloh Sophia McCloud with the writing and editing support of Lys Anzia and the support of Mary MacDonald and Annette Wagner.
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Sue Hoya Sellars C/O Shiloh McCloud
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“What ancient knowing lives within these hands?
What cells constructed from what decay?
What meandering, directionless transformations of the elements, from dust to air to linked bodies locked in love, breath-mingled, as the moist fluid creates, unknowing, the knowing hands that carve this stone?
The stone that lives when body dies again.
This passionate stone that with cold hunger consumes the carver.
In this union there is no rest.
No more completion than in that endless effort to touch another spirit within its complex cellular enclosure and blend two beings fully.
It cannot be.
Each is alone.
But again and again the hands are formed that carve a stone.”
Lenore Thomas Straus
This was the reading, said as a prayer, being spoken to Sue at the moment she took her last peaceful breaths before her own glimpse into the ultimate portal.