This is my first Critical Art Review, Sanjiv Nair, New Delhi is an absolutely amazing writer and painter. He has written the book Face of Guilt & Other stories just released this year (2018) and his Synopsis can be read at Sanjiv's talent in writing is absolutely stunning as is his paintings of tigers, More about Sanjiv Nair can be found at Sanjiv has kindly given me permission to share this with you, I know that you will enjoy his work as much as I have working with him, he explains my art incredibly well. Thank you Sanjiv for all your kindness and time, it is appreciated! Susan


O! Birds you soar so high in all stormy weathers

What strength you gather in your balmy feathers!

SUSAN WILLEMSE was born in Rhodesia and had a pet Cockatiel there. The bird remained perched on her shoulder as her family drove the immigration border to migrate to South Africa when she was ten. Here, she was greeted by Cockatoos. After completing her primary school she received training and worked at GSH Groote Schuur Hospital that was linked to the University of Cape Town. Later, she did a diploma in Cytology when it was still at the infancy stage. She trained and worked in South Africa as a Cytologist for 20 years. Then, she migrated to Canberra, Australia and spent 11 years in a private laboratory. Her job involved peering through the microscope endlessly studying cluster of human cells mostly Pap smears that is history now. Her hobby kept her professional career balanced with animals and flora and fauna around her. She gathered a contrasting experience working in these two worlds apart – she loved working in South Africa but didn’t enjoy as much in Canberra.  

Susan’s love for birds is inexplicable and she even nicknamed the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos as Bindubi and she has done a painting depicting the ‘Bindubi Babies’ relaxing in the comfort of a tree-cove. She explains,‘Bindubi is the road where I looked at this pair of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos every day as I drove past on my way to work, so they became known as the Bindubi Babies because over the 11 years it has been a delight to see them raise their young every year.’

Initially, the Cockatiels and Cockatoos weighed more on Susan’s sensibility as an artist and art that she clung on to, as a stress bursting vocation ultimately became synonymous to her life. She is now a full-time artist living in Canberra where the husband-wife duo would photograph Australian birds and animals of interest. A recent photograph of an innocent and cute looking Otter clicked by Steve is a delightful masterpiece. The photographs taken by Steve serve as important source of reference, which is converted into beautiful paintings by Susan using acrylics and airbrush on canvas. Interestingly, they’ve acquired the title as ‘bird watchers’ and it is never easy to flap your wings with the birds who are never at one place. Susan admits, ‘Painting a bird from a stock picture and photographing it in its actual surrounding is a different exercise altogether and studying its behavior is a rejuvenating exercise.’

Importantly, Susan keenly observes the birds’ activities, their eating habits, their style of livelihood and their interaction or likeness to their surroundings. For her, ‘Birds are ambassadors of freedom and they portray a feeling of heavenly bliss with their liveliness and beautiful appearance. Watching them in action rekindles my spirit with ecstasy. I feel liberated from all trials and tribulations of life. Birds are freedom to me and when I paint them on canvas – my soul feels liberated and I’m at peace in the company of birds that absorbs my painful memories and struggles.’ Presumably, the captured images on Susan’s canvas are purely an act of passion and compassion. Besides, art activity demands great sensitivity and patience from an artist who chooses a delicate subject like birds to portray with aplomb. However, Susan Willemse has been relatively at ease with her creative sensibility and her vibrant creations evidently prove her talent.  

Susan recounts her most recent and amusing experience of photographing a Satin bird. She dwells into a vivid description, ‘I’ve already photographed Mr and Mrs Satin bird. Mr Satin is a stunning purple/blue/black with bright purple eye, while Mrs Satin is tans, with olive green eye but the shape is distinct. The thing with these birds is that they love blue things in their bower nests and they like to show off so locals provide blue bottle tops for them. However, one has to be careful to make sure any rings are cut so they don’t choke them. We’ve one that visits but he is a very quiet bird. Mr Satin had three visiting ladies to inspect on him when we photographed him.’

Her description of these Bower birds is marked with great observation on their habits and the company of birds excites her. ‘Oh, the Bowerbirds, it’s when they’re alive and around that everything blue disappears to their Bower nests. They add flowers, pebbles anything pretty to attract their partners, real little builders, and decorators!’  

The species of Australian birds that has held her interest is vast on her list and she introduces some of them individually or in groups through her vibrant renderings. Viewers will find - Eastern Rosellas, Crimson Rosella, Witoogies, Red or Yellow Robin, Rural Sparrows, Thornbill, Pardalotes, Brown Falcon, Wedge-tailed Eagles, Baillon’s Crake, Starling, Spinebill, Tawny Frogmouth, Red-rumped Parakeet, King Parrots, Hope Rainbow Lorikeet, Galahs, Emu, Finches (double-barred), Grumpy Kookaburras, Blue-faced honeyeaters, Egret, SulphurCockatoos,Swans, Ducks, Pelicans,Seagulls,Cockatiels, Bindubi or Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Crested Pigeon, Magpies, Sunset Corellas, Cormorants etc. 

There is a psychological reason behind Susan’s choice to paint birds and she has gathered an amazing amount of knowledge on a variety of species of Australian birds. She wanted to celebrate her own sense of liberation that was once enveloped by inhibitions, fear, insecurity and despair, which she now matches with the freedom of the melodious ruffles created by the feathery wings of the birds. Back in Africa, she was witness to growing cases of AIDS and food shortages causing a "new variant famine," that filled her with sense of insecurity. Life was rendered dull by political and civil unrest highlighted by violence. She says, ‘In Rhodesia, you worry so much about personal security and you can't really let your guards down.’ AIDS illnesses and deaths were wrecking the economy but amidst all this Susan enjoyed her work as a cytologist.

However, Susan has put away the bad memories to rest. She feels and enjoys the aesthetic sense of duality of freedom in her spirit, which has symbolically brought an extraordinary impact on her bold and powerful artistic creations. Susan thinks like a bird, extremely alert and protective about her own surroundings –she wants to enjoy the freedom through the unfettered wings of the birds that soar high in the skies singing hymns of freedom. 

Susan’s creations are impressionistic and she uses thick acrylics, sometimes in slow patchy strokes giving a deep impasto finish to her creations, which is bold and imaginative. She uses airbrush but mostly to prop up the background in a glowing and smooth finish producing a contrasting effect to the surface underneath. The artist attempts to keep as much close to the exterior beauty of the birds. The Peacock is her latest published artwork, its head, neck and breast features captured in dense Prussian blue with occasional dabs of black and the body with greenish feathers sweeping down to the elongated tail trains. Susan says, ‘A peacock can flaunt up to 200 feathers on its tail at a time, and sheds its feathers every summer.’  

The artist has a motive to paint the imposing image of peacock as she is saddened by the detailed report appearing in the local newspapers about the removal of these beautiful birds from Canberra. Another work of interest is her rendition of the rose-breasted cockatoo also known as the galah or the galah cockatoo, the pink and gray cockatoo, the crimson-breasted cockatoo, the roseate cockatoo or the galah parrot is an ingenious work where she shows the bird in activity unlike in other works. The bird is shown drinking water and the gesture of the body is beautifully captured in thick paint. The water trickles down its beak to fall into the pool. The neck of the galah is raised upwards to gulp down the water into her throat. The image of the bird has become more striking by the reflected likeness of the rose-breasted cockatoo usually known as the galah in native Australia. The images of Magpies, the Grumpy Kookaburras, the Finches, the Gang gang girl eating Hawthorn berries, the Red and Yellow Robin, the Brown Falcon, the King parrots are interesting and delightful works of art; and bountiful to hold the visitors in awe and admiration. Susan Willemse has put the birds on flight on canvas.

-Sanjiv Nair

(Journalist/Writer/Art Critic & Author of: Purpose of Love and Face of Guilt & Other Stories)

New Delhi, India.

© Permission to publish this article has been granted to S Willemse 2018