The Hinterland is known for attracting artists, and art-lovers, with many mediums on display through our Gallery Trail. But sometimes, it is through word-of-mouth that you find an artist whose work is distinct and unique. Victoria McGuin recently found one such creative soul, her name is Sue Neale and she likes feathers…
By Victoria McGuin
I had heard the words ‘Sue Neale’ and ‘feather art’ in various conversations with local Montville and Maleny folk, and finally, a few weeks ago, I managed to pay her a visit.
Sue and her husband, John, live along Balmoral Road – that picturesque stretch between Montville and Maleny – their home ‘The Shute’ sits within a garden which is a work of art in itself.
I take in sweeping views across green hills to the cerulean blue ocean. The wind plays with the agapanthus and westringia, and the land is framed with jacaranda, tipuana and frangipani trees.
“We had to cut out some of the umbrella trees planted across the view, but the lorikeets still love to come and make a lot of noise in the remaining few, right by our window!”
There are inviting pathways weaving through sculpted hedgerows; grevilleas, banksia and bottlebrushes fringe the edges, and under the gordonia tree by the house is a space to sit and contemplate, reminiscent of an Italian garden.
Curios and objects of faded beauty pepper the landscape: a weathered chandelier hangs from a branch, a mirror ball sits snug by a curve in the lawn, coloured lights are strung across a pergola, eye-catching jewellery adorns plants, and striking mosaics surprise.
Sue herself is elegant, gracious and eloquent, with a great sense of humour and a belief in living life in the most vibrant way possible. She immediately plonks a steaming pot of coffee, scones and jam on the table as we sit down.
The Shute is welcoming and eclectic, full of comfy sofas, shelves crammed with books, and walls covered in various-sized frames of paintings and sketches – some by known artists, some by family and friends.
There are also vertical Perspex boxes on display, with striking feathers or intricate nests captured for eternity inside.
“We moved here in 2003 and slowly did this place up,” Sue explains. “I had kidney disease, and in 2015 I was quite ill. It was very dreary.
“Two things came together at that time. I’d always made Perspex boxes, after completing a course in Brisbane 20 years ago, and I had a collection of emu feathers a friend had given me many years before.
“I decided to put the feathers in boxes, and then people started saying, ‘Can you make one for me?’ I began collecting feathers in earnest, as I had always loved them. The colours and detail are wonderful.”
Sue shows me a Perspex-box, with a row of woompoo feathers inside: purple and green with yellow dots. “It doesn’t look real, does it? Sometimes you can hardly believe these feathers are natural.” Sue says.
The repetition of a feather in rows, circles, waves and spirals add to the impact in her work, which celebrates the beauty of the birds.
Sue hands me another framed creation, “This is the dollar bird’s feathers, you find them in far North Queensland. They were given that name in the 1860s, because when they flew the spots on their wings looked like the American dollar coin.”
I am soon examining feathers from galas, macaws, guinea fowl, pheasant cuckoos and wedge-tail eagles. “People give and send me feathers, or I find them. I have been known to see a dead bird on the road, jump out and pull a few feathers off!
“Not many people get a close-up view of these birds, and don’t realise how beautiful their feathers are until they see something like this.”
In June 2015, Sue’s health was seriously deteriorating. “Kidney disease runs in my family, and I knew I could never be a person on dialysis for the rest of my life. I visited three different specialists until I found one who understood that I would not live that way and needed an alternative.”
Sue’s husband, John, donated a kidney and she hasn’t looked back. “I was determined. I wasn’t going to shuffle around in my slippers. The staff at the hospital found it extraordinary, but I wanted to be a positive example for people considering kidney transplants. Walk tall!”
Sue’s friends were now encouraging her to promote her art, “but I’m hopeless at self-promotion!” she admits.
“I have a had a few exhibitions so far, one in a coffee shop in Buderim, one at Goondiwindi Arts Centre last October, one in Maryborough, and when my daughter cleared out her home in Brisbane she turned the whole ground floor into a gallery for me to exhibit.”
Sue believes she is considered more ‘craft’ than art, although many who see her work disagree.
“It is fiddly work. I use a liquid weld to put the boxes together, and if you have one drip you spend a lot of time cleaning up, you must be very patient.
“Then there are the feathers…they need delicate gluing and occasional trimming, and they can curl up so easily. It is best to create simple designs, so you don’t need to fiddle, although sometimes I turn feathers into other images, like butterflies and hearts.”
Sue admits she would like to have another exhibition. “It’s such a buzz setting it up. The risk is terrifying, but I love working towards something. I’m just not very organised!”
Will we see ‘Art with Feathers’ sometime soon on the Gallery Trail? Time will tell. In the meantime, Sue continues to create one-off pieces for clients in New York, the USA, the UK, Dubai and Europe, along with regular orders within Australia.
And when she is not busy with her birds, Sue tends to that magical garden – another feather in her artistic cap.
Visit www.suenealedesigns.com to see more of Sue’s work or order a custom-made piece