Biography

Childhood & student years (1951–1961)

Born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1941, Susan Dorothea White grew up in the outback mining city, Broken Hill. She was encouraged to develop artistic skills by parents and relatives with a keen interest in the visual arts. Susan's grandfather, a competent water-colourist, collected her paintings [Puppy (for Grandpa) c1951] and kept her supplied with modelling clay. When the family was on annual holidays in Adelaide, her aunty took Susan to the Art Gallery of South Australia. When Susan’s father gave her a set of woodcarving tools for her tenth birthday she carved Horse's Head (for Grandpa) 1951.

Susan commenced boarding school in Adelaide in 1954, aged 12. She took art and music as extracurricular subjects, and became a piano accompanist at the school. Her art teacher was Margaret Walloscheck, who had been a highly regarded teacher at the South Australian School of Arts (she taught Ivor Hele when he was a “lad in short pants”). At age 15 Susan decided on a career in art over music. During school vacations she returned home where she painted the outback landscape she had grown to love. Her parents would drive her to the desert with her art equipment and a flagon of ice, leaving her there for the day to paint and draw. At age 16, Susan’s painting [Creek Bed 1958] was commended by judge Dr Ursula Hoff in the adult section of the 1958 Broken Hill Art Exhibition and she received her first landscape commission [The Creek Gum (Umberumberka Creek) 1958] for which she was paid five guineas.

While still at boarding school, Susan was taught by the artist James Cant in Saturday classes at the SA School of Art. An exhibition of large watercolours of the outback by Albert Namatjira made an impression on her at the time. She gained the Leaving Certificate in 1958 and was awarded the John Lewis Prize and Medal for coming first in the state in Geography. Ironically Art was the only subject she failed – in order to pass the exam she had to resit the Object Drawing section because she had submitted a messy drawing when neat lines were required (she had rubbed a hole in the page with her finger since erasers were forbidden).

In 1959 at age 17 Susan commenced full-time fine-art studies at the South Australian School of Art (SASA) in Adelaide. Among her teachers were artists Dora Chapman, James Cant, and Jacqueline Hick. Students were encouraged to sketch in the streets and parklands around Adelaide [Trolleybus and workmen, Hindley Street, Adelaide 1959] and to this day she has kept up the practice of sketching on the spot. She also attended additional evening classes in sculpture and life drawing. During term Susan boarded at the Girls' Friendly Society Lodge where she sketched fellow residents [Asleep in Dormitory, GFS Lodge 1959] and staff [Marg the Cook at the GFS Lodge, Adelaide 1960]. On weekends she sometimes cycled to the Adelaide Hills or to Port Adelaide with her watercolour gear, e.g., Off-loading Port Adelaide 1959.

Susan was awarded both the Fine Art and Drawing prizes for her year at SASA in 1959. Her outback painting Sunlight on Quartz Rocks, Approaching Storm 1959was exhibited in Painters and Sculptors of Promise (Adelaide) reviewed by Elizabeth Young. She was influenced by the work and letters of Van Gogh [Market Gardeners, Approaching Storm, Adelaide Plains 1960] and by Daumier [Student Writing: Dickensian Conditions at the Girls Friendly Society Lodge, Adelaide 1960]. While studying in Adelaide, she often visited her aunt and uncle at Burnside; her Uncle Ted became a favourite portrait subject, appearing in her drawings and paintings for the next 20 years.

Susan’s passion for lithography was ignited at SASA's newly established Printmaking Department in 1960 under Udo Sellbach. The National Gallery of Australia later purchased Thieves at the Market 1960, one of the few surviving lithographs from this period. At the inaugural Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960, she was inspired by major exhibitions: Paintings by J.M.W. Turner (from The Tate Gallery), The Art of Mexico (with work by Diego Rivera), Twentieth Century Painting, Sculpture by Contemporary Masters, Aboriginal Bark Paintings and Carvings, and The Art of William Dobell.

In 1960 the new craze for abstract art transformed the curriculum at the South Australian School of Art. Traditional drawing and painting were swept aside and plaster casts of Greek and Renaissance sculptures were destroyed to make way for Abstract introspection, which was foreign to Susan's sensibility. She was drawn to nature and the everyday world and valued drawing skills. This led her to transfer to Sydney in mid-1960 to study full-time at the Julian Ashton Art School under Henry Gibbons, where she could continue to develop her skills in drawing and painting: Black Velvet 1961,Still Life 1960. She attended evening classes at The National Art School in sculpture under Lyndon Dadswell, as well as additional drawing classes, and was able to access the library's extensive collection of art books. Susan resided at the YWCA Hostel, Kirribilli. She sketched the girls at the hostel [Girl at YWCA Hostel 1961], and staff and students at the Julian Ashton art school: Henry Gibbons, Principal, Julian Ashton Art School 1960, Peter Creet, Julian Ashton Art School 1961

Susan continued to paint the desert when she returned home to Broken Hill for vacation. She made watercolour sketches of the aboriginal children who came to try out her paints. Between 1959 and 1962 she was awarded prizes in the annual Broken Hill art exhibitions. In the 1960 exhibition judged by Leonard French, she was awarded a prize for her large oil Rock Shelter (1959) painted when she was 18. Unfortunately this painting was maliciously destroyed a few years later. In the holidays she painted her father [Dad Working at Kitchen Table 1961] and younger brother [Brother Bill Reading 1961] and took on more portrait commissions [H L (Les) Cotton 1961]. Susan was a founding member of the Willyama Arts Society with fellow artists Kevin (Pro) Hart, Sammy Byrne and May Harding. She participated in the society's exhibitions and was awarded the Willyama Prize for her watercolour Hilltop Houses 1961. Her work was selected for the 1962 Airlines of SA touring exhibition Broken Hill Art Safari, where she showed alongside established artists from the Royal SA Society of Arts and the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia. 

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» Childhood, student years (1951–1961)
» Early career (1962–1975)
» Mid-career to international (1976–1987)
» Mature years, international (1988–present)