Artistry Of Lancashire: Su Melville Art
Artists do tend to come from all walks of life, but you might not meet many who have been former qualified accountants. Su Menzies-Runciman decided after fourteen years in a high pressure, male-dominated environment that it was time to make a significant change.
Having dismissed her childhood dreams to become an artist (and a long-distance truck driver like Clara from Pigeon Street) in favour of accountancy, after a period of stress she returned to oil painting as a means of relaxation. She completed a picture of the Norfolk Broads and a passing neighbour was so impressed they popped a note through the door asking whether she did pet portraits.
And that was the start of her new career, realising, actually, she did still want to “colour in” for a living, as she had a child. She began by creating pet portraits on commission, before using her business experience to launch a new venture in February. In conjunction with her work to produce pet portraits in commission, Su began to offer workshops to individuals and groups looking to get into art or improve their skills, as well as providing workshops to businesses hoping to nourish their employee wellbeing through art.
Having launched Su Melville Art in February, Covid-19 and lockdown inevitably threw a spanner into the works but it has allowed Su to redesign her business model. Unable to deliver her workshops in person, despite making many of her guided workshops available online, she, like others, felt they lacked the human touch. She wanted to make her work more accessible, and that she has done with great success, by creating ‘do it yourself’ art kits. This had rendered many makers able to create a piece that lived up to the quality and values Su would want to covey through her in-person workshops, made from the comfort of home, and at a reasonable cost to the purchaser.
These kits not only contain the materials required, they can come with an instruction booklet, and access to the accompanying online tutorial.
Su’s former professional experience influences how Su perceives the value of art in the modern world. She says, “Most of us are in jobs where we don’t see the end product (accountants, lawyers and call centres are examples) and this has a detrimental effect on our wellbeing – we need a purpose and to see our efforts come to fruition.” She has witnessed absenteeism and staff attrition in businesses where employees’ contributions are unacknowledged and thinks that art breaks that destructive cycle. A finished piece of art is a tangible result of a person’s time and effort – something that can create a sense of pride. So, it makes sense to pursue art as a hobby, one in which to indulge and relax, but even more sensible for businesses to use art as a regular feature in their employee wellbeing programmes.
Once normality has resumed, Su intends to spend most of her time delivering workshops to companies. For firms to care for their employee wellbeing, she believes programmes should encompass a balance of education and practical help, inspiring creative thinking to break the deadlock of stress and anxiety. Variety in a programme is critical, as what works for one person might not work for another. She has developed Lunch & Learn workshops, which, as the name suggests, can be delivered on a lunchbreak, allowing each participant to walk away with a completed piece of work. Su intends, once workshops resume, to form partnerships with other creatives, such as knitters, singers and even cooks to diversify her offering within her Lunch & Learn experiences.
She still completes pet portraits on commission as this remains her passion. Her public exhibitions have been postponed until next year however, during lockdown, Su has been keeping busy. In June she responded to a commission offered by the Harris Museum to create items for their gift shop; her ‘do it yourself’ professional art kits were snatched up by the gallery and will be on sale in the giftshop from August. Su also developed four art kit designs with a wildlife theme exclusively for the Harris Museum. Each sale will donate £1 to the Lancashire Wildlife Trust; again on sale from August.
Meanwhile, Su will be working as a resident entrepreneur at Lancaster University where she will provide advice to students of the business management school on starting a business, turning an idea into a reality: bearing witness to the evolution of a new business. From idea to end result; it is much like creating art. Beyond this, Su also wants to help artists price their work correctly, and help more move from hobbyist to professional – making the step that so many artists fear to take.
Creating her own work remains a priority for Su. She says she has been influenced by nature all her life; she adores the colours found in natural settings, and she loves the way different art materials can represent the fur or the skin of the animals she so loves to paint. Her style is realistic, but not hyper-realistic: she enjoys “the softness you get by filling the space between realism and hyper-realism.”
She works mainly in soft pastels with a mix of pastel pencils and occasionally, for landscapes (and when she feels particularly patient!) oil paints. Fur is rendered fabulously through the use of velour paper, a material similar to velvet fabric, creating a feel of softness to the touch. For reptiles and amphibians, she will use pastlemat paper, which is smooth, but “has teeth” – allowing her to build up the layers.
Su grew up in the Lake District, a natural home to creatives from Ruskin to Beatrix Potter -a woman she admires for her devotion to nature and her wonderful ability to recreate all she observed. She loves the beautiful, delicate and fragile paintings of Whistler, the movement in Degas’s dancers and in the modern world: she has taken advice from contemporaries: whether it was the constant recommendation to “loosen up” from the late Chris Benefield, to the knowledge of velour paper provided by Vic Bearcroft. She has also been influenced by the realism of Bonny Snowden’s pencil drawings, and the use of Unison pastels by Emma Colbert.
So far, Su’s experience of art in Lancashire has been limited to the Harris Museum, and Cedar Farms, which has a great little gallery. However, she knows there is so much more to discover, from local groups to local framers – she is ready to get out and discover once lockdown is truly over.
You can sign up to Su’s newsletter via her website to learn when her workshops will recommence, and public exhibitions, as said, should resume in 2021. For now, however, you can find Su online here:
Her Art Kits are available in the Harris Museum gift shop from 8th August 2020.