Don't mess with a soprano  

The golden touch

Midas, the mythological Greek king who turned everything he touched into gold, has nothing on me.

I have the best job in the world. Every week, I'm showered with gifts of generosity, submerged in enlightenment by talented artists, and surrounded with priceless beauty.

Last week, I met Susan Burnham Neilson. She is an oil painter, water-colourist, artist, art educator, and lover of nature with a passion for conservation.

I was invited into her magical world of geometry, nature, and colours, and had a private tour of her paintings.

We then moved to her deck where I drank freshly brewed coffee and ate chocolate.

That sure beats a cubicle on the 19th floor working in front of a computer.

While sipping that coffee, I watched a red squirrel hopping from branch to branch.

OK, I became lunch for some mosquitoes, but that was a small price to pay for hearing Susan’s story.

She came from a family on the move. Her dad was an engineer and corporate executive, and they would move every three to four years to a new city in Canada.

She always sketched. It was the one constant during all the moves. She also liked sciences. “Physics was easy,” she said.

Her family — parents and three brothers — supported her love of art, but not for a profession.

During her last year at Lindsay Place Secondary school in Pointe Claire, Que., she found time for an art class.

“I loved that there were no right or wrong answers, so the creative possibilities were endless.”

She knew she wanted to pursue art.

She attended McMaster University in Hamilton after high school and began her lifelong pursuit of learning. The art program at McMaster was considered very classical. Her days were filled with life drawings and sculptures.

She has achieved:

  • Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts – McMaster University,
  • Post Graduate credit – Lithography and Printmaking
  • Bachelor of Education – Intermediate/Senior Art and Industrial Arts University of Toronto. She was the only woman in the program.
  • Honours Specialist Visual Arts – OISE – University of Toronto

She juggled all this learning while being married and raising two girls.

She wanted to travel, but this wasn't possible unless it was paid for by others:

  • She was a flight attendant for Ontario World Air, and visited museums in London and Greece during her layovers.
  • Kingsbrae Artists Residency 2019 — New Brunswick She painted Seeds of Change, a water colour painting with 23 separate sections
  • Offered a 2020 residency connected to Artists for Conservation -— Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute. She was slated to teach a two-day workshop on painting on alternate surfaces especially natural materials. This has been postponed because of COVID

In 1991, Susan and her family came to the Okanagan in search of a great place to live. She had fond memories of visits with her grandparents in Vernon when she was young

She began teaching at Spring Valley Secondary School and continued to teach her whole career at various schools in Kelowna. She still managed to find time in the evenings and weekends to develop her painting. Oil paint is her favourite medium with watercolour a close second.

She loves experimenting with different surfaces for her paints.

"Drawing and painting are always a big focus for me, but not always on traditional surfaces, and not always on two-dimensional surfaces."

In a corner of her studio, tucked away near the entrance to her deck, is a baby deer painted on a four-foot-high strip of bark and wood, which was a left-over from de-barking a log.

The detail is masterful; you can almost feel the fur. Yet, the paint is so translucent you can see the wood grain throughout the image of the deer. The deer and the wood become one. Captivating.

I love the way her paintings are so realistic. Her detail of animals, birds, and fencing are phenomenal.

She also incorporates geometrics — circles, squares, and grids in her works.


Nature is full of them. Look at a cosmos plant; its leaves are made up of thousands of perfectly formed grids. These geometrics create a visual link between her love of nature and science-math.

We sat on the deck, observing Woodhaven Regional Park through her chain link fence. She explained how COVID has given her the time to combine her love of science, art, and nature with giving back.

“I celebrate the subtle balance of order and disorder in nature. My work is inspired by the resilience of wild survivors and by intricate connections in ecosystems right at our doorsteps."

She has become very active in the Woodhaven Nature Conservancy, the brainchild of Lori Janice Mairs. Friends of Woodhaven Nature Conservancy is a non-profit society to protect and improve the conservancy for all of us.

Susan has also started a sketch club — Open Window Sketch Club — which is open to anyone interested in establishing connections and learning about nature stewardship.

As we talked, time slipped away without us noticing. Having the opportunity to explore art and nature with someone like Susan is what makes my job the best job in the world.

Sorry, you can’t have it. It’s all mine.

You can contact Susan at [email protected].

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


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About the Author

Sue Skinner is a singer of opera and musical theatre, a choral conductor and a teacher/coach of voice. 

She has travelled the world, learned many languages, seen every little town in Alberta and supported herself with music all her life.

She has sung at weddings, funerals, musicals, operettas, opera, with symphonies, guitars, jazz groups, rock bands and at play schools. 

Skinner has taken two choirs to Carnegie Hall, sung around the world, and teaches for Wentworth Music on Zoom.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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