About Susan Wallace Barnes®

Susan Wallace Barnes credits the beginning of her story as an artist to the special people in her life — her grandparents, parents, and teachers. From a very young age, she lived in an immersion of art, nature, and music that formed not only her artistic soul but also her life's purpose: conservation of our oceans and the delicate life struggling in those endangered seas.

A Sense of Wonder

Experiences with her grandfathers were especially important to Sue. One grandfather, whom she calls the "first docent," because he knew so much about Point Lobos, bathed her early life in long ocean walks during which he talked about birds, gardens, and ecology. She remembers tidepooling with him at Carmel Point, carefully pulling creatures one by one from shallow pools and then putting them back, being told to never take anything living from the ocean. Once home her grandfather plopped down a piece of paper and told her to draw what she saw.

As a child Sue was encouraged to pay attention to everything! Even during drives from California's Central Valley to Carmel, she was tasked with naming the plants growing in the fields and noting whether the route took them through Hollister or Watsonville. Her grandfather introduced her to the works of Rachel Carson and shared with her his concerns for the early signs that pelicans were disappearing. This strong sense of curiosity, paying attention, and conservation have remained lifelong constants in her work. "Every day my grandfather would ask me if I'd seen a whale spout. And I've followed those whales all over the world, drawing them and trying to help protect them."

Try Everything!

Sue remembers her parents telling her, "Just try it." Then they would do their best to make things accessible to her. She remembers during grammar school her father cut off the handle of an adult tennis racquet so that she could hit a ball against the wall. And she doesn't remember being overly cautioned when she explored and prodded the natural world.

This support extended to Sue's art teachers. "They always gave me extra artwork to do, and I never got in trouble for doodling." The only thing I did get in trouble for was dancing down the street wearing my tap shoes, because the concrete wore the metal down. My dad drove up slowly next to me one day while I was happily tapping down the road and waited while I sat down and changed my shoes. After he drove off, I put them back on and danced the rest of the way to class."

After graduating from high school in 1957, Sue attended University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studied art and discovered surfing, California missions, and more whales. After a year, she decided to attend the Art Academy in San Francisco, where she studied with more fabulous teachers, worked with graphic designer Marget Larsen, and surfed at Stinson Beach. At that time art agencies weren't hiring women, so Sue decided to go back to school at the University of Pacific and then the University of Hawaii.

Notebooks and Travel

Asked where the subjects for her artwork come from, Sue has only to look back at her early training in perceiving the natural world around her. She also talks about her grandfather, who owned one of the oldest Ford Dealerships in California for 50 years. "So of course there were woodies in our family, and I paid attention to cars."

Most of her art, however, comes out of the extensive notebooks she keeps whenever she travels. From trips to Europe when her two boys were young, to trips following conservation groups all over the world, each notebook recreates the sights of that journey, ready to be expanded on and played with.

A Sense of Whimsy

But where does that sense of whimsy come from — that humor combined with a love of the natural world and a fierce passion to protect it? Sue thinks back to early birthdays when her parents always took her to the ice follies in San Francisco and sat in the front row — of the bucket thrown where she was sitting in the front row that she was sure had water in it but was filled with confetti instead . . . of expecting one thing and then experiencing another.

Sue says that she was always intensely interested in the natural world, but always put a spin on it. Her mother said that her young daughter was always hanging upside down on the monkey bars, looking at the world from another perspective. And Sue wasn't content with just picking flowers or just running through the sprinklers — instead she would pick flowers and do cartwheels through the sprinklers with them. "Everything had to have another spin on it. It didn't matter what element of nature I was in, I played with it."

Full Circle

Sue still looks for whale spouts every day. She moved to Carmel in the 80s. She also lived in Nantucket for a year in '93 and a year in Maui in '94. She worked for more than 20 years at international ocean conservation conferences around the world, and has worked with groups such as the Swiss organization Ocean Care to save San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California. She continues to sell artwork to benefit conservation groups and sponsor young people in environmental studies.