Many artists and gallery owners struggled during the pandemic, but—due to what she refers to as luck—Sue Averell actually found herself continuing to thrive.
“I’ve been selling my art for over 20 years, and other people have been selling it also, so I already had a following.” said Averell in a call. “And then I noticed, as I’m sure a lot of people did, the bombarding messaging to support local business in any way possible. Statuses on Facebook about buying art and supporting creatives were running through, and the media in general was focused on supporting locals, and I think that was a big part of my continued success.”
Averell has been exceptionally active in the arts prior to the pandemic, which, as she herself said, definitely helped her during peak Covid times.
“I’ve been at this Sausalito location for five years now. Prior to this, I had a show in Arizona for 15 years, where I sold the bulk of my work until I got tired of moving every year. And in 2019, my work was picked up by Tierra Mar Gallery on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico.”
Averell explained how art began for her—how, essentially, she was born into it.
“I come from an artistic family. My grandmother taught me to china paint when I was quite young. My earliest memories are of drawing in a coloring book, and thinking about the medium of crayon. How much white space was left between the pigment. And my father was an artist also. He designed and built a home, did sculpture, and one of his final projects was doing the stained glass windows for his and my mother’s church.”
Averell grew up in southern California and went to art school. In 1996, she moved to San Francisco to pursue her desire of painting urban landscapes, and found an apartment with rooftop access and a studio in Hunter’s Point.
“I could just go and make a mess. I started experimenting with large paper pieces to get a feel for the image I wanted, and at that time I was doing freelance graphic design, so I had these chunks of free time where I would go to the studio. And I think that time uninterrupted really allowed me to get going on a specific path. In a short period of time I had a small series, and started putting them out to galleries in San Francisco, and I actually got a call back. I was shocked!”
Averell says she thinks it was the right place, right time—the gallery was looking for someone who painted San Francisco cityscapes, and they wanted something really unique—but it’s more than just timing that brought Averell success in seeking representation. Her work is downright interesting. Cityscape can so easily become cluttered or derivative, but Averell’s renderings are active and full of light. They are blocky, generous abstractions that read immediately as the San Francisco cityline. It’s impressive.
“Within two years, maybe three, I had said goodbye to all my graphics clients. Super lucky,” says Averell. She’s quite humble. Again I remind her of the time and resources she allocated to developing her style and producing her work.
“Yes, that’s true. I think the thing is, you get that check from a freelance job completed, and you don’t go out and spend it.
It was 2003 when she officially gave up her last freelance client. She was at an artist’s residency on the island of St. Thomas, and it suddenly struck her how ludacris it was to be lugging a computer around designing postcards. But it was hard to let go, she said, because of how easy and ready the compensation was.
“It took courage, after starving and rolling nickels sometimes to buy dinner, to say okay I’m really doing this.”
Since her business didn’t significantly slow as a result of the pandemic, I asked Averell in what way she felt affected by the circumstances of the last few years.
“Actually, I think it made me appreciate what I have more. I slowed down—there was no one here, so I could take my time more with my work. I didn’t paint as many paintings as in prior years, but the paintings were more thoughtful. And my work didn’t change, for or about the pandemic. I think that some artists felt like they had to document the circumstances, felt obligated to document history, but I didn’t feel that.”
This struck me significantly, as frankly refreshing. I asked Averell if she felt that her work was providing a respite from the tumultuousness of the current state of affairs, both for her and for her patrons.
“When we first had to shut down I was in shock for about two weeks. My lease was ending and I thought, do I really want to put myself through this roller coaster? But I realized that it would be worse to just jump, and ultimately I kept the space and came back to paint. And once I started focusing on my projects again, everything started to seem a bit more normal.”
Averell says that art is a way in which people find an outlet, a way of coping with the challenging circumstances of reality. During the pandemic, more than ever she cultivated her style and vision, rather than pivoting towards an overtly current theme.
“You have to believe in your work, and it’s a mistake to follow a trend — even a culturally major one — because you’ll always be chasing the next thing, the next major event, and that’s not authentic. And if you don’t believe in your work, how can you expect your collectors to believe in it? I had so many medical professionals come here when we were finally able to open up, who thanked me for keeping this space and this work authentic and free from the news influence.”
In times of high crisis, we look for outposts—oases where we can find a rest from the extreme nature of our day to day. And though many artists are political artists, or socially-critical artists, not all of them are nor yet should they be. The importance and need for beauty is perennial. It’s a part of what makes life not only worthwhile, but bearable. The courage of artists to create is a forever-treasured part of the human landscape. Sue Averell’s gallery and studio can be found at 28 Princess St., Suite B, Sausalito, CA 94965. Stop in and meet her in person! Follow Gallery Sausalito on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GallerySausalito/ and Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sueaverellart/