Susan Velder: A life of art

Everybody Has a Story

Susan Velder is a St. Walburg artist. Hailing from and having returned to the picturesque settlement on the fringes of the boreal forest of Saskatchewan has not only inspired Velder, but sustained her.

One of 15 children of the Thalheimer family, she grew up on a farm five and a half miles northwest of  St. Walburg. When she was 14, her parents bought a service station in town in hopes of offering their large family a more financially secure life. The children all eventually left the area, including Susan, who trained to become a teacher.

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Other areas of Canada have been significant in Velder’s life, including the Yukon city of Whitehorse, where her daughter Paula was born, and Calgary, Alta., where she trained and taught as an artist. But St. Walburg has always been her beacon and it called her back permanently in 1986, moving back to spend more time with her retired parents. There she stayed and, in her seventies, continues to work as an artist.

While she has closed her main street studio, she says, “I am not retired.”

A review of her work is currently on display at the Artist Run Centre Creative Studios in North Battleford. The gallery is open to the general public Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Velder’s exhibition will be on display for April and May.

Featured are acrylic paintings, stitchings and drawings and some small sculptures. As well, there is a digital exhibition of early works, her extensive portfolio of graphite drawings and the large sculptures she has done. There are a total of 336 images in the digital display.

Velder has always drawn and painted.

“I think the best thing is my drawing,” she says.

However, she says, she’d never really shown a lot of them, partly because it is expensive to fit them out in glass and frames, so she was happy to come up with a way to share them.

“I had all these drawings at home and that led me to think I should get photos taken of these drawings.”

In a digital display, she could also include photos of her large sculptures, which, obviously, are in display elsewhere but are an important part of her career.

“It doesn’t even begin to show all the stuff that I have done,” says Velder of the digital display, “but it’s a nice sampling.” 

Art has always been part of Velder’s life.

“When I was just a kid, I loved to do art. I remember doing little borders on the blackboards for teachers in school and I thought it would be great to be a teacher and paint in my spare time,” says Velder. “And when I did go teaching, I realized it just didn’t work that way. As a teacher – for me at least, I felt – all my spare time was spent preparing lessons and getting ready for the kids.”

Velder’s first teaching job was in Green Lake, and then, with a girlfriend, she decided to take a job in the Yukon in the city of Whitehorse. There she married and had a little girl. After three years, her marriage had broken down and she returned with her daughter to her childhood home in St. Walburg, where she lived for the next five years.

In 1970, she made a decision that would move her forward in her journey to become a full time artist. She would move to Calgary where she could further her studies in art.

She worked as a teacher from 1970 to 1973. When she felt she could afford it and Paula had become more independent, she began her four years at Alberta College of Art.

“I was really happy that I did that. I learned a lot.”

Velder was in her thirties at that time and maturity proved positive.

“It was very good to be a mature student and I really took in all I possibly could in those four years,” she says. “The instructors were wonderful and the school, I felt, was wonderful and it was a good time.”

She graduated in 1977 and began working at Calgary’s university. 

“I was teaching art to teachers,” she says. “I was also working in the sculpture department and doing quite a lot of drawing.”

During the nine years that followed graduation, during which time she also continued working toward a diploma in art education from the University of Calgary, she was immersed in the art world.

In 1986, with her parents retired, she decided to return to St. Walburg to be with them and to embark on her career as an independent artist. She bought a studio building on main street.

“I let it be known I was doing art seriously and these commissions came along and it worked out okay,” she says.

Some of her commissions were turned out to be “large.” Larger than life, in fact.

It began with a good friend who wanted Velder to create a sculpture of a horse. Then it was suggested a life-size sculpture of artist Berthold Von Imhoff at the entrance to the town would increase the town’s attraction to tourists. Since Von Imhoff had been fond of riding, the plan was laid to create a statue of the famous artist astride a horse. With her friend’s help to build the armature, they began in 1993.

“We built this on our own,” says Velder. “It was not a commission, we just thought, ‘We’re going to do this.’”

Velder drew on her friendship with famous Saskatoon sculptor and founder of the Prairie Sculptors’ Association Bill Epp for advice.

“He was so wonderful in helping. He used to say, ‘I’ve got no secrets,’” says Velder. 

She also says she will always be grateful to Maidstone Mirror writer Jim Swettenham, who saw the sculpture in her studio while attending a function in the town. 

“He wrote a wonderful article about how the town should get behind it, collect money and get it bronzed.” 

They were able to have Epp, who had his own foundry, make the mold, however Epp passed away before it could be cast. The bronzing was done at Mont Nebo by Jim Jenson of Nisse Foundry and Design. 

It was 1998 when the statue was finally installed.

“We hauled a great big rock down from the Lac La Ronge area to stand the horse on and got another stone for the plaque,” says Velder.

“That was the first big one and that really launched me,” she says, “and it was because of that, for sure, that I got the Queen’s sculpture.”

She explains when a committee visited from Regina to view the waxportraits of her uncle that resulted in her getting a commission to create a sculpture of Tommy Douglas, they also saw the Imhoff sculpture. So when the provincial government decided to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s fifty years on the throne by commissioning a statue of Her Majesty The Queen riding on her favourite horse, the black mare Burmese which had been gifted to her by the RCMP, another commission came Velder’s way.

“Joe Fafard had first dibs, “ says Velder, but the renowned Saskatchewan sculptor was too busy with other projects at the time to take it on.

“So they came to me. I was very pleased.”

The sculpture was unveiled in Regina in 2005.

“It was very exciting,” says Velder. “There were so many people there.”

The day was drenched with rain, but it was exciting nevertheless, says Velder, who heard the comment that it was typical that the Queen’s events got rained on.

Velder had bought a new suit, but had to borrow her mom’s winter coat, which she wore all day.

“The Queen never did get to see my new suit,” she laughs.

But she did get a chance to chat with the royals.

“The Queen asked quite a few questions, and Prince Philip, and we had a little chat,” says Velder. She adds, “They had put this red carpet in front of the statue, but not behind, and the queen stepped off the red carpet to look at the sculpture all the way around.”

Velder says, “I was really shaking in my boots. It was a very special day.”

It was a memorable day for her granddaughter, too, says Velder. She was impressed with Prince Philip when he bent down and picked up a coffee cup that had been kicked around the cordoned-off dignitaries area and handed it to somebody outside the area.

Throughout the project, Velder had found the royal family to be helpful to the process.

“They are people like the rest of us, but I couldn’t get my head around that when she was there.”

Earlier, she had found Prince Edward, when he came to view the maquette of the 15 small versions that were being made available to donors of $10,000 or more, to be lovely as well.

“That was a very nice day, too. Regina did it up beautifully, wheat and green for Saskatchewan as décor,” says Velder.

When they unveiled the maquette, she says, Prince Edward made a point of saying if they could be of any help in building the sculpture to let them know.

In fact, Velder was given a phone number to call Buckingham Palace. Working from photographs, at one point she found herself having trouble getting the queen’s tri-cornered hat right. So she called the palace. She asked the person who answered, a lady-in-waiting she assumed, if the palace had some photos of the hat she could work from. The lady immediately went to speak with the sovereign and returned to the phone to say, “Her Majesty said if you promise to return it we will send you the hat,” and it was put in the mail right away.

Having the Queen’s hat in St. Walburg created quite a stir of excitement, and many residents sought out an opportunity to have their pictures taken with it during its several week stay.

It’s a special memory for Velder.

“You don’t forget things like that.”

For her work, Velder was awarded the 2005 Canadian Royal Heritage award, an annual award to recognize individuals and corporate entities that make an outstanding contribution towards preserving, adding to or making Canada’s royal heritage known.

Like the other sculptures she has done, Velder created the model by referring to photographs. Other sculptors may work by taking detailed measurements and by creating drawings, but Veldor models what she sees.

“I’ve never done it that way,” she says. “I started and made corrections as I go. I’m a natural modeler, I guess.”

She does say, however, that new technology has helped make her work as a sculptor easier. 

When making a large sculpture, you create a small version first, called a maquette, she says. The maquette of the Queen, for example, was one-quarter size. Then you build the armature for the big one and increase it by mathematical measure. 

“Every jog and ear and toenail, you have to measure how big it is and blow that up so many times.”

But by the time she came to build a larger-than-life firefighter, which was installed in Whitehorse in 1993 in memory of her former husband’s entrepreneurial legacy, a much easier way to go from small to big had come about.

A wax version of the maquette was delivered to a facility in Creston, B.C. where they “blow it up” in Styrofoam.

“You just give them the money and you don’t have to go through all this measuring,” she laughs.

Valder also finds she’s happy to deliver clay items she needs fired to someone else’s kiln rather than go to the expense of running her own.

“The older I get, the easier it is to farm out that kind of work,” she says.

Velder is hoping to have some pieces needing firing in the near future as she wants to create a series of semi-abstract, small pieces, such as amulets – and they may become something she can base a local clay class on.

When doing sculpture as a commission, you’re almost always working realistically, so she is looking forward to moving into a more abstract direction.

Making her home in St. Walburg, says Velder, has allowed her to enjoy a career as an independent artist. With no teacher’s pension to fall back on (not wanting to go into debt, she took her pension out to pay for art school) she’s happy with how well she has done.

“I have to say over and over, my family has helped me. Even now my brother rents me a house for a more than fair price, otherwise I don’t think I could make a living doing art,” says Velder. “It’s very hard, and I can see why a lot of artists have to apply for grants ... I’m quite independent and so far have been able to make things go on my own.”

She adds, “It’s partly because I had a career, I was a qualified teacher and working at the university and for the college. Because I had the credentials it made it possible that I could do my art without getting money elsewhere.”

She  says when she opened the studio in St. Walburg, things got tighter but the cost of living was less, so she was  able to afford it. She ran that shop for 26 years, however the building deteriorated to the point where she tore it down and moved her studio to her garage.

She continues to be involved in her church, where most of her volunteer work is done. She often contributes in an artistic way, even painting signs, and only charges for material, if she charges at all.

“I have enough to keep me going,” she says.

The grandmother of five and great-grandmother of 12 also continues to work within her community, and has been involved in the Imhoff gallery and the local chuckwagon interpretive centre.

“I’ve done fine with a lot of help from a lot of good people.”

© Copyright 2018 Battlefords News Optimist

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