Artist Susan Stolberger talks to Maria Airey about Ruaha, the magical Tanzanian national park that has inspired her since she was a child and continues to do so to this day
Where were you brought up? Tell me about your childhood
I had an idyllic upbringing, beginning life in Jamaica and then moving to Tanzania when I was four years old. We lived smack on the beach. My sister and I swam, snorkeled and had oodles of animals. It was very carefree and magical. I left school at 17, I never went to art college or had any instruction. I lived in Kenya for eight years and Italy for two, and since then I’ve been in Tanzania. I have been sleeping under canvas since I was 25. It has been a wonderful 32 or so years of living among nature. My dad loved adventures, too, so every holiday we went somewhere. When I was 12 we did an epic trip to Ruaha National Park, and I remember thinking then, that when I grew up I wanted to live in Ruaha. For some reason, that thought remained in the back of my mind and when I was 34 I found myself driving back down the track that led there and I have been here ever since… That was 22 years ago. Amazing!
What is the best thing about living and working in Ruaha?
It is a large, remote wilderness, with extremely varied landscape, habitat, altitude and vegetation. So there is limitless choice of subject matter. You can paint a huge sweeping landscape or the smallest insect or flower. It’s an extremely beautiful place that never stays the same.
What makes the park special?
Gosh, that is a very hard question. Probably the best thing is its remoteness and authenticity. It is a pristine wilderness still untouched by man and human intervention. It has its own soul and beats to its own drum, which is tangible.
What is life like for you? What does your usual day entail?
It’s a charmed existence – at least I think so. I wake up as dawn begins to glow on the horizon and my neighbours are birds and animals. I choose to have a simple camp, everything is solar-powered and my water is harvested during the rainy season. I sketch and paint whatever I see outside. I work in the open air and only use daylight. At night, I am usually in bed early. Sometimes I read.
How and when did you become interested in art?
I don’t remember when I started painting; it is something I have always done. My mother painted and enjoyed doing ‘arty’ things; I guess that is why I started.
Tell me about your style and ambition with your art
I don’t know that I have a style… and I don’t have any ambition either! I just love what I do. Each subject that I paint tells me how it should be done; I am not ‘trying’ to create anything in particular, save for what speaks to me with each inspiration.
Why do you enjoy painting birds, in particular?
I love birds; they are amazing creatures. They exhibit incredible design and colour, even the brown ones. The combination of hues that you see on them is often extraordinary and yet it works beautifully, which is generally overlooked by humans. Just watching a bird flitting about in foliage or soaring in a clear blue sky is breathtaking.
What is the most amazing wildlife encounter you’ve had?
The longer I live in such a pure environment, the more I realise the depth of it and how we are, for the most part, just skimming the top of what is really here; that revelation has probably been my most amazing experience. I know now that the true depth of this world is unfathomable. Once you do that you begin to see life on this planet in another way altogether.
Do you assist with community projects in the local area?
I have participated in many diverse programmes. I have been involved with the communities outside the park for more than 20 years, mostly the primary schools. We have taken 8000-plus students into the park on day trips to see animals. We also do all sorts of things with farmers, individuals and guides; you name it, if I see something where I can help I try to do so. I am also involved in some ecological things such as the Ruaha River and have written a book on the common trees and flowers called Ruaha National Park: An Intimate View.
For more information about Sue Stolberger, visit suestolberger.com.