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Artist in residence

With expressive paintings and vibrant walls, Sue Ross’s interior goes beyond typical sea-inspired décor

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Photo by James West

Photo by James West

When people create art, Sue Ross believes they are placing themselves in a particular time and space in the world.

“They are saying, ‘this is how I see this right now,’” she says. Painting in an environment where they feel a deep connection only enhances their creativity. “I guess that’s why I feel inspired here,” she says, surveying the horizon of patterned sandbars and sun-sparkling water in her cottage on the shores of the Northumberland Strait.

Sue, a long-time educator and former principal at two high schools in Moncton, New Brunswick, is now fulfilling her passion for life as a full-time artist. The cottage turned full-time home she and her husband Carl purchased is a crucial part of her plan.

Located in Grand Barachois, it started life as a modest two-storey beachfront getaway but three successive owners added their expansive touches to it. “You can still see the original walls of the house but now there is a three-storey garage and a beautiful master suite on top of it with a balcony overlooking the water,” says Sue.

Another addition she loves is the first-floor sunroom where she can watch an endless tableau of changing scenes—eider ducks flying in V-formation, eagles soaring and herons fishing. “When we started spending time here six years ago, it was a shared family cottage, so we left things pretty much as they were,” Sue says. “But since we purchased the property more than a year ago, we have put our own touches on it.”

These decorating touches reflect her artistic style—a beachfront cottage need not give in to traditional décor schemes of starfish, lighthouses and endless shell collections. “I wanted to create a place for inspiration and my instinct is to try new things,” says Sue.

For her, the two pillars of any home renovation should be colour and light because these things determine how comfortable and creative people will feel in the space. “If you get that right in a house, everything else falls into place,” she says.

From every angle in her house it is possible to see three distinct colours on different walls. And depending on the time of day, the light changes the tones into an endless dance of colour until twilight descends.

“I love colour,” Sue says. “Colour brings out colour. I had originally considered a typical beach colour scheme, blending beige and blues to bring the concept of sand and water inside and meld interior and exterior. But then I decided that was bland and expected and I wanted to create a different effect.”

Her scheme is vibrant. The sunroom is lime, the kitchen and living area bold yellow, the loft a warm orange, the upstairs studio blue and white and the laundry room red. She explains how the scheme works so well. “Two colours seen side-by-side intensify each other and bring out the best in each. What happens when you use these strong colours is that your eye absorbs the colour and throws back its opposite.”

Decorating an oceanfront house is not just about the visual, either, Sue suggests. It also means creating seating areas by open windows where people can appreciate the impact of the acoustic forces. “People think the joy of having a house on the beach is about seeing beautiful things but it is also about hearing them,” Sue says. “You need to be able to listen to the rain, the wind, and sometimes just the silence of the water. You need to make little corners of your house available to just sit down and take it all in.”

The home Sue and Carl love didn’t come without setbacks, however. One cold winter night last year, while Sue was
recuperating from radiation treatments following breast-cancer surgery, a fire started in the living room. The smoke woke up the couple and they managed to contain the fire and escape unhurt. But with its open-concept design and second-storey loft structure, the entire home suffered extensive smoke damage.

Turning what could have been a disaster into an impetus for action, they brought in an energy auditor during the renovation who advised on ways they could make their home more energy efficient.

A first step was installing slate-coloured cork flooring, which Sue says is soft but resilient for handling the traffic from visiting family and friends. Besides their son, Chris, who has just moved out on his own, the couple have nine grandchildren visiting through their blended family.

In the living room, they replaced light fixtures and removed an old wood stove, replacing it with a modern European-style wood stove that’s more energy efficient. “It is so cozy here on cold winter days and so beautiful when the ice covers the water…you can sit and look out and it is like being in the Arctic,” Sue says. “People often think of beach houses as places they’d want to live for the summer but I really enjoy the winter just as much.”

Sue installed custom ultraviolet rollers for the massive windows overlooking the water. “I took a lot of time to figure how to handle the big windows,” she says. “I didn’t want to do anything that blocked the view but I had to find a way to shade the room from the sun in the hottest summer afternoons and keep the furniture from fading.”

 

Photo by James West

Homeowners Carl and Sue Ross relax in the living room of their expansive beachfront home in Grand Barachois, New Brunswick. Its large windows make the space open and airy, providing amazing views of the Northumberland Strait.

She decorated the large living and dining area with art from her travels around the world and with sentimental pieces from family. Her collection includes pottery from New Brunswick and Mexican artists, paintings and carvings from New York to St. Lucia. “I really enjoy picking up a painting or a sculpture from a local artist,” Sue says. “I enjoy looking at art that I love and the added benefit is that it reminds me of the artist and the country he or she is from.”

One standout piece is a vibrant flower painting. “It’s almost 160 years old and it was done by Aunt Mel, so not only is it a beautiful work of art but it means something special to me,” Sue says. “I always think that’s more important to have meaning in the things around you than to just hang a picture on a wall.”

The kitchen flows off the living room and eating area on the first floor of the house, accommodating the couple’s active social life and frequent entertaining. “It’s such a wonderful home to be entertained in,” says friend and former neighbour Claire Stultz. “Sue has such a beautiful way of blending the natural beauty of her surroundings with her table settings.”

Stultz enjoys the abundant gardens that encircle Sue’s backyard, before it tapers into natural marsh grasses and then the sandy shore. “It’s very difficult to maintain a proper garden with the winds off the salt water and the winter storms that can really hit this area hard,” Stultz says. “I know that Sue had to do a lot of research to find the perennials that could endure the weather conditions here.”

The second storey of the house features a master bedroom with a huge walk-in closet and bathroom, Sue’s studio and office, and an office for Carl, a retired air-traffic controller. His space displays two of Sue’s floral portraits, the only works of her own in the house. They are lush and bold, showing the brightness of the tropics and the vibrancy of the rain forests where Sue first
renewed her inspiration for her art. “I don’t want my house to be just full of my paintings,” she says. “I want variety and to show the work of the many talented artists we have met on our travels.”

Art had always been Sue’s first love. She studied fine art before starting a career in education. But after years of teaching, she retired from her last post and vowed to focus on her art. Soon afterward, she accepted an invitation to teach art for a year and a half in St. Lucia, a tiny island nation in the eastern Caribbean Sea. “I felt I was going back to my roots and that was how I wanted to live,” she recalls. “I really just wanted to create, to get out of the classroom and build a new life as an artist. When I came home from St. Lucia, I knew it was time to get back to my own art.”

Next year she will return to St. Lucia for a term as artist-in-residence at the upscale Calabash Cove Resort. “I’m at the point where my motto is ‘have canvas, will travel,’” she says with a laugh. “But it’s always so good to come back home here to the East Coast and be inspired by its genuine natural beauty. I never take it for granted. Every day I get up and look out and say, ‘what a great day this is.’’’

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