I've been struggling with this post since October because it involves telling Sue and all of you what a nasty, narrow-minded, judgmental person I am. But instead of disguising or covering anything, I'll give it to you straight. I just hope I don't shock you too much.
Sue Bateup has had a successful handweaving business as long as I've been in Nelson. She has a lovely little gallery/shop in Ajax Avenue, by the river, just up from the Information Center. She also sells her work, most famously her colorful jackets, all over New Zealand, (and possibly beyond.) Her name is a brand, and is synonymous to handweaving in Nelson.
Sue hand-dyes her yarns, but also has had other weavers help with the weaving and a professional machinist make them up into garments. Hers is a serious and successful business.
It's also a fact people whom I meet casually, as soon as I divulge I am a weaver, all ask if I weave pieces like Sue, if I dye like Sue, do I know Sue, aren’t her colors absolutely beautiful, perhaps I should go see if Sue can give me a few pointers, etc., etc., etc. And though Sue has nothing to do with these people, other than being a reference point for handweaving in their minds, I began to resent the constant and relentless comparison and well-meaning advice.
Since I started to weave seriously, my work have been finer (skinner) and more varied, and more importantly, most of mine are one-offs. I wanted each piece to be special, and "fine" in every way, and a “work of art/handcraft”. (I’m not saying Sue’s weavings look manufactured, though.) I started to feel the success of the Sue Bateup brand cramping my style and not giving any room, for any other weaver's work.
I started to run into Sue in person, in a mixed media drawing class or at Arts Marketing dos, but we rarely exchanged more than a cursory hello. I thought she thought I was beneath her.
I learned she was studying art at the Polytech, and envied the luxury of having others work for her while she closed her shop and pranced around the Poly with a sketchbook in her hand. (She is tall, lean and has a lovely face; can I help it if I thought she was prancing?) She looked a perfect picture of a happy, successful 21st Century art-businesswoman. I knew she worked darned hard, no doubt about that, and I knew I aimed to be a weaver, quite different from an owner of a weaving business or a brand, (and again, I’m not pretending to know what Sue set out to do in the first place, or what she thinks), but every time I saw her I felt quite miserable, as if the sun always shone on Sue Bateup and I stood in her damp shadows.
One day, after my dismal failure at securing any interest at the Art Expo, I had a debriefing with Martin Rodgers at Arts Marketing, and I blew up, shouting something like, "I'm so sick of people expecting all handweaving to look like Sue Bateup's jackets," to which Martin, ever so composed and non-judgmental, said, "but Sue Bateup the person is lovely." In fact, at the Art Expo, she sat with me awhile and complimented me on something I wrote. Martin also told me she'd been sick and that's why the shop had been closed.
Well, that changed things! Whether I like her brand or not, it's good for us weavers to have her shop open in Nelson, I reasoned; she also deserves a little thanks from a fellow weaver for all she's done to promote handweaving in Nelson. (I note another weaver, Susie Lees, helped to keep the shop open for one year previously.) And Sue has a small child; I can't imagine what it would have been like for him to have a mother fighting an illness. I thought about it for a month, but I had to do the right thing. One afternoon I saw the “Open” sign at the Gallery, barged in, and declared I am happy to open her gallery one day a week over the summer. I was so nervous I tried not to look at Sue and was probably shouting.
I haven’t asked what she thought, but as I spoke to her, I saw in big bold letters it was I who had been a real bitch all these years, not her. As Martin said, she turned out to be a truly lovely person, and an interesting artist, just very quiet and very introspective. So I've been there most Wednesday afternoons since the end of October minding her shop and doing my own thing in the back room. And I get to have my pieces in the shop.
I've had to eat many a humble pie, though. Hers is a business, so her products, though lovingly made like yours and mine of good material, are repeatable. And her jackets are amazingly soft and comfortable. Now it was I who pranced around her shop trying on all sorts of styles and colors in the middle of a heatwave.
I also look forward to the solitude of Wednesday afternoons in her creative space. Until this summer, I thought there's nothing better than working at home because I can do most anything any time of the day or night, but I now know how I'm distracted: Internet, dishes, laundry, TV, hammock, popsicles. Sue's studio allows me to work on one idea for long stretches, and I've been studying her colors, if I so chose; or fringe or write Christmas cards (in mid January), if that's what needs doing.
This has been a summer of redemption. I'm glad I finally met Sue Bateup; one of my proudest accomplishment as a weaver. Martin Rodgers is always right.