Interview with Artist Sue Cooke

New Zealand-based artist Sue Cooke and I met by chance at the Whanganui Resource Recovery Centre––back in February I spent an afternoon at the WRRC collecting stories with my cardboard sign from people who came in and out to recycle their household goods.

Sue is a stunning artist. After returning from a trip to Antarctica in 2006, she set out to create a body of work that captures both the vast sense of scale and fragility in the Antarctic landscape.

In her words, after returning to New Zealand: “My art work underwent a sea change.”

Here’s to serendipity and spontaneous artistic community. I look forward to keeping up with Sue’s work for years to come.


DKL: Tell me about your trip to Antarctica. When did you go, and how did you get there? Why did you decide to take this trip?

SC: I went to the Antarctica Peninsula in December 2006. I flew from my home in Whanganui, New Zealand to Ushaia in Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina and from there I joined a 54 strong Expedition for Climbers and Photographers on the ice breaker, The Polar Pioneer. The boat was both transport and accommodation for 2 weeks. I had wanted to go to Antarctica to draw and paint since the mid 1980’s. Since childhood I have been drawn to sparse uninhabited landscapes, such as deserts, mountain ranges and national parks – Antarctica seemed to me to be the ideal of a vast untouched land. I held this desire to visit Antarctica inside me for years until finally in 2006 I had the opportunity to go!

DKL: How did the trip affect you? What changed after the trip? What stayed the same?

SC: The trip had a profound effect on both my personal and artistic life. The pristine nature of the Southern Continent meant that on my return to the populated country of New Zealand I saw rubbish everywhere for the first 3 or 4 months. I have travelled widely enough to know that New Zealand is, comparatively, a clean green country with a small population that on the whole deals with waste and environmental issues in a responsible manner. However I could not help noticing the myriad of small bits of plastic from lollies, electricians wire and bottle tops in the garden beds outside the school gates and on the city streets.

My husband and I have always composted and recycled but the experience of going to Antarctica meant that I looked for, and succeeded in finding, more and more ways to minimise my family and businesses waste foot print in the world. I not only focused on cleaning up my lifestyle externally but also internally. Shortly after my return from Antarctica, it was suggested to me the my son had food intolerances and as a result of an elimination diet the whole family found that there were a number of foods that disagreed with us. We have since kept to an almost solely organic diet, minimising dairy and gluten and avoiding preservatives and sugar. This regime of internal cleanliness has had a very positive affect on our health and wellbeing as individuals and as a family.

My art work underwent a sea change. My previous works about the New Zealand landscape used strong forms, harsh contrasts, and complementary colours to create prints and paintings that were strong, solid representations of my home country that is renowned for its strong harsh light that rarely has the protection of the ozone layer. Antarctica from the very beginning demanded that I respond with a lighter touch to the subtleties of tone essential to the watery icy nature of the continent. A fellow artist was fascinated with the extreme lightness of tone that I was able to achieve. I often had to wash out an initial mark that I had made in watercolour as it was too strong, this requirement to have a lightness of hand remained a challenge for the whole 7 years that I explored the subject of Antarctica in my Whanganui studio. Previous to my work with Antarctica I would respond to a subject from a heartfelt perspective. If the subject moved me emotionally I would create an artwork. However as I progressed with the Antarctic work I found more and more that I was weaving an emotional response to my subject together with principles and ideas; the earth’s affect on Antarctica and Antarctica’s affect on the world, care of planet earth, sustainability, concern over the hole in the ozone layer and preservation of the world’s last untouched landscape.

DKL: What kind of art did you make after returning home? Did you know when you were travelling in Antarctica what form that body of work would take? How did it change over time?

SC: I had thought on my return from Antarctica, the resource material I had collected would furnish me with ideas for the next 2 or 3 years. I found that the three drawing books, 34 water colours and 700 photos and videos gave me enough material to work for 7 years. The first works I made upon my return were a series of 18 monochromatic etchings titled ‘Blizzard in a Dark Landscape’. I resolved to start with this series while I was in Antarctica in response to the first few days in which I experienced blizzard conditions on all our landings; it was as if I were standing inside a black and white etching created by the black of the granite contrasted with the falling, blowing snow that was often white out conditions.

Because I had wanted to go to Antarctica for so many years I had had time to research and think about not only my own possible response to the great white continent but I had also had looked carefully at the work of other artists and photographers. My instinctive sense was that Antarctica was a vast land and what I felt I wanted to capture was a sense of scale in my work. I saw that this aspect of the landscape was not taken up by other artists. In April 2013 I managed to achieve ‘The Paradise Project’ that successfully used and portrayed the scale, light and beauty I saw in Antarctica. ‘The Paradise Project’ is an installation in the form of a hut/packing case 3m high x 5m wide by 9m deep. The visitors enter the hut, the door automatically closes behind them. The interior painting extends the experience of viewing an art work by surrounding the viewer, giving a meditative space in which to contemplate beauty. The effect of contemplation is subtle; the message of sustainability is not explicit the viewer is left to explore why the pristine beauty needs to be preserved and maintained.


DKL: Tell me about the eggshells.

SC: The globes and eggshells took me by surprise; they developed as I began to push the boundaries of form and idea, firstly exploring the sphere, which was in response to what affect the world had on Antarctica and Antarctica’s affect on the world. Ostrich eggs were used as a substitute for penguin eggs; the expedition policy was take only photos leave only foot prints. I first began trying to turn an ostrich egg into a sphere by cutting it in half to eliminate the elongated ovoid form, as I was cutting with a hacksaw I accidently broke the egg creating a jagged edge. Immediately I saw that this was a perfect metaphor for the fragility of the Antarctic environment. I used sandpaper and layers of titanium white acrylic paint to create a pristine surface which I then drew on with graphite, maximising the tonal gradations and smudging when necessary. I began to use the hole that was in the egg, as a result of the yolk and white being blown, as a metaphor for the hole in the ozone layer; a very topical issue for New Zealanders as our skin cancer statistics are the highest in the world and our burn time is typically 12 minutes. The broken halves of the eggs provided two surfaces for art works and in many cases I also added maps in order to speak directly about Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.



Images and further information regarding the works discussed above can be found at

DKL: What kind of materials do you use? What draws you to those materials?

SC: I use a very diverse range of materials, some of which are conventional artist supplies and others such as plywood and ostrich eggs are stretching the boundaries. The underlying reason for opting to use a particular material is that it will give the best result to the expression of the idea.

DKL: Who inspires you?

SC: A long list of artists inspire me, Cave Men, Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh, Piranesi, Georgia O’Keefe, Ansel Adams, Elliot Porter, Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Barry Cleavin, Laurence Aberhart, Anne Noble, Denise Copland and Petrus Van der Velden. In short they all have in common an ability to see and touch the human soul at a deep level. 

DKL: Why do you make art?

SC: I’m driven to – I just can’t help myself.

DKL: Such a wonderful theme! I feel the same way about writing and collecting stories. So, what are you reading/listening to right now?

SC: A biography of Vincent Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and I have waiting in the wings a book written by Scott Timberg ‘Culture Crash; The Killing of the Creative Class’

DKL: And what projects are you working on?

SC: I have recently begun a project that explores the issues around the creation of deserts and the issues associated with deforestation. Realistically it will be 3 or 4 years before the threads can be pulled together into a solid body of work.

DKL: That sounds beautiful. I look forward to seeing that project when it is ready to share. Do you have any stories related to water or climate change that you would like to share?

SC: When I was in Antarctica the climbers spent an afternoon ascending a floating iceberg. When they got to the top they found a lake! A few years earlier this would have been unheard of.

DKL: Wow. What is your favorite place on earth?

SC: Antarctica

DKL: Beautiful. And your favorite word?

SC: Serendipity

Sue Cooke trained as a printmaker at Ilam School of Fine Arts, Canterbury University, Christchurch, New Zealand, under Barry Cleavin and Denise Copland gaining a Diploma in Fine Arts with Honours in 1985. In 1987 she held her first large scale public gallery installation ‘Panorama- A Print Based on the Landscape of Lake Ohau’ at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch. In 1990 she was selected as Tylee Cottage Artist in Residence at the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, New Zealand. The residency lasted for 12 months and at the end of that time Cooke made Whanganui her home. In 1995 Cooke, and ceramic artist Rick Rudd, exhibited at the New Zealand High Commission in Singapore. Cooke, and fellow printmaker Catherine MacDonald, established the long running Whanganui Artists Open Studios and the Whanganui Arts Marketing and Development Trust in 2001. Cooke has worked in the New Zealand public collections of  Canterbury University, Christchurch, Massey University, Albany Campus, Auckland,  Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu, Christchurch and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, The New Zealand High Commission, Singapore, New Zealand High Commission, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the New Zealand Embassy Rome, Italy, in addition to many private collections within New Zealand and overseas. For further information visit

Sue in Studio


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