By Gina Malone
Animals have woven a constant thread throughout artist Suzanne Barrett Justis’ life from her childhood fascination with them to a degree in animal science and work in cancer research to her present life as a full-time artist of mostly wildlife paintings. Although she began painting professionally while still in high school, she never thought that being an artist was a career path. “Being an artist isn’t something you do,” she says. “It’s who you are as a person.”
She grew up in upstate New York with a mother who was a professional artist and a life surrounded by what she loved most—animals and nature. “It was the perfect cocktail to make a creative soul embark on a career as a wildlife artist,” she says. “I cannot remember a time when animals, plants and bugs were not my main focus. I was always studying them, drawing them and wanting to learn more about them.”
These days she travels all over the US and Canada visiting zoos and taking reference photos for her next wildlife piece. She enjoys capturing animals at ease and natural in their environments, she says, but she understands and appreciates zoos for their conservation efforts and donates her work for auctions and fundraising events. Her paintings hang in the permanent collections of zoos all over the country, including Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque and Dallas Zoo in Texas.
She paints in oils on canvas, linen and wood. Besides the wildlife she portrays, her work includes commissioned pieces, figurative work, portraits and landscapes. During the day she works with students in private classes and a few nights a month she holds adult group lessons with a bit of art history thrown in with practical time at the easel. “My time painting is sacred to me,” she says. “My studio is my oasis. Because I teach in my studio as well, carving out that time when I can be alone to paint is critical.”
She is always creating, she says, and finds inspiration everywhere. “The ideas just come. I am not an artist that plans out a piece to its exactness. I let it evolve in real time. I just jump in. Sometimes it’s the color. Sometimes it’s the composition, or, perhaps, the subject. I enjoy the process of evolution in my work.”
In August, the Artists for Conservation, of which Justis is a Signature member, unveiled Silent Skies in Vancouver. The 100-foot mural represents 678 endangered species of birds worldwide, and Justis joins artists from around the globe in contributing to the work. She painted five pieces for the mural, which will tour internationally. She also donates part of her sales to the organization in support of wildlife and habitat conservation and environmental education. “I would say my active involvement with wildlife conservation through my art is the most important thing I would like for folks to know,” she says. “By supporting the artist, they are also supporting wildlife conservation. It’s a win-win endeavor.” In May, she was recognized as Artist for Conservation of the month by the organization. She is also a member of Oil Painters of America, Portrait Society of America and the Kingsport Art Guild.
“I sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure this is all real,” Justis says, “that I get to wake up and create art, to teach the process of making art with my students and to inspire other artists to do the same. I can’t imagine not painting. It’s like air to me.”
To learn more, visit sbjfineart.com, Facebook, Twitter and Tumbler @sbjfineart, and Instagram @suetheartist. Suzanne Barrett Justis Fine Art Studio and Gallery is located at 110 East Market Street in Kingsport, TN. Her paintings are available locally at Twigs & Leaves Gallery in Waynesville and Mountain Nest in Black Mountain. In April, 2019, her work will be featured in a solo exhibit at the Renaissance Arts Center and Theatre in Kingsport, TN.