Susan Gunn exhibition at Norwich Castle

Ian Collins From footballer’s wife to feted artist, Susan Gunn has lived a life in the spotlight ever since moving to Norfolk in 1990. Her abstract pictures are now set for a show at the Norwich Castle.

Ian Collins

Last year, Susan Gunn - the very non-model of a former footballer's wife - stood on the roof terrace of a Venetian palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal, savouring the sublime view and a superb start to her career as an artist.

For a few moments, a rather shy person, so often in the spotlight through family triumphs and tragedies, relished the art of celebrity in her own right.

But reality quickly kicked in again. For Susan was being feted after a hard struggle between dark and light - leading to arresting work which mirrored her recurring feelings of being “broken but still holding together”.

As a mature student at Norwich School of Art and Design she had first drawn attention by winning the 2003 Bishop's Art Prize with a beautiful depiction of a cross in what appeared to be a gold patch stapled into cracked marble.

Titled …this is my body which is broken for you (I Corinthians 11:24) the meditative image addressed issues of communion, birth and death and imbued ancient materials with fresh, raw emotion. (I bought the piece for the Archant Art Collection and EDP editor Peter Franzen chose it for his office.)

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Graduating with a first-class degree a year later, Susan had swiftly gained an aptly-named Escalator award from the Arts Council. That fast-tracking saw mentoring by leading Scottish abstract artist Callum Innes and a place in an exhibition in London's Great Eastern Hotel.

Norfolk's Colin Self then helped to nominate her for the £17,000 2006 Sovereign European Art Prize. Among more than 300 competing talents from across the continent, many well-known, judges led by Pop Art's Sir Peter Blake named her the winner.

And so the wife of the former Norwich City goalkeeper went to Venice to help judge the 2007 prize.

Attending the launch party on the Guggenheim Museum roof, she looked down on to the canal where Byron had swum and Turner had painted. Cue bliss.

But the very best bit of that trip was visiting a retrospective show for modernist master Lucio Fontana and being inspired by the canvas slasher's glorious use of gold.

The result, at last year's Salthouse 07 show curated by James Colman in that beacon church on the north Norfolk coast, was one of the finest art exhibits I've ever seen.

A large Gunn panel Sacro Terra hung in the tower. At first glance it seemed a simple composition, split vertically half black and half gold. Closer up, the dark side was as erupted and eroded as the medieval wall it graced. And the massed small squares of gold-leaf echoed panes in the west window directly above, which cast the whole painting into constant glittered movement amid the drama of endlessly shifting light.

Ideally, that image should have held that position forever. But, by way of consolation, it will be a centrepiece of Susan Gunn's solo show opening at Norwich Castle on Saturday, November 22.

So splendid a display looks like the summation of a smooth five-year plan building on one success after another. But that's only part of the story.

Born in Lancashire in 1965, Susan came from a very ordinary background. Her father was a factory labourer, her mother a machinist; with two brothers almost 20 years older, she was effectively raised as an only child.

Despite a primary school teacher spotting a “special gift” in her art, and a steering towards an art degree at secondary school, her parents were opposed to university. “She'll never make any money at that caper,” her dad said.

So she dropped out of a foundation course at Bolton amid many offers of work as a model. And then, with an aunt's £6,000 legacy, she combined her drawing and needlework skills by opening a shop designing and making wedding dresses.

Within four years she was employing four seamstresses - having herself stayed up all night cutting and sewing after the wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew so that her shop window sported a replica of the bridal gown the next morning.

Then she went on holiday to the Costa del Sol and, in a bar, met a bloke called Bryan. He proposed three days later - he's impulsive like that. Susan, more “measured, meticulous, methodical,” promptly accepted.

“I knew that marrying him was the right thing to do,” she says.

She'd just got herself engaged to the Norwich City goalie - who, as the son of a welder in the Scottish Highlands, at least came from a similar background. His outgoing character blended with her reserve to make a great match.

Selling her business, moving to Norfolk and signing-up as a footballer's wife, Susan Gunn became fully absorbed in family life with the birth of daughter Francesca in 1990.

So much is her story. Leukaemia was diagnosed just after the baby's first birthday and, for 18 months, her parents clung to the specialist's prognosis of a 60pc chance of survival.

But, despite intensive chemotherapy, the cancer returned and Bryan and Susan had to take their daughter home to Framingham Pigot to die. She passed away peacefully in their bed, lying between them, early one autumn morning.

With huge backing from EDP readers, the Bryan Gunn Leukaemia Appeal has so far raised over £900,000 to fund research projects, train community oncology nurses and a family helpline.

Despite discomfort in the limelight, Susan was stalwart in promoting the appeal which flourished again when, the final whistle blown on Bryan's 477-match Canary career, she found herself consort of the High Sheriff of Norwich for a year.

Bryan is now head of player recruitment at Carrow Road and if Norwich ever gets a directly elected mayor, he could well be a winning cross-party candidate.

The Gunns had two more children - Melissa, now 16 and Angus, 12. Already their daughter has done some modelling and their son is a keen goal-keeper.

While in hospital with Francesca, Susan had taken up drawing again, composing portraits “because it didn't seem right somehow to take photographs of her in there”.

Then, after the momentous decision to enrol at art school, she became fascinated by the way the Old Masters painted on gesso, a material made from chalk and rabbit-skin glue. “But then I found that what I really liked was the fractured and fissured surface of the drying gesso before any paint was added and I decided to work on that,” she says.

“When I was younger my art was very figurative. As I developed my practice I had a strong feeling that I didn't want to share the images in my head with anyone else.

“I wanted to go beyond what could be immediately defined, though for me the cracked and marbled surface of the gesso was and is very much like a memorial slab.”

Building up layers of gesso and pigment and then rubbing and polishing with wax, oil and burning encaustic makes for monotonous toil, especially since some of the pieces are titanic. The two-part Specto Specus, which won the Sovereign prize - and which will be among 58 works in the Castle show - is 8ft by 10ft.

Long months of labour on a single image in the garden studio are lightened by the background tones of Radio 4, with visits to exhibitions bringing welcome escapes.

Susan's achievement is all the more remarkable given that she had to have a double hip replacement last year due to advanced osteo-arthritis.

She loves Norfolk but would also like a base in London where she recently exhibited at the Fine Art Society among several of her abstract artist heroes. Her work sold after being hung alongside a Damien Hirst black block of dead flies in resin.

But the world record price of £25,000 for a Susan Gunn artwork was set in Norwich last month - when a colourful herd of elephants lately rampaging through the city centre was auctioned for charity. Her jolly Jemima jumbo drew the top bid.

She explains that her seriously beautiful paintings balance control and chance: “My intent is to invoke the passage of time through the evolution of materials and process. Through an intuitive and repetitive exchange with the substance the painting is built up over time, layer upon layer, each bonding with the last to form an exterior skin.

“The surface becomes taut with the weight of the gesso and engineered conditions cause the layers to crack, exposing imperfections and accidental nuances to its façade.”

Contrasting the geometric and the organic, she presents minimalist bars and stripes which on close inspection are contoured with natural imperfections. They may resemble cobwebs, smashed ice, aerial views of river systems or moonscapes.

To a basic palette of black, grey and cream burnished with gold, she has experimented with vivid pigment - most notably with volcanic red and orange.

But she likes black best - saying: “Black is so intense, so serious and it changes so much with the light. I love it at dusk when it becomes so absorbent and dense. But during the day it can be reflective.

“It's like a conversation, with a series of haunting ideas, images and memories giving us so much back.”

t The Susan Gunn exhibition is at Norwich Castle from Saturday November 22 until Sunday January 4. The artist will give a gallery talk on Tuesday December 2 at 12.30pm.

t A charity fashion show setting Jarrold's Autumn Collection and historic Norwich Shawls against a backdrop of Gunn paintings, will take place on Wednesday November 26, 6.30-8.30pm. Cost: £20 includes drinks and canapés. Booking essential via Norwich Castle (01603 495897/493636) or Jarrold's Customer Services (01603 660661).