Many Durhamites have seen at least one of Sue Sneddon’s early contributions to our local culture, like the Regulator Bookshop’s fanciful logo, painted decades ago on the side of its Ninth Street building.

Graphic arts were Sneddon’s “day job” while she established herself as a painter—and what a painter she came to be. From her first local exhibition at Somethyme Restaurant on Broad Street in 1979 through her presence over the years in coastal galleries from Duck to Hilton Head and her many solo exhibitions at Craven Allen Gallery on Broad Street, the last of which took place in 2020, Sneddon drew a devoted following of hundreds of collectors and admirers. Craven Allen is planning a fall retrospective of her work.

Few may recall that Sneddon—who was born September 7, 1953, and died from cancer on January 10, 2022—was the first illustrator of the Independent, founded in 1983 by Steve Schewel and Dave Birkhead and produced in its early years in a bungalow on Durham’s Hillsborough Street.

“Sue Sneddon’s illustrations were crucial to the Independent in our early days, sharp and beautiful and marked with her wonderful sense of humor,” recalls Schewel. “Sue was unfailingly kind and warm, with an impish twinkle in her eye. Everybody wanted to be around her because she was a blast—the kind of person who kept life interesting.”

It didn’t take Sneddon long to develop into a full-time exhibiting artist, her lifelong goal.

As she did everywhere she went, Sue made friends in her 1977 quest along the North Carolina coast for the perfect place to inspire the next four decades of her art. One of those friends is Julia Batten Wax, owner of Emerald Isle Realty.

“Sue chose Emerald Isle for its special quality of light,” Batten Wax says. Back then, in search of a place she could afford to rent for each year’s autumnal equinox, Sneddon had spent a season stopping at realty offices along the coast. At first, she received a string of gentle nos, but then, Batten Wax recalls, “Sue met Mary Batten, my mother, at Emerald Isle Realty’s first office on the corner of Second Street. It became one of those life-changing moments … that grew into deep friendship spanning four decades.”

Sneddon soon contributed her graphic artistry to the realty’s printed materials, from the sea-oats logo to the rental catalog and the annual guidebook, featuring her delightful hand-drawn and illustrated children’s puzzles and crosswords. Her evocative paintings have graced the months of the annual realty calendars and made them collectors’ items. Recent years focused on Carteret County, each set of 12 paintings following a theme: workboats of Down East; fish houses; creeks and rivers.

By 2003, Sneddon and her partner of 44 years, Donna Giles, had transitioned from the Triangle and moved into a house they had built at the coast, including a freestanding studio for Sneddon—a dream come true. For the next two decades, Sneddon created her art with a view of the Shallotte River and the Intracoastal Waterway, still spending each September at Emerald Isle.

As a child in Uniontown, PA, Sneddon began to develop an artistic eye almost as soon as she could hold a pencil. She knew that her second-grade teacher was wrong to insist that a sky could not be white and a cloud must be white. Her mother, also an artist, was a particular influence on Sneddon in her understanding of color. Later, Sneddon would find mentors, inspiration, and lifelong friends among the professors in her undergraduate fine arts program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. It was a “full-circle moment,” Sneddon told friends when 45 years later one of those former professors purchased a painting from Sneddon’s 2020 Craven Allen exhibition, From Memory, with its COVID-era online opening event.

“How I see the world has changed because of Sue Sneddon,” says the gallery’s John Craven Bloedorn. “I see colors or details of the landscape that I might have missed before.”

For Sneddon’s 14 exhibitions at the gallery over the course of 25 years, Bloedorn recalls that “we would spend hours together hanging and lighting each show. We could tell each other years later where we had hung certain paintings and why. It was a privilege to spend that kind of time with Sue, learning about each piece. There was always lots of laughter, and often a few tears.”

Sneddon’s final exhibition, From Memory, was documented in a video by Donna Campbell and Georgann Eubanks of Minnow Media. The video, along with images of Sneddon’s art, photos from her life, her own writing on her journey as an artist, and audio recordings of Sneddon speaking on art, can be found on her memorial website.

Throughout her Durham and coastal life, Sneddon also delighted listeners and dancers with her percussion accompaniments to a variety of bands, hands flying over congas or a drum set or her beloved bongos. Her music performance spanned folk, new-wave punk with the Mutettes, rock with the Mobile City Band, and jazz with Alison Weiner of Mahalo Arts. She played her bongos for a relaxing musical interlude while she awaited surgery in December.

On January 10, Sneddon died from cancer at the age of 68. The family asks that memorial contributions be directed to the Sue Sneddon Art Fund of the Durham-based Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, where Sneddon served as an artist-in-residence and through which she offered her much-loved Emerald Isle workshops and retreats; and to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, in her memory. 

Laurel Ferejohn is a Durham editor and longtime friend of Sue Sneddon.

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