Mixed Mediums: Science, Art, Spirituality Influence Centralia Artist’s Work

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Art has been a constant companion for Sue Darius through her entire life. Now retired from a career in science, Darius said she feels grateful to have the ability to focus her energy on her artistic creations.

“Sometimes I realize I’m like a child because I’m always playing but it’s so fun to be playing all the time,” Darius said of what she enjoys about art.

Born in Montreal, Darius grew up in an artistic household where her mother occasionally painted and her father was a photographer and musician. She noted that the arts have stayed strong in her family: her youngest son is a musician and her older son works as an animator in Vancouver, B.C., working on projects including providing some of the environmental animation for “Aladdin”.

Darius’ family moved to Vancouver, B.C. when she was 10 to escape the harsh winters of Eastern Canada and she said she estimates she painted her first oil painting at the age of 15. By 19, she was doing custom oil pastel portraits for people to make money. 

But when the time came to choose a career in life, Darius went the way of science instead of art. She had always loved school, especially the subject of biology. She majored in biology, focusing on microbiology and recombinant DNA technology.

“I thought, ‘I need to be able to support myself as a woman’ and I thought I was more likely to get a job in science,” Darius recalled. “The specter of starving artist was still looming over me. I thought ‘never give it up. Just do it on the side for pleasure.’”

When Darius began her career in the late 1970s, DNA technology was still a fairly new and uncharted territory. She worked in DNA splicing, trying to identify and single out different genes that cause disease in humans. In 1985, she worked with tissue cultures of rhododendrons to find bacteria that fixed nitrogen on the roots of the plants. When she moved to the United States five years ago, she worked in quality assurance for an egg-drying company in Lacey. She officially retired in 2018 but said science is still very much a part of her life. When she’s not doing art, she said she studies theories of quantum physics in her free time. She added that chemistry part of her background has certainly helped her with understanding different types of paints and how to mix and use them.

“It comes out in the way I approach things,” she said.

In addition, Darius is also deeply spiritual and said she does not feel science and spirituality are mutually exclusive. She attends a yoga class three days a week and often plans painting sessions afterward. She said working on paintings in itself can have a meditative, spiritual feel for her.

“You’re just in the flow and it’s calming and beautiful,” she said.

Though Darius has been able to focus solely on her artwork for just a few years now, she said her career never slowed her artistic work. When her younger son was 2, Darius began taking lessons from a watercolor artist. She sold some works at outdoor and garden shows and also co-founded a cooperative gallery in Chilliwack, B.C. She immigrated to the U.S. five years ago after meeting her husband, Steve, online and decided to move closer to him.

She was a member of an artist co-op in Olympia for a few years. When she moved to Centralia in 2016, she sought out a space for her works and found a home at Centralia’s Rectangle Gallery.

“Being part of the community is always big for he,” Darius said of the local gallery. “I think the Rectangle Gallery space is just beautiful and (Rectangle Gallery owner Jan Nontel) is open to me bringing in paintings on a regular basis and does not restrict me.”

Darius’ focus is on paintings and she moves between oil and acrylic paints. About a year ago, she began experimenting with adding cold wax to her oil, a technique that adds more texture and layering

“I’m really in love with this medium right now,” she said.

Her works range from abstract to realistic. And her subject matter can range everywhere from a pair of girls fashioned after an old family portrait, to a Tang dynasty bronze horse to an arrangement of shapes that reminds her of the way crystals form.

“I think it’s color and highlights,” Darius said of what inspires her. “It’s usually how the light falls or if it’s a lot of colors or an arrangement. Sometimes it’s the question of ‘can I paint that?’ So, I’m often pushing myself.”

A painting for Darius begins with a custom frame built by Steve, the size of which are dictated by the dimensions of the winding staircase that leads to her attic workspace in their Edison district home. A couple of layers of either white or black gesso each take about a day to dry before she can begin on the actual painting. While each subject is unique in the time the painting takes, Darius said a painting can take at least four to five days to complete, but sometimes longer and sometimes the pace of her paintings is dictated by the medium itself.

“You usually get to a point where you have to let it sit and dry because the colors are going to mix a little too much,” Darius explained. “There’s a feel to it when the wax on it dries and you can add more.”

Completed paintings using the cold was technique get a few thin layers of wax when dry that are buffed to bring out the texture. While she doesn’t schedule painting sessions, she said she often paints at least a few days a week and sometimes more if she’s really feeling inspired. She said she often will paint a succession of the same kind of subject

“Because I can’t get these things off my mind,” she said.