In her series of interviews with people who have relocated here, Elaine Desmond catches up with Sue Stolberger who swapped the wilds of Tanzania for the welcoming community of Schull
In her early twenties Sue Stolberger leaped towards life as an artist.
Her fearless, heart-first attitude steered her to paint in Tanzania and life under canvas – without walls, confines or conventions.
Now she and partner Rob have decamped to Schull where her parents, Ann and Fred retired.
Born in Jamaica, Sue moved to Tanzania with her family where her father, an engineer, helped build the country’s first university.
Becoming an artist always appealed to Sue. She ‘enjoyed art more than anything,’ but didn’t feel art college was the perfect fit, preferring classical rather than abstract art, the palette of the 80s.
She spent two years in Italy sometimes working in a hotel from 6am to noon, prioritising her afternoons for painting.
‘Pay rent first, then food.’
Sue painted local houses which she sold to the owners, eventually earning enough for a one-way ticket to Kenya.
Reading a wildlife art book by Robert Bateman she had a lightbulb moment, finding direction and focus.
Sue bought a Suzuki jeep, concertina bed and a mosquito net - wheels, home and life.
Her guiding map continues to be: ‘Point myself in the direction that most attracts me and see what happens.’
After a few years of nomadic living Sue’s heart pointed back to Tanzania where she and Rob secured work permits to live in Ruaha National Park.
At over 20,000 square kilometres, Ruaha is Tanzania’s largest National Park.
In her wonderful book Nature Speaks she describes it as an “undisturbed area of pristine wilderness. It breathes its own breath and it has a heart that sings to its own tune.”
Singing a singular tune is a trait she shares with Ruaha.
Sue’s partner is Robert Glen, a sculptor famed for the Mustangs of Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.
These bronze castings run wild through a pool framed adjacent to the to the east building of The Towers at Williams Square. Wild versus walls.
Rob also sings his own tune and like Stolberger he bypassed art college.
In 2012 the Mustangs was voted the best public sculpture in the world.
Without formal art training Sue feels the two years in Italy were a great education but nature has been her greatest teacher.
In Ruaha her friends and neighbours included Romeo a bull giraffe, Venus the lioness, crested francolins, black-lored babblers, blue-eared glossy-starlings, swahili sparrows, squirrels, jackals, antelopes, warthogs, waterbucks, woodpeckers, kudus and zebras.
She describes a group of elephants passing like boats in a sea of grass. In Nature Speaks she details many heart-meetings with her neighbours and goose pimple-ish intuitive moments.
When Sue paints in Tanzania she sits in her own stillness, immersed in the African landscape and the surround-sound of animal-speak.
Although Sue paints many animals, she will never steer far from birds. The sacred ibis is one of her favourite subjects. She feels designers should pay greater attention to all bird feathers – detail is in the details.
Sue is most proud of an initiative organising day trips for children from six schools close to Ruaha Park. During her involvement over eight thousand children visited the National Park, some so inspired by the visits they now work as Rangers.
Committed conservationists, Sue and Rob donate some of their exhibition sales to community projects including sponsorship of environmental days at local schools.
Slide-shows of their art work and conservation projects are an integral part of their exhibitions.
In partnership with Dr Charles Dulle, a local vet, they helped build libraries and environmental centres. Conservation of the Great Ruaha river is another passion project.
Just before Sue left Tanzania she met a reporter by chance while he was recording on Ruaha Bridge.
She explained her conservation experience and involvement. Their chance meeting and conversation refuelled her optimism that preservation of the Ruaha river will continue, as if the universe gave Sue a parting wave.
Off you go to Ireland with peace of mind and ease, all is well here. Apparently by chance at precisely the right moment.
A life of passion is Sue’s purpose and she is also passionate that young people (or any age) realise they can live their dreams without compromise.
‘We live in a cooperative world, there’s no need to be fearful. You just have to trust. Go with the flow, allow whatever happens to happen.’
She carries this open-hearted outlook wherever she goes, ‘sitting worrying is a useless occupation.’
In Tanzania the couple lived side by side in separate camps, precious space to create and be.
Every six weeks Sue and Rob restocked with supplies – they lived 6 hours from the nearest large town, Iringa.
In Schull, the restocking takes minutes.
Sue and Robert have been living in West Cork for a year.
‘I always enjoyed Schull when visiting and right now, everything is still new for us. We absolutely love the community here. It’s brilliant to be somewhere where you have real people, being who they are, not trying to be someone they’re not.
‘It’s hard to find a better spot.’