Artist Sue Roberts surrounds herself with colorful creativity at her Guemes Island home and studio.

Share story

SUE ROBERTS lives, gardens, makes and teaches art on Guemes Island, where her Mediterranean-style studio is a landmark. She cultivates plants from warmer climates, or tries to, and is busy creating a wildly colorful sculpture garden. Bald women, a mermaid, a bust of a woman wrapped in a snake, and a very tall totem are some of the delights of Roberts’ most unusual garden.

But she’s found that her clay pieces don’t hold up very well in the weather, so Roberts is starting to work more in durable mosaics. “I’ve learned the slugs love grout,” she says as she wipes a trail of slug slime off the mirrored mosaic teeth of one of her women nestled between splays of ornamental grasses.

The garden and studio sit high on a sunny, sloping piece of property two blocks from where the little ferry docks. Roberts and her husband, photographer Joseph Miller, live a few doors down. Being from Florida, Roberts loves and misses the sun. So she built a tall, yellow stucco studio that looks as if it would be right at home on a Tuscan hillside.

Then there are the sculptures populating the studio’s casual garden. The tall totem in the front lawn dangles colorful hands, and sports ears, breasts and legs shod in high heels. Named “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” the totem is a creation of a group of women who meet regularly at Roberts’ studio to make art. “Everyone worked on every section of the totem,” Roberts says. “If they didn’t sculpt, they painted.” The totem was unveiled at a potluck dinner party attended by 80 friends and neighbors. Not a small gathering on Guemes Island. “We celebrate our finished projects … it’s a bonding time for us,” says Roberts.

The group indulges in a little guerrilla art from time to time and once installed a bunch of totems by the dock on a foggy morning just in time for the 6:30 a.m. ferry run. “People loved it,” she says.

When Roberts built her studio a decade ago, she had a vision of a secret foliage garden enshrouding the building. “What grown-up girl doesn’t want a secret garden?” she asks. She started out by planting lots of lavender and palms, most of which froze in the cold winds off the water. She loves phormium for its bold shape, but lost too many of them to the inconsistent island weather. An artist’s reaction to the heartbreak of favorite plants freezing out? Roberts stuck a bunch of fake flowers around for color.

Yet she persists with the golden-colored foliage plants she’s found to be more hardy, such as the shrubby honeysuckle Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold.’ Roberts grows purple-flowering butterfly bushes and showy perennials such as bee balm and yarrow. A fig tree is espaliered against a warm, south-facing wall. Pots of bright-red and pink geraniums winter over inside the studio. “I can do geraniums,” says Roberts, who finds the rest of the plant world not so easy.

Roberts teaches art to children, and adults who haven’t worked with clay since they took an art class in school. Sometimes she teaches in Anacortes, but also in her own studio, which has become a humming hub of art projects. Between the spacious studio and her sculpture-filled garden, Roberts has created an inspiring environment for being creative. She puts it very simply; “I love making things with other people.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.