Bringing Art Back to Life
~by Julia Pearson
Employees and friends are being treated to a mural on the wall inside the newly enclosed employee hangout in the back of the Out of the Ordinary Restaurant. It features a countryside vignette with sunset, sunflowers, and a barn. This 40’ x 10’ art piece was recently painted by Sue McAllister in thirteen days.
Sue is almost 80 years old and is a spitfire of talent and energy.
She is well-known to locals as an artist and businesswoman who had her own frame shop in downtown Nashville from 1978 to 1996. Throughout Indiana, and widely beyond, she is known for her expertise in restoration of fine art pieces.
A birthright Hoosier, Sue was born in Salem and grew up with her brother Marvin and sister Brenda. Their mother Aileen knew that Sue was the child who was “always into everything.” Sue heard her calling as an artist even as a little girl, drawing, painting, and making things with her hands. The family lived in Orleans and then Indianapolis, where Sue graduated from Southport High School in 1960.
Sue married James Francis “Jim” McAllister. They set up housekeeping in Greenwood and raised their family: daughter Perri and son Jim. Sue’s guiding principle in parenthood was to “always know where your children are.”
The couple moved to Brown County when “mommy duties” were no longer pressing. Sue worked in the frame shop and Jim commuted back to Greenwood. Sue felt it in her bones that this was “coming home” and has lived in Nashville for nearly 50 years.
Customers repeatedly asked who could clean and restore art and Sue found her niche in art restoration. Realizing the need, she closed her frame shop so that she could devote more time to restoration. She reports that currently there are only three people in the state of Indiana who do this work.
Thirty years ago she built a home one and a quarter miles north of the courthouse in Orchard Hill, site of the apple orchard business of early artist Dale Bassire. She has a studio in the lower level of the house for her business. Pieces arrive via the US Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS from within and outside of Indiana.
In the early 1960s, the Brown County Art Gallery tragically caught fire. Paintings were blackened by smoke and charred. The damaged pieces were stored in the Gallery’s vault until Sue could get to them. The collection vault of the Brown County Art Guild also holds pieces that Sue cleaned. She estimates she has restored between 4000 and 5000 paintings, including pieces painted by all the members of the Art Colony.
Sue says, “I do this because I love it, and I want to keep the art alive. When I’m through, the piece will be good for another hundred years.” Mexican painter Frida Kahlo said, “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Sue’s work in art restoration fulfills her urge to keep artwork vibrant and alive. The attention to skill and detail in restoration has given Sue a distinct, closeup relationship and insight into the Brown County Art Colony painters. She has a special appreciation for the work of Will Vawter—his technique and colors. By her own admission, art restoration of these iconic works requires both talent and guts.
Sue was a member of the Brown County Art Gallery for eleven years, producing eight new painting four times a year. She paints in oils, creating florals, landscapes, and still life paintings.
Sue lost her life’s partner, Jim, in 2012. They were married for fifty years. Daughter Perri Engel now makes her home in Columbus, Ohio. Perri’s children are Josh, Nicki, and Jace. Son Jim and his wife, Abby, moved back to Brown County two years ago. Their children are Kelli Sue and Ember Lynn.
A friend observed: “Sue, you’re doing everything like you are killing a snake.”
In the category of hobbies or leisure time, Sue can be found on the golf course several times a week, a sport she started when she was 53 years old.
She doesn’t fear getting old or dying, but states unequivocally that she doesn’t want to leave things undone.