Wilmslow artist Susie MacMurray prepares for Tatton Park exhibition

Susie MacMurray with Medusa

Susie MacMurray with Medusa - Credit: Archant

International artist Susie MacMurray from Wilmslow is creating a work for Tatton Hall to raise funds for East Cheshire Hospice.

Shell by Susie Macmurray

Shell by Susie Macmurray - Credit: Archant

When Susie MacMurray’s husband John was dying of cancer she got her big break. The Wilmslow-based artist had already exhibited at Manchester Art Gallery and in York but it was her heartbreaking work at Pallant House in Chichester in 2006, which gave her career the biggest boost, placing her in the same league as contemporary greats like Anish Kapoor, Grayson Perry and Cornelia Wilde.

‘It was the last work my husband ever saw. He died aged 47,’ said Susie.

‘It was a weird time for me. He was diagnosed three and a half years before but when he went eventually he went very, very quickly.’

Susie was left a widow with two boys aged 14 and 17 and a burgeoning career in art thanks to the Chichester piece, Shell, which had involved her covering the walls of the hallway of Pallant House with 20,000 mussel shells coated in red silk velvet.

Icarus by Susie Macmurray

Icarus by Susie Macmurray - Credit: Archant

She had bought the shells in their thousands from a seafood restaurant in Chester called Moules a Go-Go and spent her nights washing them before she and her team of volunteers covered them in fabric.

The piece was very much in response to place she says. Pallant House was built on the site of an old fish market, hence the shell connection, but their fragile carapace is also a symbol of the owners’ relationship.

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‘The house had been built on a marriage of convenience. The owner had been widowed in her 20s and in her 40s inherited a fortune. This wealthy merchant married her for her money and they threw everything at this amazing house. It took them five years to build and as soon as the house was built they split.

‘The gallery won museum of the year that year which was good publicity for me but very weird because my husband was dying.’

Echo by Susie Macmurray

Echo by Susie Macmurray - Credit: Archant

John died at home that year of myxoid liposarcoma, a form of cancer which affects the tissue around the bones.

‘You can have it for years and not realise it,’ said Susie.

Susie wasn’t an artist when she moved to Wilmslow, she was a professional musician and it was joining the Halle Orchestra in Manchester which brought her and her husband to Cheshire.

‘I was born in Kent and I had spent most of my teenage years in Canada and met my husband in the Canadian National Youth Orchestra he was Canadian,’ she explained.

‘He was principal trumpeter with the Halle for 20 years. He’s very well respected throughout the music world.’

Susie gave up the life playing the bassoon professionally when she had her two sons, setting up a catering company with a friend at home so she could be with them.

‘Going back to being a musician is an un-family thing to do when you both do it. You’re off touring and away at night so I just decided I really didn’t want to go back to that,’ she said. ‘But when the youngest started in reception I did a foundation course at Mancat (Manchester College of Art And Technology), so we both started school on the same day!’

She then did a sculpture degree and a Masters at Manchester Metropolitan University, graduating in 2001.

‘I was very lucky because I was given an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery by Natasha Howes, who is now head curator there, and one thing led to another. It was a big installation work and that’s different to working with sculptures - it’s that site specific thing that relates to a place. I covered all the walls of one of the smaller galleries in black feathers - it was called Flock. Other curators saw that and I got invited to do a piece at St Mary’s Abbey in York.’

As well as sculpture, Susie creates beautiful drawings and she is also famous for her garment sculptures such as Medusa, which was formed from copper chainmail and Icarus, created using ostrich feathers.

She is represented in the UK & Europe by galleries Pangolin, and in North and South America by Danese Corey and has collectors all over the world but can’t mention the more famous ones.

Luckily we won’t have to travel far to see her latest sculptural piece, as Susie is currently working on a site-specific work called The Gathering for an exhibition at Tatton Park. It has been partly inspired by a costume ball held at the big house in 1897, in which the hostess wore red velvet, and also explores love and memory, support and care, loss and grief. When finished it will feature around 2,000 velvet ‘poppies’ with stems of barbed wire, that will cascade into the entrance hall.

The piece will be at Tatton from next month and when the exhibition closes, parts of it will be sold to raise money for East Cheshire Hospice. Many of the volunteers who have turned up at her Wilmslow studio to help create the work have their own poignant tales to share.

‘It’s funny how some of the most wonderful, profound and joyful memories are from the times when they were ill,’ Susie said. ‘It was awful and wonderful at the same time, which is kind of what my work is. I’m trying to get my head around how we can be so strong and powerful and yet so weak and vulnerable at the same time.’

Gathering will be at Tatton Park from June 28th- October 6th.