Newport Gains a New Artist

An artist finds a new career and a new life in Rhode Island


In amazing order, Susan Petree’s head exploded, she sustained a rapturous epiphany, was declared “nuts” by friends, washed away her fears in dashing splashes of abstract expressionism, left a $50 billion investment career, moved to Newport, sold and exhibited paintings, and, at this writing, has never been happier.

Petree, 60, an international child (daughter of a U.S. diplomat with stops in Virginia, Japan, Ethiopia, Boston, Hartford, New York, Philly and California) and international investor who never painted even a fence as a child, gave up Wall Street for blank walls.

In 2011, on sabbatical from work, a trip with friends saw her touring art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She met artist Julianna Poldi who mentioned that she could teach anyone to paint abstract art. “On a whim, we took a three-hour class and it was like my head exploded. I clearly had the instincts and probably was a little fearless because I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Susan. “My friends didn’t have any such epiphany, although I keep telling them that they have talent if they’d just try.”
She went back to NYC, bought “a bunch of canvases and paint,” and started painting every day. Several canvases later, she decided not to go back to work in order to paint full time. “I needed more room and a place to splash paint around. I also knew I couldn’t exist in New York and not work. So, I sold my apartment and started looking for someplace to live. As it turns out, the friends I was traveling in New Mexico with live in Jamestown, so why not Newport?”

Her banking world was all about people, corporate politics, budgets, investments. Now, her world is about color, texture, movement and expression. “In the beginning, my friends thought I was nuts, that it would wear off and that I’d be back in the banking business. As I progressed, especially after my move to Newport and many classes and workshops at the Newport Art Museum, Wickford Art Center, the Peacedale Guild and back in Santa Fe, I met more people who were very positive about my work. When people started asking to buy, it helped to know that it has merit,” adds Susan.

A painter for 18 months now, she picks her friends as carefully now as she does her palette, in order “to surround myself with people who don’t think I’m crazy and who are encouraging. I have also learned to recognize that there are lots of people who do not enjoy or understand abstract art and who really are looking for something more representational, so their lack of enthusiasm for my work doesn’t sting as much.”

Affirmation has led to exhibits, juried shows and introductory acclaim. Her work (first shot) has been accepted in juried exhibits at the Wickford Art Center, at Spring Bull and at the Jamestown Art Center, as well as on sale at a home design store called the Wickford Collection on West Main Street. Her one-woman show, entitled “Etude en Turquoise,” opened July 22 and is running through August 3 at Gallerie Ellipsis in Newport.

“It is so exciting and validating that Christine Manory, the owner, asked me to have the exhibit, but extremely nerve-wracking to figure out which paintings to exhibit. I keep telling myselfthat it doesn’t matter, that I need to keep painting for myself, not for oth- ers, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Most of the people who have purchased so far have seen it in my home and bought it right off the walls. What a lovely feeling to meet someone new, have them to my home and for them to ask the price of something, not blink and buy it,” says Susan. “I think the hard- est thing for me to deal with were the comments like, ‘That’s very interesting?’ or, ‘Now, why are you doing this?’ Or, ‘Don’t you think you should take more lessons?’ That’s when I learned to let it roll off and also pick the people that I spend a lot of time with carefully.”

Banking was all about net worth and net gain. Abstract expressionism is all about nets. “My ongoing motto is, ‘Leap and the net will appear.’ It certainly was scary leaving everything behind, moving into a new home and new career, but the fact is, that I keep leaping and nets keep appearing. I have never been happier or more satisfied in my life.”

Susan Petree’s exhibit remains at Gallerie Ellipsis through August 3. 159 Prospect Hill Road, Newport. 401-714-5649. Email Susan