Journey of the Heart: Working at Terra Sophia

WS Staff creation

How do you grieve for someone who set you firmly on the path you now walk?

Who so firmly set you there that you can no longer imagine any other way of living?

Who did this for countless others as she journeyed through her life?

I’ve been asking this of myself for the last few days. My beloved painting teacher, Sue Hoya Sellars, has passed from this world into the next, the world of her beloved cosmos. I know there is a new star birthing there, likely a whole bloody constellation knowing Sue.

And now, I find myself in need of an answer to those questions of mine. 

My Muse, who is always ready to jump in with witty words of wisdom, and sometimes pure silliness, has been suspiciously quiet with only a nudge here and there. Intention is everything, she reminds me. What IS my intention?

To honor Sue for the gifts she gave me by continuing to live and WORK as an artist. To fall in love with the beauty of this world, again and again. To connect to the essence of that beauty and write what I see. To paint as if this is the only thing I am doing for the rest of my life. To honor and continue her legacy through teaching and sharing her wisdom and way of living as an artist. To bring her vision of an artist sanctuary into actuality. To stop whining and get to work.

Terra Sophia

In my last post, I spoke of how my heart exploded in joy when Sue said yes to doing an independent study with me. Here are some of  the words I wrote after I came back from that first time with Sue on her land, Terra Sophia. This was several years ago…

“The journey to Terra Sophia, Sue’s property in northern California, is a transition from complexity to earthly simplicity. Leaving, I drove north out of Silicon Valley, through San Francisco, and across the Golden Gate Bridge. I stopped to look back towards the city from the vista point at the end of the bridge thinking of the mass of humanity and culture represented by San Francisco – all the things one can do there.

Continuing onward, Hiway 101 gradually left behind extra lanes of traffic, cities, and fast food restaurants as rural landforms began to take over along longer and longer spans of highway. Ponds of water with white clouds of birds took the place of gas stations. Hills regained their carpets of green and houses became scarce.

Turning off of the main highway, the road became two lanes turning and rolling through oak trees dripping with gray moss along a rushing creek. Turning off of the two lane road, I headed up the dirt road towards Sue’s abode eventually parking as directed by the old red truck. When I turned of the car engine, the silence surrounded me and I could feel the aliveness of the earth. I had arrived at Terra Sophia.

After a short lunch, we went to work, and there began my first lesson. I have had a habit of using the word play instead of work when referring to creating art. Sue strongly reminded me that we were there to work; there was nothing of play in what we were doing.

Why the word play? My father did his best to kill my desire to be an artist when I was a child. Somehow my childhood brain got itself twisted up and decided I could be an artist as long as it was play and not work. The unraveling of this false logic continued throughout my time with Sue.

Sue sat me down with a bird skull, sumi-e ink, brush, and paper. Sumi-e drawings are a meditation. Quick, loose, done in the form of writing. I thought my first drawings were terrible. Sue came in every few minutes and told me to move on, do another, write a column of words, hold the brush like this, do another. I wrote rocks, bird skulls, and shells. I wrote words in columns, signed my name, and stamped them with a seal for good luck.

Next, Sue had me write grass – from small clumps to large, in rolling, curving swales across a hill. Once I had the hang of writing grass we setup my painting, Sunrise on a New Life. Mixed up some paint and I wrote grass across the yellow sections. Writing the grass was an exercise in learning to paint from a more centered place inside me, patiently, seeing in a different way. It showed me bodily how to access my creative energy from deep inside me. When the grass was complete, we went added a small cliff across the river to add depth.

Somewhere in the timelessness of that afternoon we went for a hike around Sue’s land finding red-orange mushrooms, blooming trilliums, and deer bones. Sue showed me where the little yellow finches come up to the window to feed, where the deer get their treats, and where the stand is for the ravens who, while not liking to be observed, talk in a loud voice. I was able to get one photo of a raven.

The next day, we went back to work on Sunrise. …

Sunrise is a symbolic painting of a woman looking over the edge of a cliff into a shell, which holds water and a sunrise. The water I had painted was not water, and so, water was what I worked on next. Sue had me write ocean – imagining myself standing at the beach watching the waves, the sunlight across the waves, how the waves move continuously, the patterns they make. I channeled ocean out through the tip of the brush, while watching the tip of the brush as I painted. Being entirely one with ocean, brush, paint, canvas felt like exactly where I need to be all the time. It was incredibly centering.

Next up was to add a waterfall to the bottom edge of the “bowl” of ocean so that it flowed down into the river in a more coherent manner. This was a process of demonstration, and trial and error. I rushed my brushwork at one point and it showed. Sue, the master, fixed the edge of the waterfall – and I learned the subtle edge of difference between staying centered and pushing.

There were periods during the workshop where I felt paralyzed and unable to paint. All the voices of the critic would flare up and remind me I have only been painting for a year and I never took any formal painting classes. I have always created art but I am not really an artist because I am not good enough.

Conversations with Sue helped enormously. That she was willing to work with me spoke volumes. The centered part of me was joyfully working away and listening. Listening to ideas like,

We are here in this lifetime to do our spiritual work, but it is what we create that we take with us to the next life.” 

Sunrise on a New Life by Annette Wagner, 2010


When I re-read those words Sue said to me about what we take with us, the tears started flowing again. She took so much with her from what she created here. She was a wealthy woman. And yet, she left us with so much as well. And it is to that which I must look and honor. 

My story is now part of her story as it is with any master teacher and her students. There is a commitment I made when I began painting with Sue to BE an artist. To WORK. To be know how serious a job it is to be an artist, especially in this world right now, right here where we are rarely honored for the insights, beauty, wisdom, and doorways we open for others.

And so, I commit myself to my path once again.

I am an artist doing my work in the world, every day, every breath, every step, every stroke, every word.

~ Annette