Sue Richards – Social Entrepreneur, Artistic Visionary, Community Builder


This month, Guelph lost one of its leading artistic visionaries, Sue Richards.

Sue was an unbridled spirit who moved to Guelph in 1981 to attend University. Not long after arriving, Sue fell head-over-heels (well, over-Birkenstocks would be more accurate) in love with our city. She saw what amazing talent this city possessed and began working with others in the community to establish initiatives that have, and continue to, enrich the lives of Guelph residents. Throughout her time in Guelph, Sue helped lay the foundation for the Hillside Festival, established the community art project Art Jam, launched the Breasts of Canada calendar, and founded Blog Guelph.

“Sue Richards had a remarkable impact on our city as a community builder and arts advocate,” explains long-time friend and coworker James Gordon. “I met her 30 years ago at an early organizing meeting for the Hillside Festival. She arrived on a motorcycle and made a real movie-star entrance and we stayed connected from then on. “

Richards and Gordon were key in the development of the Hillside Festival, an event that has become an integral part the genetic makeup of Guelph. When the Festival began in 1984, admission was by donation and the program was a single sheet of folded photocopied paper that read ‘11 hour music celebration for all ages Noon-11’.

Sue Richards, photo by James Gordon

“When I was the first Artistic Director at Hillside, she was the organizing brains, the business manager who really got things going, and she later became Artistic Director herself for a short time,” explains Gordon. “She imbued that Festival with her own vibrancy, enthusiasm and sense of community engagement – and I don’t think Hillside would be the exciting successful celebration it is today without her valuable early nurturing.” Sue served as the Artistic Director of Hillside from 1990-1992 and continued to remain involved in the Festival in the years to come.

Towards the end of the nineties, Sue set her sights on establishing a community art space in a redundant elementary school in Guelph. The Artist in Community National Pilot Project awarded Richards one of eight grants available in the country to help establish her community art initiative: Art Jam. With additional help of corporate and community partners, she turned the former Torrance Public School on Waterloo Avenue, currently used as a Montessori school, into the headquarters for Art Jam.

Sally Wismer, former Executive Director of Guelph Arts Council, worked closely with Sue on the project. “When I think of Sue Richards, I think of Hillside Festival, Breast of Canada calendar, Blog Guelph, among her many involvements, but, for me, what really embodied her creative spirit more than anything else was the Art Jam community arts project that she initiated in 1998. With the support of Guelph Arts Council and the Laidlaw Foundation and others, Sue and her artistic colleagues were able to offer a series of workshops that opened up the artistic process to individuals and groups who had no training or background in the arts.”

Art Jam was created to be a safe, positive, fun and criticism free environment for individual creative play and learning. The organization offered a variety of workshops for people of all ages and interests to let loose and allow for spontaneous artistic expression. “These workshops were events in themselves, offering participants a “fun” experience and helping to raise the profile of the arts in Guelph,” explained Sally. “Guelph is certainly the richer for Sue Richards’ inspired contributions.”

Sue’s efforts to establish an innovative Community Arts Education and Creative Centre in Guelph did not go unrecognized. That same year, Sue received the YMCA-YWCA 5th Women of Distinction Arts and Culture Award and later served as the Honorary Chair of the Women of Distinction Awards in 2003.

Richards went on to launch Breast of Canada in 2002, a black and white calendar containing stunning images of Canadian women with breast cancer in support of breast health and breast cancer prevention. “Her annual ‘Breast of Canada’ calendar, an artistic and creative fundraising endeavor for Breast Cancer research, brought her national acclaim, which she always handled with humility,” notes James. Her photographic successes with the calendars led Sue to the creation of Blog Guelph in 2006, a blog that chronicles life in the city and showcases local photographers.

In late 2007, Richards announced she would not be publishing the 2008 edition of Breasts of Canada due to personal health reasons. It wasn’t until early 2008 that Sue publicly announced she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

After discovering she was ineligible for social benefits, Sue campaigned tirelessly with members of the community to help assist her in her time of need. She probed alternative treatments and advertised a spare bedroom online in exchange for help with chores. Sue passed away at the age of 56 on Saturday, August 2, 2014 alongside family and friends.

“She touched so many [lives] in this community with her creativity and her courage – two qualities that shone brightly in her life and loomed large in her death as well. She leaves a large hole in the fabric of our community, but a lasting legacy that we will all remember fondly for,” shares James.

Lynn Broughton adds, “Sue Richards was, and will remain, the Empress of concept and vision in Guelph. She always reminded us to see Guelph at its best. And true to her intrepid spirit, she became her own Community Art Project in recent years. Her own Art Jam.”

By Noelle Lalonde

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