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Granite Bay artist finds inspiration everywhere

By Jessica Laskey
October 2022

Susan Tonkin Riegel’s biggest tip for fellow artists is simple: “Do the work, keep working and don’t do something that doesn’t feel like you.”

Riegel has crafted an impressive art career by being herself. Her mixed-media works are arresting for their playful, abstract and figurative compositions and intricacy. Riegel loves to experiment with materials, from two-dimensional mixed media and oil paint to clay, fabric, batik, papier-mache, wood and, most recently, raw canvas that she paints and sews.

“I get tired of cranking the same thing out, so I switch media,” the longtime Granite Bay resident says. “My style is always changing.”

A native of San Francisco and graduate of UC Berkeley and Sacramento State (where she got bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively, in studio art), Riegel has always been creative. As a child, she felt inspired whether painting with oils in art lessons or playing in the mud.

While raising her son and daughter, she completed an apprenticeship to become an herbalist and found that field was “like making art.” When she started teaching at American River and Sierra colleges, she realized teaching was an artform.

“Learning from my students fed my creative spirit,” she says. “I realized I wanted to work in a more spontaneous, intuitive way—it felt like coming home.”

Riegel finds inspiration in travel and has completed several international residencies, starting at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada, in 2009. She recalls, “A colleague said to me, ‘Why don’t you try a residency?’ I thought, why? I have my own studio and I love it. They said, ‘No, it’s different.’ So I thought, all right, I’ll apply. Those 10 days were a total life-changing experience.”

During the residency, Riegel was invited to go on a meditation excursion in the mountains with a fellow artist. As she sat on the mountaintop, she heard a voice. “It said, this is what you’re going to be doing for a big part of your life,” Riegel says. “It was totally unexpected but it means we really have to listen to that voice we all have inside.”

Riegel has since followed her inner voice to residencies in Switzerland, Mexico, China, Sweden, France and Norway. Post-pandemic, she plans to return to France to “get away from my everyday life and have a dialogue with my art.”

She maintains an impressive exhibition schedule stateside, showing her work in solo, group and juried shows all over California, plus Chicago, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Georgia. Her most recent project was creating work for the entire fifth floor of the new Fort Sutter Hotel at 28th and Capitol, a boutique Hilton that features local artwork in public spaces and each guest room.

When she’s not in the studio, Riegel teaches creativity workshops for kids and adults, moves her body with yoga, hiking and hip-hop dance classes, and travels. She and her husband, who’s also an artist, recently completed a maiden voyage to the ocean in their 13-foot vintage trailer, with plans to drive to Canada.

“It’s nice to have something to look forward to,” Riegel says. “If you’re not excited about what you’re doing, no one else will be.”

For more information, visit susantonkinriegel.com.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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