In recent years, on trips to Hilton Head Island to visit his mother, Campbell Plowden found himself in the delicate position of wanting to embrace her creativity while trying to safeguard her legacy.
Suzanne McCullough Plowden, then in her 90s — still at an easel, wielding a brush — had begun painting over some of her old works and excising portions of them to fashion new art.
“(W)hen I first realized what she was doing ... I asked her about it,” Campbell said recently, “and I said, ‘Mom, please don’t — please don’t do that.’”
“And I realized I couldn’t,” he continued. “She was continuing to be creative in any way she could. I wasn’t going to stop her. I couldn’t stop her. And I wouldn’t want to stop her.”
Still, it was hard to watch. And like a lot of children witnessing their parents age, Campbell had to make difficult decisions with good intentions, and trust in them.
On Dec. 14, he and loved ones gathered at Six Oaks Cemetery in Sea Pines to tell her goodbye.
But earlier — before she died Sept. 3 at the age of 101 — Suzanne’s final years were a portrait of an artist who kept making art, in her own way, for as long as she could.
It would be an understatement to say she was a prolific painter.
Through the years her work has graced galleries in New York, Australia and Brazil. Her 1938 oil-on-canvas mural “Early Clockmaking” is cataloged in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, according to the agency’s website. She was a popular illustrator and portraitist who later ventured into abstraction — her forte, according to Campbell — painting, among other things, seascapes with surprising pops of color.
The Texas-born, New Orleans-raised artist moved to Hilton Head in 1980, where she offered art classes and helped raise money for creative ventures.
She often initialed the corners of canvases with “SMP.” The “S” was, sometimes, almost angular, tilted in such a way that it resembled a lightning bolt, one that flashed more recently on paintings in The Seabrook, a retirement community she’d reluctantly moved to when she started slowing down in the early 2000s.
Decades earlier she’d lived in New York and, alongside her twin sister, crafted fashion illustrations that won an Art Director’s Award, Barbara Schacker wrote in 1986 for The Island Packet. Suzanne and Lucerne McCullough (Roberts) were churning out work and competing with the likes of Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali, according to Schacker.
The sisters were also models, two of the original “Toni Twins,” identical siblings photographed for Toni’s haircare, do-it-at-home perm product. The late-1940’s ads pictured twins — one who’d used Toni, the other permed at a salon — and dared readers to guess which was which. “The campaign generated so much publicity,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in 2013, “that ... the Federal Trade Commission intervened to make sure ... the twin with the Toni ... wasn’t done up by a professional.”
Many of these details — including tales of twins so in sync they could finish each other’s drawings — have inked the pages of newspapers and magazines, forming a consistent narrative of Suzanne over the years.
But there’s more to her story. And, as is often the case with death, we learn more about — and, maybe, learn more from — people after they’re gone.
“Her art passes muster on every level,” said Mark Thibodeau, a painter and art dealer who, before establishing Hardeeville’s Gallery 95, sold pieces for galleries in Washington D.C. for almost a decade.
“She’s no dilettante,” he continued. “She’s not a Sunday painter.”
She was a determined painter, working through her 90s, even as her eyesight weakened and her dexterity diminished, and in spite of a damaged right hand.
She fell during a trip to Costa Rica sometime in 2003 or 2004, Campbell said, and injured her painting hand. She had surgery after returning home but couldn’t maneuver a brush. He bought her a computer and showed her how to use Microsoft Paint.
“And what she accomplished just using that very simple program was amazing,” he said.
But she would paint again.
Even as she aged, she managed to echo signature shapes and forms from her earlier work, Thibodeau said.
“What was important, even in that period, is there are certain things she was still able to do,” he explained. “Her palette is unique, her colors are unique. ... In some ways, I think it really stretched her to work as long as she could.”
Her paintings are, in Thibodeau’s words, “complete sentences”: works that clearly convey mood and emotion.
“Her studio was not neat,” Campbell said. “There was paint everywhere, there was paint on the computer.”
Suzanne was “energetic and gracious,” he said, but also opinionated; in later years, as her “filter was fading,” she sometimes said things that blushed cheeks.
A child of the South, she struggled with the region’s typically conservative leanings.
She was a painfully shy kid, Campbell said, wondering at the “pretty radical transition” she made to not only move to New York, but to make it there — and then live all over the world in places like India before settling in the Lowcountry.
She was civic-minded, devouring “600-page” nonfiction books on current affairs in her later years.
And while she loved her family, she was “not the kind of grandma who got down the floor and played Legos with the kids,” Campbell said.
Instead, she painted portraits of her loved ones, hung them on her walls in The Seabrook — showed them off to visitors.
“A week (or) 10 days before she passed away,” Campbell said, “and my wife and I arrived, and (Suzanne’s) mind was really slowing down, ... we could take a painting off the wall and bring it over and show it to her.
“So, it was a way of refreshing her memory, to the very end, of all the people that she had loved all her life ... and painted.”
Hilton Head’s Rosemary Kimball commissioned a portrait from Suzanne, formerly her neighbor in Sea Pines.
“‘You don’t want a portrait to be like a photograph,’” Rosemary remembers her friend saying. “‘Anybody can have a photograph. You want a portrait to capture the essence of a person.’”
Sometimes Suzanne painted herself.
She once painted Campbell, posed with “Barter,” a giant, white poodle his mom’s twin had taken in payment for some of her own work, then given to his family.
“I just brought that painting home,” he said.
He brought others home, too — sometimes discreetly.
In recent years, as he watched his mom paint over her past works and cut others to pieces, he didn’t want to stop her.
He settled on a compromise, supporting her new work and secreting away some of the old, embracing her artistry and preserving her art.
“And I have to say that’s where I felt in a more tender, awkward position,” he said. “I wanted her to keep creating whenever she felt inspired to do so.”
Thibodeau, through Campbell, ended up with a collection of Suzanne’s work.
Other paintings of hers can be found in Savannah at A.W. Johnston & Co.
Still others populate art auction sites elsewhere on the internet.
Of all the works Thibodeau acquired, some of the most prized are Suzanne’s sketches, a few unfinished.
At least one is on hotel stationary.
And that’s a telling detail for Thibodeau.
It’s an artifact of someone who, wherever she was, whatever she was doing, felt compelled to create when called to do so.
It’s the mark of an artist.