07 February 2017

Remembering Susan Tilsley Manley (1965-2016)

Artist, mother, friend and SAQA-Atlantic member Susan Tilsley Manley left this world last November. Debra Plestid, of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, shares her reflections about the loss of her friend and colleague.

Tom with Crow, by Susan Tilsley Manley

At 5:30 pm on November 19th, 2016, I lit a candle for Susan, for all those whose hearts have been broken. I sat in disbelief, hardly able to grasp the fact that Susan has left this life. I feel a flood of sadness and rage. 

There is a crow in the pig’s trough this morning. She’s feeding on small bits of vegetable scraps the pigs have left for her. Black, stately, an opportunist. I see her mate in the gnarly apple tree; watching, waiting. Crows - messengers, watchers, wise, witty, tricksters - crows have also come to mean having loved your father and needing to keep him animate in your work, in your life. I notice crows because of Susan. 

I appreciated many things about Susan.

Susan was a magical sprite. She welcomed and delighted in wonder. In July, Susan had difficulty finding language but there was no difficulty finding ways to be joyful. We sat together, we chatted when she could, were often in silence, were bathed in the warm sun and enveloped in a burble of iridescent soap bubbles. Because if you can be no where but here on a fine summer day, you might as well turn on the bubble machine and allow alchemy to surround you. Halloween, make-believe, fantasy were made alive in Susan. Who but Susan would glue a large ruby in the centre of the steering wheel of her red PT Cruiser? And giggle with excitement? I can bask in enchantment because of Susan. 

Susan had a huge spark in her, and she saw the spark in others. She encouraged, supported, complimented, revelled in other people’s skills and talents. She presumed it to be true that we all fit in together, that we all have a place, that more is more, and that it makes for a better world if we are all included.  

Susan was astute, sharp… she said she grew a ‘victory’ garden, making a statement about the direct negative impact of Harper government decisions on her family. She named bullying when she saw it, she was proactive, caring and unapologetic in creating positive change. She knew her mind. She spoke about having learned how to argue and she was absolute in her determination to be fair, reasonable, acknowledge differences, make space for one another and to listen with an open heart. I saw her deep love, affection and appreciation of her husband and her children, even and maybe especially at those times when her needs were so great. When I’m feeling unsure, I think of Susan and go inward to know my mind. 

Susan was playful and inventive, precise and insightful, proud and intuitive, positive and inspiring in loving and guiding her family, in her work, even in the face of a fatal diagnosis. 

Name the medium - she’s done it - paint, fibre, altered books, books, silkscreen, stamps, batik, paper, canvas, dyeing fabric, complex cloth. She was exacting and her work exuded confident expression. She’s excelled at it all. She was a master. 

When I hear the word yummy, know that I’m remembering Susan. 

She said yes. She asked what if? Rust - Susan played around with cotton, vinegar and rusty things. She identified immediate potential, it was never in the abstract, she went to work. What if I adjusted the curing time for the rusty bits on the cotton? She discovered that she could create intricate sepia tone images, what if I could show that all is not as it seems. She was an original, she was genius.  

Susan shone. If the world were a different, better place, she would have been bestowed all and every recognition she deserved. She would never have had to suspend work in her studio for paid work elsewhere. Like rainwater falling onto dry earth, like sunshine on a growing leaf, creativity moved through Susan, was absorbed by Susan. Her positive persistence in creating knew no bounds. When she was feeling down early in her disease, it was the act of creating that brought her back to herself. She changed how she worked. She was tired and in that place she made decisions about what work she would do when she had the energy to work. She set her priorities. And work she did. She chronicled her experiences in her work - from her pregnancy books to her last art journal. In these works I will remember Susan, rediscover her essence and revel in having known her. 

Creating meaning, creating inspiration. She saw beauty in the world and she made the world more beautiful. I’m not writing anything that Susan’s family and friends don’t already know in their bones.  

The candle I lit for Susan on Saturday burned steadily. It was flickering still at 7 am on Sunday morning… symbolically keeping Susan present, she was already front of mind. It burned long - through all of Sunday, into the night. At 5:30 am on Monday morning it was out.


I wanted a magical recovery for Susan. 
I’m angry to have to say goodbye to Susan. 

Damn, damn. 

I loved her.  She was a gift to me.  I will miss her. 

Debra Plestid
November 2016
Candle with Hair by Susan Tilsley Manley


  1. This was lovely and eloquent. I too think of Susan with great fondness. Damn, indeed.

  2. Such a wonderful tribute to Susan. My condolences to you, Deb and to all those who held her close. I knew Susan less well but am changed because I did.