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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

A fish out of water

By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun

Driving up Hwy. 118 near Haliburton, it's easy to miss Sue Forbes' studio. Tiny sea creatures dangle from a mailbox and a small painted sign posts the words, "Fish out of Water."
Sue Forbes laughs when some people mistake her intricately made crafts as taxidermy.

The sign doesn't lie. For this is the art the former Toronto fundraiser creates: fish. Carved wooden trout sit in mounted frying pans hanging on a wall. Tiny schools of minnows appear in and out of brilliantly-coloured glass. Other fish are transmogrified from driftwood.

Artistic path

The work is almost like living art. Look at one of Forbes' patented windows long enough, complete with pebbles and sea grass, and it appears as if her carved marine life actually moves through the scenery.

"Fish balance their ecosystems a lot better than people do," Forbes says. "Clean water's important to me. We take it for granted. Nobody said 'hello' to it as an issue until Walkerton."

It's hard to believe the 59-year-old Forbes only embarked on her artistic path a little more than four years ago, and yet for the past two years she's been making a living at it.

"I took a stained glass course five years ago, and my teacher said, 'your piece is very good, but a stained glass artist you're not. You're a stained glass junkie.' She was right. I was awkward at it, but it was an important piece of education for me and taught me the beauty of glass."

A year later, Forbes found herself carving driftwood when she realized she was actually creating an animal emerging from the wood. Fascinated by the medium, she continued mining the possibilities of wood and glass, often combining the two, until her work began to take on the haunting accuracy of the images she was trying to capture.

"It's pain-staking, meticulous work," she says, "but I owe my customers an accurate study; I try to bring life to my art." She laughs when recalling how some customers occasionally mistake her work for taxidermy.

Although her work is displayed in several galleries, Forbes estimates that 65% of her work comes from commissions, noting how she's currently got seven projects vying for completion in time for the gift giving season.

Her work goes through several phases before it reaches completion. Forbes will often visit a client's home to determine size, design, colours and themes before commencing a piece. Sometimes clients have particular requests, such as fish designs on kitchen cabinets. Normally though, she says her clients trust her judgment enough to say, "go."

She estimates that once the design and conceptual stages are complete, a piece will take up to two full days to finish.

The completed product ranges in price between $50 and $2000. "My price points are all dependent on the amount of materials and creativity involved," she says. "When people come into their homes, I want them to love the art."

Part of Forbes' success is built on a strong marketing foundation, cultivated over more than two decades during her career as a "business barracuda," she laughs.

"For an artist's survival, you're not just an artist until you're (Robert) Bateman," she insists. "You have to be it all: sign maker, ad writer, everything. You just can't take a magic marker sign outside and create attention."
The Canadian arts scene flourishes and contributes over $15 billion to the economy annually. According to a 2001 report, Canada's Cultural Sector Labour Force employs more than 516,000 people across 45 sub-sectors; one in every 32 Canadians is employed in the cultural sector. About one-third of these have some form of university education and 50% are women. This field also has one of the highest rates of self-employment of any career group, yet one of the lowest incomes ($23-29K) compared to the national average ($31K). Clearly, being an "artist" in today's marketplace is not enough. One must take an entrepreneurial approach and research the marketplace, network and develop a competency profile to discern the requirements to make it in a chosen field. Fortunately, a number of excellent resources exist to help the starving artist make a meal of their career! These include:
  • The Cultural Careers Council of Ontario ( Excellent site complete with job banks, profiles of cultural sectors, a training database, mentoring program, income management internships, toolkits and more.
  • The Cultural Human Resources Council ( oversees the Sectoral Council Interprovincial Network, provides information on grants, busines planning and entrepreneurship, and has developed a series of competency profiles that artists can use as research before choosing a career in a specific field.
  • The Canadian Conference of the Arts ( offers a tax primer and business plan model for artists wishing to start their own businesses.
  • The Artist Legal Service ( offers information, counselling, seminars and referrals for artists with contract, copyright and trademark concerns.
  • Sketch ( is a Toronto-based non-profit community development project for at-risk youth 15-29, that explores artistic development in a variety of disciplines. Offers mentoring and workshops.

  • A graduate from Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in business administration, Forbes says the most important aspect of her education was learning what she didn't like. "Even though I was okay at business, it was an important part of becoming who I wasn't," she says.

    So, after years of commuting between Newmarket and Toronto, she finally threw in the towel and moved to Haliburton three years ago, establishing a home on Grace Lake. "After years of dragging the kids down the 404, the city started to grind me down. Being in Haliburton is a tremendous energy booster."

    Giving back

    Still, she hasn't left her roots completely behind her. Forbes recently joined the local arts council, whose mandate, in part, is to help artists market their work. It's all part of giving back to the community, which she feels is important.

    "I'm coming very late in life to art. I feel thankful to grasp art. So many never find their buzz when they retire; I'm luck enough to have found mine and now I'm making up for lost years."

    For more information, call Fish Out of Water at 705-457-8322 or e-mail:

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