There’s a little bit more to meet the eye in the Richard Shelby Atrium of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab these days. A chance meeting between an area artist and a senior marine scientist paved the way.
“The University of Alabama had a dinner and I ran into a Dr. Behzad Mortazavi from the Sea Lab staff. We just started talking and he asked about my art and I told him anytime he’s in Gulf Shores to just please stop in to my studio,” Susan McCollough said.
Mortazavi and his wife took up the offer while on the other side of Mobile Bay. One work in marine colors caught his attention.
“He mentioned something about it being at the Sea Lab and I said ‘I can handle that.’ That’s when I decided to gift it to the Sea Lab,” McCollough said.
The large painting, an impressionistic conjuring of roiling sea and sky entitled “Gulf Ever-Changing,” was unveiled Feb. 15 in a ceremony at the facility on the island’s eastern end. McCollough said the only other artwork she spied there bore a familiar name.
“A friend of mine, Bruce Larsen, had a sculpture piece on the wall, a fish made from branches and different things,” McCollough said.
Her donated work is a triptych, a trio of 3-foot-by-8-foot canvases. The entirety was priced at $9,000.
When McCollough listed her previous shows and honors overseas, the price tag made sense.
“Right now I’m more known in Europe than here. I’ve sold some stuff and shown in New York, Miami, Monaco, Cannes and Venice. I’ve got a painting in South Korea, in a museum there, and showed at a Las Vegas museum for five months. I’ve decided for a number of reasons I’m going to stay closer to the United States, although I do have an exhibition coming up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada,” McCollough said.
In 2017, she was named artist of the year by Art Tour International. A show and ceremony in Florence, Italy, followed.
Though born in the Bronx, McCollough grew up in Dothan. While in school at The University of Alabama in the 1960s, she met and later married Academic All-American football player E. Gaylon McCollough. He opted for a medical career over professional football and became one of the most prominent plastic surgeons in his field.
Her pursuits involved aesthetics of a different nature. Another key figure entered her life during those collegiate years.
“Al Sella was a wonderful professor and another abstract artist. He was a very dynamic individual, and if he liked your work then he liked your work, and if he didn’t he’d wad it up and throw it out the fourth floor of Woods Hall. After I stopped being afraid of him, he became my mentor,” McCollough laughed.
McCollough was commissioned by the university to render a 4-foot-by-5-foot impressionist portrait of the beloved instructor and his iconic bicycle. It hangs in the College of Arts and Science’s Clark Hall.
Her involvement with her alma mater hasn’t wavered. In 2017, the McColloughs donated $5 million to the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest academic endowment in more than two decades. It will establish the Dr. E. Gaylon McCollough Institute for Pre-Medical Studies and the Susan N. McCollough Art Biennale.
Throughout their decades as Birmingham residents, the McColloughs regularly vacationed on the Gulf Coast. By the late 1990s, the pull grew stronger and the Magic City surrendered a pair of its most prominent citizens to the balmy beaches of Gulf Shores.
Gaylon established a new medical facility — the McCollough Institute — and Susan continued her artwork. They’re still involved in Tuscaloosa, such as with a recent address they both gave to pre-med majors and professors about ties between medicine and art.
“When you look a patient in the eyes and you’re getting a physical history on that person, then you’re doing the same thing as described in da Vinci’s work. It’s an analysis, whether it be in art or in trying to find out what’s wrong with this person who’s ill,” McCollough said.
At home, she throws herself into her passions.
“I’ve got a new studio here at home behind our stables so I can paint on the walls and paint really large. I love large canvases; they excite me,” McCollough said.
She’s also ready for entirely new challenges. A foray into three-dimensional work has begun.
“I sculpt as well — I studied at the Art Student League in New York — with water-based clay. There’s a foundry in Fairhope I use,” McCollough said. “I’ve been fortunate to make art every day of my life.”