More than 5,000 miles away from the Tyne Valley, in the South San Francisco campus of a pioneering biotechnology corporation called Genentech, there hangs two oil paintings.

They are not of California as you might expect with azure waves crashing against sunny shores - but depict woodland carpeted with bluebells - a scene much more familiar here in Northumberland and in fact taken from an area near Bellister and Featherstone.

The story of how they got there involves cutting edge science, a Haltwhistle blacksmiths’ family and a Haydon Bridge student’s dream to break the mould and become an artist.

Meet artist Susan Jackson, who paints under her maiden name Routledge. She’s from Haydon Bridge, but for the past 35 years has lived in California with her husband Frank, who also hails from Tynedale.

Susan painted ‘Walk in the wood’ and ‘Bluebell Wood’ from drawings and photographs of a walk through the blue bells beside the river at Featherstone, near Haltwhistle on one of her many return visits to her native Northumberland which she and Frank still call home. The paintings, and three others by Susan, are now part of the corporate collection of Genentech, which Frank played a leading role in for many years.

Their hearts never left Tynedale, but with a family of their own in California, Susan and Frank’s lives are now spent between their two homes – one in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other on the Mendocino Coast at an impressive house called Barking Rocks – named after the noisy seals which live on an island just off the shore. It is here where Susan has her studio.

Their lives stateside have seen Susan paint, ride and live with the Navajo nation and Frank head up the biggest pharmaceutical facility in the world, specialising in recombinant DNA technology – put very simply splitting human genes and turning them into life-changing pharmaceutical products.

It’s a big contrast to their lives growing up in Tynedale. Susan lived on Church Street in Haydon Bridge and said the only expectations her parents Ethel and Ronnie had was for her to marry a local farmer or be a teacher.

“My family had been there since 1503 and before that, our branch of the family lived in Newcastleton for a long time,” she said.

Susan and Frank didn’t know each other as children, but by coincidence were both born in the same bed at Haltwhistle maternity hospital - as was their second son.

“I went to Haydon Bridge technical school,” she said. “The head there was Eddie Waite and he was fabulous. I had a great time there and had no idea about art until the art teacher said ‘you have got to go to art college’.

“My parents were against me going to art college though. My father was a British Rail foreman and also had a smallholding and ran the local betting shop. If it had not been for my older sister Meg, standing up for me going to art school I would not have gone.”

And so 17-year-old Susan found herself at Newcastle College of Fashion and Clothing Technology which was not too far from the Tyne Brewery, a smell which Susan still remembers to this day.

“It was a great art school and I very quickly realised that was where my skills were,” she said. But, Susan was not to finish her course because Frank had entered her life and when she was 18 they got married.

Frank, three years her senior, was from a family of blacksmiths in Haltwhistle. They had run F. Jackson and sons since 1780 and Frank worked there during his summer holidays with his father, Harry, who retired in 1981.

But Frank’s interest lay in science rather than the forge and he studied biochemistry at St Andrews. After meeting Susan in her last year at school, it wasn’t long before they were wed.

Susan took up a job as a professional fashion model between the ages of 18 and 30, but still kept up with her art. And it was a painting she did for her sister-in-law in Ealing that got her a job as a watercolour artist for a London company called Halcyon Days, after someone from the company saw her work.

But when Frank was head-hunted by Genentech in 1981, the couple moved to California with their children to begin a new life.

“Frank and I are very much people of the Tyne Valley and we were the last people to want to leave the area,” said Susan. “We were very reluctant to leave. We were in Hampshire at the time and they said we could come for five years and try it out and here we still are.”

Susan studied with several artists in her new home, including Jade Fon who took her under his wing. “He became my friend and mentor and encouraged me,” she said. “He was an interesting character and did not suffer fools lightly, but he was very kind to me.”

He introduced Susan to Millard Sheets, an artist who designed several public buildings and worked with Life magazine. After Millard’s death, Susan and Frank bought his home at Barking Rocks.

A few years after arriving in California, Susan’s work was picked up by a publishing company which turned a painting of Unthank Hall in Tynedale into posters, which were sold all over the USA. She also painted one called Summer on Honeybrook Lane, but in reality, this was another scene from home ¬– Ratcliffe Road in Haydon Bridge.

In 2004, Susan and 13 other artists were selected to spend two weeks living with the Navajo at Canyon De Chelly, which inspired her Native American works. One, called Corn Talkers, was exhibited in the Sasse Museum of Art in Southern California.

“It’s a national park and you can’t go in there on your own,” said Susan. “You have to be accompanied by Navajo guides. It is a sacred site. There are no showering facilities and you are not allowed to wash in the river because that is sacred to them. We rode horses and slept on the canyon floor. It was a life-changing experience for me. The art experience was amazing – the light is so different.”

When Barking Rocks came up for sale, Susan was initially not interested, but after seeing Millard Sheet’s studio and gallery she was bowled over.

“It has a huge gallery and for an artist it is just heaven to have something like that,” she said. “When we bought the place it still had some of the furniture in the house and the family left all their father’s equipment for me – you cannot imagine how grateful I am for that. I think it was because the family was so happy to have another artist working there. It is a very inspirational place. Millard was driving down the coast in the 1950s and literally stopped the car and bought the whole bay.”

For most people though, making a living as an artist is a tough business and Susan quotes JMW Turner who said: “Art is a rummy business.”

“We are financially comfortable because Frank supports me,” she said. “Without the financial support of Frank I think it would be very difficult, and it is for young artists and it is very difficult for women artists. It’s hard for women to run a family, be an artist, run a show…”

Susan and Frank have three children, two boys and a girl who live locally. Frank retired in 2007 and was highly regarded in his field, so much so that a street at the pharmaceutical facility that Frank ran for Genentech in Vacaville near Sacremento is named after him. And it is there where those paintings of Bellister and Featherstone hang today.

“Both Frank and myself feel incredibly lucky in our life together,” said Susan. “We have worked hard, but we are very grateful for our great education, our families and the warm tradition of our Northumbrian culture.

“Northumberland is a unique place for its people, character and sensibilities.

We grew up respecting our elders, loving the outdoors and believing in kindness and honesty.”