Welcome to the latest in my irregular series, ‘Portrait of a Lifecrafter’. In each Portrait, I interview an individual who has followed their dreams to a fruitful career, or as a hobby or secondary source of income.
In this interview, I speak to “outsider artist” Sue Kreitzman. I first encountered Sue when I came across one of her cookery books in my local library when I was a student. I took it home, read it, made and devoured several of the recipes in it, and went on to become a firm fan of Sue’s writing. Her books marked an important point in my ongoing interest in nourishing foods and healthy cooking methods. Even now, many years later, the techniques and recipes I learned from them stand me in good stead in the kitchen. In recent years, Sue has gone on to achieve great success as an artist and curator of art exhibitions. She could also be considered a walking work of art in her own right; she regularly appears in public bedecked with colourful artisan jewellery and striking Lauren Shanley clothes made from the ethnic and vintage fabric she collects from around the world. An American by birth, Sue has lived in the UK since the mid-1980s, and continues to divide her time between London and New York. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on her remarkable journey from one successful career to another – and details some of the pit-stops along the way.
Thanks for being with us, Sue. Here’s a question I’d like to ask first, because I’m always intrigued by how people see themselves. Who are you?
I’m an artist, a curator, a collector, an obsessive about many things, 70 years old (the years just snuck up on me) drenched in colour and wild enthusiasm and constantly thinking and living outside the box. In fact I could never even find the box. The point, the meaning, the very existence of the box has always eluded me. Of course I have actually known many people who have lived firmly within its four confining walls – especially when I was a ‘faculty wife’ during my husband’s tenure at a well known American University – but I never understood them, or their constricted lifestyle.
What have been your passions in life – past and present?
I have had several lives. Not in a mystical ‘past lives remembered under hypnosis’ sort of way, but actual segments of my own real life, that have changed drastically through the years. My personal life has remained a constant, and has given me great strength and joy through all the adventures. I have been with my husband since 1955, and married to him since 1962. He and I and my son Shawm, who was born in 1972, form a strong and interesting unit. They are a couple of fascinating and eccentric characters; deeply intelligent and as far out of the box as I am. That family unit is very much my deepest passion, although my other passions run pretty damn deep!
You’ve had a remarkably varied career. You’ve been, amongst other things: a schoolteacher; a cookery writer; food editor for the Atlanta Weekly; the co-founder of a restaurant review newsletter; director of a cookery school; a chef; a University lecturer; and now, an artist. How easy (or difficult) has it been for you to pursue all your interests to your satisfaction?
Everything I have done has sprung out of those deep passions. I began as a fairly serious oboe player. Sylvia Fine, in a song that she wrote for Danny Kaye, famously said that “The oboe is an ill wind that nobody blows good”. Then while my husband was endlessly in graduate school, I was a school teacher; first in New York City, then in Boston and finally in Atlanta, Georgia. We hit Atlanta in the late sixties, and I was lucky enough to be in the forefront of the integration of schools in Georgia. The state decided to integrate the faculties before they integrated the student bodies, and I was the first white teacher to set foot in an old and crumbling black school, deep in the slums.
I will never forget the kindness shown to me there, and the sense that – at last – things were changing. By the time my son was born, and old enough to attend school, all of the schools in Atlanta were completely integrated, both students and teachers. I am so happy that I was able to contribute to that in a small way. I am also proud of the fact that – during my time as a teacher in Atlanta – I was directly responsible for a program that grew to provide every school child in the state of Georgia with a free breakfast every school day. It is a long and sometimes hilarious story, and a high point of my teaching career.*
How did you first discover you had a talent for food, and later, a talent for art?
When my son was born in 1972, I went on maternity leave. I planned to go back to teaching when Shawm was one year old, but I found that I couldn’t really bear to leave him; motherhood was definitely a passion! And something else happened. For the first time in my adult life, I did not have a ‘job’. I was home, I was a mother, and my obsessive interest in food took over my life. I cooked. I tasted. I researched. I cooked some more. I had endless interesting dinner parties. I experimented. I researched some more. I fed a lot of people a lot of fabulous food.
At one dinner party, attended by some distinguished guests, one of them took note, and wrote a rapturous letter (unbeknownst to me) to her editor in New York. Lo and behold, a letter from NYC appeared in my mail box: did I want to write a cookbook for this very well known publisher? Did I heck! You betcha I did. I had always had a flair for words and for writing, but little talent for fiction and poetry. At last, with food writing, I had something to write about with great gusto; my way with words, and my love of cuisine found a natural home together.
More books followed, food editorships of various magazines, newspapers, and restaurant review publications, a stint as a bistro cook, work at a cookery school, and a stint teaching university classes on “food in literature”. My favourite was about detective fiction and the food consumed therein. We cooked and ate our way through Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolf, and many more. And on it went – you name it in the food biz, I did it! When we moved to the UK, it all continued with a vengeance: many more books (some best sellers) and a lively daytime TV cooking career. What fun I had! All of it was done with love, passion, and deep obsession.
I’ve heard you say that your sudden “decision” to give up a successful cookery-book writing career to become an artist was a surprise to friends, family – and yourself. Was it a decision, or something else?
It was a strange occurrence that has fascinated me from the beginning. I have written about it many times, trying to figure it out. It was like a lightning strike or perhaps the muse bit me in the bum. Here is the story. About twelve years ago, sitting at my desk, in the process of putting the finishing touches to my 27th cookery book, I suddenly picked up a black marker and drew a female figure – a mermaid – on a piece of scrap paper. This was a strange and unexpected thing to happen, and the drawing seemed to be occurring outside of my control. I knew that I couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, couldn’t even doodle worth a damn. What the hell was this? The mermaid looked at me, and I looked at the mermaid. Desperately scrabbling around for some colouring implements, hardly aware of what I was doing, I grabbed a few highlighter pens, and gave the mermaid scales and a golden aura. I wasn’t in charge at all – the mermaid was calling the shots, and I was in thrall to her.
For all of my life up to this fateful moment, I was considered to be appallingly bad at ‘art’. Oh yes, I had become an artist of food, and everything I cooked was always drenched in colour, and artfully (if rustically) arranged. And my house, as well as my personal dress, has always vibrated with over-the-top colour and texture, sometimes to the point of actual weirdness. I had (and still have) a deep visceral need for vulgar, saturated, contrasting colours all around me. Put me in a beige room and I will feel ill, depressed and frightened within minutes. But ‘art’? Drawing lovely pictures, painting gorgeous canvases? Although I loved art with a deep passion, I knew that I could never, ever do it myself. But something happened. That amazing mermaid appeared on a piece of scrap paper, and my life changed in ways I could never have imagined.
I began to draw compulsively. Always female figures and always starting with the faces. As soon as the face took shape on the paper, there was something new and alive in the room. Each creature seemed to create itself, with very little help from me. At first I drew on writing paper with coloured markers from the corner shop. As my obsession grew, I began to buy high quality felt-tips and watercolour paper from an art shop. I always entered the art shop hesitantly: after all, I wasn’t a real artist; I was in the grip of some sort of mania and had no idea at all what I was doing. I finished my 27th cookery book (with frequent drawing breaks) and never wrote another. My illustrious food writing career was at an end.
Over the next several years, I kept on producing these magical creatures. At one point, wandering in my local market, I noted beguiling mounds of cheap, Technicolor nail varnish, and had a brain wave. From then on, my Goddesses were painted with glittering, lustrous layers of rich colour. Soon I switched from paper to salvaged wood. I painted ladies with watermelons, fish, garlic or pumpkins on their heads and in their arms; I painted the Radiant Soup Brigade (ladies with soup – all kinds of soup) and ladies and mermaids with snakes – lots and lots of snakes. Once I started a painting it demanded to be finished, so I usually worked frantically right through the night, and finally caught a few winks around six in the morning, with the new creation propped nearby so I could see it immediately upon waking. My work surface was my bed, covered by a large drop cloth to protect the bedding. All the windows were kept open, with a strong fan switched to high, directing the toxic nail varnish fumes away from me. So I painted, and I froze.
During the first year of painting madness, the abandonment of my food career, and my total surrender to the demands of an incomprehensible muse, I hoarded and pored over my paintings endlessly, marvelling at the fact that I was making ‘ART’, or something approximating art. Was it good? Or really bad? I didn’t care, or at least the assessment seemed irrelevant. It existed, I was producing it, and it seemed something of a miracle.
Emboldened by this miracle, I decided to branch out a bit. I thought about the ‘Memory Jugs’ I had seen years ago in the American south. These poignant works of primitive art were made, during the slavery years and thereafter, as memorials to the recently deceased. An old jug would be covered with putty, and small objects from the pockets of the deceased were pressed in, along with other bits and pieces – buttons, broken combs, coins, nails, thimbles – to form a portrait of sorts. I always wanted an old memory jug for my collection of folk art, but surviving examples were – at the time – far too expensive for me to purchase. Why not make my own? My years of obsessively collecting all sorts of detritus guaranteed rich pickings, and the finished jug – a 3D portrait celebrating the life I have had over the years with my husband and son – was so powerful that I found myself smack in the middle of another obsession.
I began to spend my days making memory jug portraits of mythological heroines and personal history, and my nights painting until dawn. Soon, the buttons, broken jewellery, little toys, and pottery shards used in the memory jugs found their way onto the paintings as well. The painted Goddesses became encrusted, festooned, dripping with glittering treasure.
Twelve years later, I’m still in the grip of mania. Now, an acknowledged artist (and curator), I still don’t know if my work is quite good, or really bad, and I still don’t care – it’s a miracle and that’s all there is to it. I now have a studio, paint with acrylics, and no longer freeze on the bed until dawn. I have exhibitions, and sell work.
This brings up a paradox. On the one hand, I have to sell a certain amount of work, or I would have no room whatsoever to live. I am extraordinarily prolific and can’t stop myself from producing; my flat and studio overflow with art I have made, and art I have collected. All this art and I are in a constant, healing dialogue, but I do need a little room left over to cook, eat, and sleep! I actually bought the place next door, and doubled my space, but the new space filled up pretty fast. Selling helps to keep the chaos somewhat at bay, and it also helps to offset the cost of materials. And when someone has a visceral positive reaction to my work and decides to take it home, I’m deeply gratified – but on the other hand, I get terrible separation anxiety when someone walks off with one of my pieces. Each one is personal; each one is piece of my soul.
The experience you describe is fascinating. I’m interested to know: how easy was it for you to parlay your talents for food and art into the successful careers you’ve had? What processes did you go through to translate these interests into “the marketplace”?
I never thought of the marketplace, I never consciously cooked, wrote or made art to please the general public. As with the food career, the art just sort of happened, and took off on its own. I was very lucky. I did what I was compelled to do. Sometimes I was laughed at, but sometimes it was profitable – in the food biz it was occasionally very profitable. I always did what I did out of a compulsion to do so; I was (and still am) constantly driven.
I think most of us would expect the businesses of food, writing, and art to be pretty difficult to get into. I’m wondering how you got past any obstacles you may have faced. What did you do to deal with any nervousness or doubts?
My problem has never been about obstacles or nervousness. I just constantly and stubbornly keep at it, and keep pushing, pushing, pushing. I’m not very good at slowing down and taking it easy – and I’m not very good at giving up when things are not taking off the way I think they should! I don’t like beach holidays – or any kind of holiday really. My idea of a good time is to go to somewhere to be part of an exhibition, or to work with other artists, or to look at lots of art. In the food days, I would travel all over the world to cook, and give workshops. My husband, a scientist, is the same way about his field.
What advice would you give to others who might be facing obstacles - either internal or external – to achieving their goals?
FIND YOUR PASSION!! Get out of the box. Turn off the TV, put down Hello Magazine, stop texting and twittering mindlessly, and do something that is unique to you. Only you can make it happen. Do what you love, follow your talents, even if you have to do so after hours, on weekends, or early in the morning before your regular job. Never give up. People are not going to immediately fall all over you in paroxysms of delight about your fabulous ideas and talents.
In the fifty plus years of my working life so far, many doors were closed in my face. I had to knock my head against many brick walls before I was taken seriously. Looking back, I was incredibly lucky, but it took an enormous amount of perseverance, stubbornness, and blind belief in what I was doing. You have to have a thick skin, and believe in yourself strongly enough to survive criticism and scorn. I feel that I’m so lucky to have all of this passion boiling away inside me; my life has never been boring, and – one way or another – I have always been productive.
With such a varied and successful range of interests, it might be hard to pick only a few, but - what are your proudest achievements, and why?
So many things, it would take a long time to list them. But a short list: my family; my son’s happy childhood; my teaching career; my books; the two blockbuster shows I curated: WOW!! (which stands for ‘Wild Old Women’) and Flashier/Trashier; and my mentoring of young artists.
Thanks for sharing your story with my readers, Sue. What can the world expect from you next?
Even I don’t completely know the answer to that! More colour, lots more art, I am sure. Three smallish (but interesting) art exhibitions in 2011 and two blockbusters (like WOW!! and Flashier and Trashier) in 2012. In addition? Anything is possible!
For more information on Sue Kreitzman and her work, visit www.suekreitzman.com, where you’ll find samples of her art, details of past and forthcoming exhibitions and public events, and book extracts. There are some fabulous recipes in there, too!
© Brian Cormack Carr, 2011
Answers, artwork and photographs © Sue Kreitzman, 2011
Update 1st May 2011 –
Short documentary film on Sue produced by Patrycja Grimm and Meihui Liu: