By: Wendy H. Outland
Not long ago, Susan Seidman was living in the Philadelphia area, where familial roots had anchored her. It was the city of her birth and entire childhood; she also met her mate, married, and had four children there. The years rolled by and life was good, but at times she sensed that an important part of her own development was still waiting in the wings. She had studied art in high school and college, but her role as devoted wife and mother left little time or energy for the figurative painting she enjoyed doing.
Sadly, in the spring of 2009, her beloved husband, Chuck, was diagnosed with cancer. As the days blurred together, it seemed the earth was spinning faster than usual. Just three months later, Susan was widowed and she felt shaken, as if a volcano had erupted from the core of her being, spewing chaos and confusion. They had met when she was fifteen and married five years later. Together four decades, she and Chuck had shared a strong bond of love and mutual respect. Now, the tectonic plates of her world had shifted and the life she had known was shattered.
Close friends begged her to wait a year before making any major decisions, but Susan could not ignore her inner compass, pointing in another direction. She didn’t have a clue about the future, or where to go, but felt certain that making a fresh start in a new place would be best. Geographically, it had to be on the east coast, not too far from Pennsylvania, where her eldest son, Michael (now 33) remained. Beyond that, she longed to discover a different kind of environment from what she had known; a place where she would feel invigorated, could begin to reconstruct her life, and feel that she was part of a community.
Daughter Jenny (now 16) researched several cities and found Asheville had scored high on a list of Best Places to Live. Her mom had no prior knowledge of this fine city, but made a trip to check it out and was instantly charmed by the natural beauty of the landscape, the vitality of the downtown district, and the art scene. “I was blown away,” she said. “After visiting Asheville, I knew there was no need to look further.” She loaded three of her kids, two dogs and their belongings into (and on top of) the car and drove down near the end of 2009. Deciding to rent for the first year allowed Susan time to decompress and become better informed about the various neighborhoods. She and her two daughters now live in a lovely home that she has purchased. Son Jake (now 21), missed his hometown and moved back to Philly.
As she began to settle in and get acquainted with nearby shops and businesses, Susan was amazed at the number of thrift stores and consignment shops to be found. She recalls that in Philly, it seemed everything around her was high-end retail, very upscale. Here there are co-ops, consignment shops, second-hand stores run by nonprofit organizations, and also many small mom-and-pop shops. She was in heaven (“Retail therapy I could afford!”) and haunted the places that had a steady turnover of inventory— particularly Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity—and also went online to check craigslist daily. Her determination really paid off, in ways she had not anticipated.
Susan says she didn’t realize it at the time, but finding used items in need of attention and refurbishing has helped her rebuild her life and establish her new identity. As a result of locating pieces relinquished by others, and altering them by design, color, and/or function, Susan has replaced belongings that she’d owned for years, items too heavily laden with memories. Her new home is now filled with artwork she has created and with furnishings she has customized. She proudly shares the story behind each piece as we tour the house, giggling as she recalls the challenges of mastering some tasks she had never before tackled.
It is a heartwarming tale to hear, and quite inspiring, too. Unlike many who might have shut down emotionally and turned bitter following such an unexpected major loss, Susan has emerged from the depths of despair and taken the reins of her life. She is moving forward with anticipation, making new friends, and is open to considering opportunities that come her way. Witnessing her fortitude, I am reminded that no matter how unpleasant life can seem at times, it can always turn around.
Enrolling in a class at A-B Tech, Susan learned how to create mosaics. Her exploration of the art form continues to be both technical and a personal journey. Striving to excel, her works have become more refined as she has honed her technique and expanded her artistic horizons. The day that she first experimented with mirror, she knew she was hooked. Now she is working on a series that combines mirror with tile or stained glass and often includes a decorative motif, allowing for an endless array of compositions that are constantly on her mind. As she explained it, once a design has been determined, the assembling process becomes meditative, allowing her to be mentally transported to a place of tranquility. She settles into position at the table by a window in her cozy studio, methodically picking up the pieces, arranging and affixing them. As she works, new ideas surface and she thinks about various designs yet to be created.
Learning about upcycled art online, Susan started researching the topic and was stunned at the vast realm of possibilities. “I hadn’t even heard the word before,” she exclaimed, “but that’s what I’ve been doing! I design mosaic mirrors by upcycling materials, primarily discarded mirror, stained glass and tile, and I turn them into an art form. I love the feeling of being environmentally conscious, using things that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.” She feels strongly about patronizing eco-friendly businesses. Circle, a West Asheville shop that opened in 2010, is one example. Their inventory includes upcycled fashions and accessories as well as natural bath and body products.
For many years she’s been a big fan of Isaiah Zagar, a well-known mosaic mural artist whose inspiring works, often incorporating poetry, can be found on public walls throughout the city of Philadelphia and around the world. Now that she is involved with mosaics, Susan hopes to connect with other artists in this region that would be interested in having Zagar come to Western North Carolina to present one of his workshops.
In addition to expanding the creative side of her life, Susan has also taken care to tend to the practical issues related to being a solo-entrepreneur and managing a small business. She understands the importance of building relationships and makes it a point to seek input from trusted individuals prior to making important decisions. Sharon Oxendine, who works at Mountain BizWorks as Northern Regional Director, is a neighbor whose opinion she highly values. “When Sharon came for a visit, she saw the art pieces I had completed, as well as the many things I’ve pulled together from thrift stores and consignment shops to furnish and decorate my home,” Susan said. “She has been so encouraging, and that has really helped my confidence.”
Getting involved with the Women’s Business Exchange (WBE) has been an enlightening experience for Susan. She started attending meetings and got some great feedback from others about her work. The WBE meets the 2nd Monday of each month from 5:00 pm to 6:15 pm at the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, 204 Kanuga Road, on the corner of Kanuga and Church Street. It was there that she learned about the four-week class at Blue Ridge Community College that would help her write a business plan.
News of another opportunity arose when Susan heard about the annual Western Carolina Home Show from exhibit coordinator Lorraine Plaxico. She was very excited at what sounded like a terrific opportunity for exposure. The event pulls a huge crowd, offering (among other things) home furnishings and decorating ideas. It would be a great venue for showcasing her product line but Susan felt she did not yet have adequate inventory to participate. However, if all goes well, she plans to submit an application for next year’s show.
Susan deflects my compliment regarding her progress by saying she could not have gotten this far by herself. “My kids have all been wonderful, and my daughters continue to be key players in this major transition.” Indeed, these two young women stepped up to the plate to comfort and assist the woman who had spent years nurturing them. “Robin (now 30 and completing a Master’s degree) has been especially supportive of my new direction in life,” says Susan. “She’s brilliant and has helped me see the big picture, and she cheers me on! And I’d be lost without Jenny, who has an amazing artistic sense, invaluable in critiquing my art concepts and designs.”
As we finished our conversation, Susan smiled and said, “I’m now aware that there is nothing to hold me back! This is a different way of thinking and I’m still adapting to it. Asheville and the artistic community here have deeply inspired me. I never dreamed I would feel so alive again, with such a passion for life! I am very grateful to all the caring people who have been put in my path.”
Susan looks forward to developing her work further and using her talent to help some of the wonderful organizations and programs she’s gotten to know, such as Brother Wolf Animal Rescue and Arts2People’s HARP. She also wants to send a message to the world about what it means to be responsible for the wellbeing of our planet, Mother Earth. We all make decisions every day—remember to think green!
Meet the Artist event on Saturday, May 26, 1pm-3pm, will take place at Kress Emporium in downtown Asheville.
Wendy H. Outland is President of WHO KNOWS ART, helping artists, galleries and arts organizations with the business side of art. www.whoknowsart.biz