Healer, Artmaker, & Witness: Meet Susan Tuttle
Hello! Please introduce yourself. Who are you? What do you do? How does your heart manifest in the world?
I am a woman who is constantly wondering and asking questions. I am in constant states of motion and change as I attempt to evolve into the best version of me. At the same time, I strive to feel my center while embracing the groundlessness of being human (as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron talks about in her book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change), leaning into all of my experiences, even the painful ones, and finding something to be grateful for each day. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am an artist/photographer. I am a life-long learner. I am a teacher. I have a passionate calling to help others get more in touch with their creative spirit through photography and digital artmaking. I feel privileged to be able to do this through the books I author and the online classes I teach. Art has the power to heal, and if more and more people across the planet connect with their creative self and use it to produce positivity, the world will be a better place. I aim to be open to all kinds of people, to all kinds of ideas. I am a good listener. I listen with the intention to understand. I wear my heart on my sleeve with the right people (people that I know I can trust). I have a well-honed, strong intuition that I rely upon. I am a glee seeker.
Please fill in the blank: My work is important because____.
My work is important because it helps others to unearth and connect with their creative spirit. For whatever reason, I have always put my art out into the public with a high level of fearlessness, and, I’d like to think that in doing so, I have given others permission to do the same. My own path of creative learning has informed and shaped the teacher that I am today. I have a background in flute performance and music education, and am a self-taught artist/photographer who uses her digital SLR camera, iPhone camera and photography apps, and Photoshop to express herself. I've been to art/music school and have earned many music degrees. I’ve learned that this type of formal study is not best for my creative spirit, as it has the potential to crush some of my natural creative glow. I need space and freedom to discover my own artistic potential, and I do better when I can be a self-directed learner, where I am in charge of the directions I wish to take and the mentors I wish to study with. I need to protect my sensitive creative spirit so that it can create, unfettered, without any negative associations.
How has this all affected my own teaching style? I gently guide others in discovering their own artistic potential, help them to feel the importance and power of their unique, emerging creative voice, and encourage them to grow and flourish as an artist by taking risks, trying new things, trusting their intuition, and studying and practicing their craft. I am good at honoring my students where they are at while at the same time pushing them to challenge themselves and grow. I hear/see their potential, just like I did when I taught chorus to youngsters many years ago. Behind the emerging voices I always heard the most beautiful angels. I believed in those learners. They could sense that and they soared.
As an entrepreneur, who in business do you admire, and why?
The entrepreneurial person I most admire in this world is Sebastian Michaels, who I am blessed to call my business partner and dear friend. He is a talented digital artist as well as a genius when it comes to business and marketing with soul. I admire him for many reasons. Sebastian is: • a talented, curious artist • honest, trustworthy, and respectful • a hard worker • open and eager to learn more • innovative when it comes to marketing • timely and reliable • authentic and genuine • Sebastien has a highly successful business. For him, it’s not about the money. It’s about enjoying the job each and every day, being grateful for his life work, and producing high-quality content to share with his followers. Like I said—the money will follow. This is why we make such great partners. Our philosophies align.
What does soulful business mean to you?
For me it means doing what I was meant to do — something that I love, that I’m good at. It's all about my passion for artmaking and my mission to share what I have learned with others; teaching carried out with honesty and integrity, not driven by a desire to make money, but driven by my heart and the intent to produce quality content for my students so that they may tap into the wonderment, the passion and the joy of photography and digital artmaking. The money will follow if I do my job well and if it’s a good fit. I consider this philosophy to be the foundation of my business, but of course more needs to happen in order for it to work. Building a business takes skill, an understanding of technology, time, patience, deep commitment, faith, flexibility, smart and realistic decision-making, excellent marketing skills, practice, an understanding of the power of social media and how to use it, and of course, a major amount of hard, hard work. It has taken me nearly 10 years to finally get to a place where I can make a very good professional salary as a self-employed artist and I take none of it for granted.
Why do you create? Why is a soulful business important to you? What motivates you?
I create because the process of doing so is my lifeblood. I must create every day in some form in order to feel alive, healthy, and vibrant. Soulful business is authentic and true at its core. That's what makes it viable, healthy, full of good energy, and something that will affect positive change in the world. Having a soulful business is important to me because it naturally aligns with many of the core values and beliefs I hold dear. It is key to work with oneself; not against oneself. That’s staying on the right path for me, and when I’m on the right path, my business is successful. In other words, when I put this kind of genuine energy out there into the public via my business, it works like a magnet. As the saying goes, “Build it and they will come.” Many things motivate me. The beautiful natural surroundings in which I live, coupled with vibrant seasons, provide endless moments of inspiration for my photography. Living in this rural environment is good for my soul. It is quiet and I can hear myself think. I am reminded that I am part of something much, much greater than myself. It keeps me curious, alive inside, makes me feel special while at the same time keeping me humble. Developing new courses and sharing them with others exhilarates me. To know that I could possibly make even a small difference in someone’s life is a very good feeling and adds to the purpose of my life. What else inspires me?—my family and friends, viewing the artwork of others, traveling, listening to music, cinematography, lively and interesting conversation, preparing and eating delicious food… There’s not much in my life that doesn’t inspire me in some way.
Where did you cultivate your work ethic?
I am not entirely sure. It's a part of me. I can’t imagine having a business that does not serve the greater good in some way. I feel fortunate that I can combine everything I love when it comes to my business — the art, the sharing, connecting with others. It feels good inside. I’m proud of what I do. It’s meaningful work that has the potential to make a difference. And, it provides endless amounts of adventure, excitement, and ways to grow. I am never, ever bored. There’s so much more to learn and share.
What is the best piece of business advice you have received?
I would say it was more of a witnessing, rather than being given any specific advice. Advice comes from interesting places—sometimes directly from others, or maybe something you read or heard on the radio. Sometimes advice comes from your higher self in the form of intuition. That's where my best business advice seems to come from—and as I age, I notice it keeps getting better. Somehow I knew instinctively to remain authentic and true to my art while at the same time promoting it through my online courses and my books with the intent of sharing my knowledge with others—a paying it forward. I learned it was important to be aware of the latest trends in the art world as well as the latest technology, to inform my teaching. But I knew that never at any point should I sell myself out by making or sharing something that wasn’t “me.” Part of what people are attracted to in both my art and my teaching, I think, is that genuine part of me that naturally comes through. Another important piece is that I learned to embrace small beginnings. I realized how important it was to create a strong foundation and work hard. I knew it was important to appreciate and celebrate the achievements, both big and small. I realized I had to leave room for “failure,” as that is part of the growth process. The good thing about failure is that it can lead you in a new direction; often the direction you were meant to go in. Teaching music to youngsters early on in my career life quickly instilled this belief in me. I saw it in action, firsthand and it became an idea that I frequently expressed to the kids.
What is the best business advice you would give?
The best advice I could give is directly linked to what I expressed above. Most importantly, make sure you are doing what you love and being true to you. Follow your instincts. Baby steps and small beginnings are how you start. Work hard. Don't be discouraged by “failure.” Allow it to inform and direct you. Celebrate the milestones. Look to others for inspiration and guidance, not comparison. Focus on one thing at a time and do it well. Always remain a learner and a fan of others' work. Stay humble. Stay open. Cultivate a strong internal confidence and a backbone. More on that later in the interview.
How do you stay connected to loved ones when deeply entrenched in work?
It's about balance and finding balance is about having priorities. Some priorities will stay fixed while others will fluctuate based on importance at the time. My family—my husband and two children, as well as my own well-being—are my first priority. Next comes my work, which could become a 24–7 job if I let it, but I don't. Friends are important to me, so I try to visit with at least one of them during any given week, for coffee or tea, or a long breakfast, or to get together to make something. This includes regular Skyping with a couple of far-away friends that are dear to me.
What is your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur? How do you work with or around it?
When to say no. There are times when my plate is piled high and an opportunity comes along, perhaps to do an interview for a blog that I love, or a photo gig that would give me some nice, fast cash. I can't do it all, nor do I desire to. I'm learning to turn down some jobs so that I can do high-quality work for the jobs I've committed to. Sometimes I am lucky enough to be able to table a request if I can't take it on at that moment. Also, keeping up with social media as well as staying current with it is a big one. I made the difficult decision to close comments on my blog a few years ago (except when I hold giveaway contests). I could not keep up with them and felt badly. If someone took the time and energy to leave a comment, I wanted to take the time to respond in a meaningful way and visit their blog in turn. I’ve found that Facebook and Instagram, as well as offering open communication through my website’s contact form/email, are more manageable, alternative ways to stay connected with my followers, however I still find it difficult to keep up with social media.
Please share a personal mantra, motto, or ritual for when you feel drained.
When I feel drained I light a candle or two, brew a pot of spicy chai tea, grab a soft pillow and my favorite ochre-colored throw, and curl up with a book, or allow myself a short, energizing nap. The power of rest and time for yourself should not be underestimated. It will make you more productive in the long run.
When you feel burned out or uninspired, what lights your fire again?
When I am feeling burned out or uninspired I realize it is my body asking me to rest. I do not believe there is any such thing as a creative rut, and in fact I did a blog post on just this subject not too long ago. Here is an excerpt from that post… The good thing about a creative lull is that it is always followed by a hum which evolves into full-fledged artistic heat. In fact I think the lull is necessary and an integral part of the creative process which is cyclical in nature. Don’t believe what you hear—that experiencing a stretch of inactivity means you are stuck in a rut. Think of it as valuable resting time that allows you to refuel, rejuvenate, and gather new momentum for the next rush of creativity. This past Spring a wonderful opportunity to rent an off-site artist’s studio in an old mill presented itself to me. I embraced it fully, made the space my own (which has three tall windows on one of Maine’s largest rivers), and frequent it most mornings to paint abstracts (which has been a love of mine for the last 15 years). I paint for myself, to relax, explore, enjoy, to open up, and to prime my creative self for the day’s work. I find that I am much more productive on the days where I start off by painting in the studio. I marvel at the clarity of mind/heart and the energy that this practice provides.
How do you start your work day?
I begin each day very early (except for weekends). I’m up by 5:30 AM, gently nudging my son from his bed. I head downstairs and light a candle in our open living space and dim the lights to create a calm, sacred feeling. I sip hot water with lemon, apple cider vinegar, and honey while I make the kids’ lunches, start the coffee, and prepare my son a healthy breakfast. I chat a few minutes with him as he eats, and kiss him and my husband goodbye for the day. My daughter sleeps for another hour. This is my quiet, me-time. I sit in a comfy chair across from the woodstove, sip hot, strong coffee, stare at the candle flame and into the blue light of the emerging morning. I may enjoy a stroll through beautiful images on Pinterest, or page through a favorite magazine like Kinfolk. This quiet, peaceful space fuels me for the day. Once my daughter gets on the bus, I usually paint in my off-site studio before diving into work. I either work from home, a coffee shop, or at my studio, depending on the kind of work I need to do. I focus on my work, and, if I can help myself, I save the emails and social media demands for later. Checking emails and visiting Facebook or IG can really zap your time and energy and interrupt creative flow.
If you could do something else as a vocation, what would it be?
Well, I actually am making time for a second calling, which will be in addition to the photography/digital artistry work and teaching I already do. I think the two vocations will complement the other very nicely. I've known for a while that I am supposed to utilize my intuitive healing skills; helping sick children, the elderly, anyone really, who is in need of healing guidance. An opportunity came my way to study the ancient Japanese healing art of Reiki. I answered the call and begin my training to become a Reiki Master later this Fall. I look forward to seeing where it takes me. Here is a fun list of other vocations that seem dreamy, a couple of which do not necessarily align with my skills and talents in this lifetime: pie maker / perfumist / florist / chocolatier / proprietor of a quaint bed and breakfast or inn ghost tour guide in the French Quarter of New Orleans / wine tasting hostess / psychic / medium / modern dancer
When do you feel most creative?
When my mind is relaxed and open and when my date book has lots of blank spaces in it.
Who inspires you and where or how is their influence felt in your work?
There are many photographers and painters whose work I admire and enjoy. I don't think their influence manifests itself directly in my work, but more in a subconscious way. I look. I study details, subtle gestures, the use of contrast, lighting, etc. What I take in becomes a part of me, so to speak, and influences my work in a magical way. I can't really pinpoint it. Perhaps it is the collective unconscious manifesting itself. A list of some of my favorites (there are many, many more): Sarah Moon, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, Paulo Roversi, Laura Makabresku, Alison Scarpulla, Francesca Woodman, Lee Krasner, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Edward Steichen, Jesse Reno. If you want to get good at something it’s important to observe a lot of it from folks who are good at it. If you want to paint, study the paintings of the masters. Go to museums and experience the actual works of art. Look closely at the details. Step back to appreciate the whole. Notice where your eye goes. Study the composition, etc. If you want to improvise jazz, listen to countless recordings of improv solos of the greats and dissect them, listen for dynamic changes and subtleties, and go to live concerts and gigs. If you want to dance, study the choreography of master dancers, and of course attend performances. In addition to keen observation, attempting to replicate what they do (for practice’s sake) will help you to discover your own artistic style in time. I want to point out that this all holds true for the art of anything… cooking, problem-solving, making love, skateboarding, tattooing, whatever it happens to be.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
When I realized I could turn my passion for photography, digital art, abstract mixed-media painting, and my love for teaching into an actual career via writing books for F+W Media/Northlight Books and giving my online classes.
What did you want to be when you were a little girl?
Funny you should ask. My preschool teacher asked me that same question many, many years ago and recorded my answer in a Christmas craft project I was making. I said I wanted to be a garbageman. You see, I was fascinated by the two guys that rode on the back of the garbage truck that picked up our trash. I'd hear the truck coming down the road and rush outside to watch. They jumped off and on with a certain finesse, but what impressed me the most was how lucky they were to be able to ride freely on the back of the truck in the open air. I was drawn to the fun and adventure of that. As an adult my attitude has not changed. I am definitely still an adventure seeker!
What did you know you did NOT want to be?
I had no clear idea on this. I don't think I ever thought about what I didn't want to be, only what I could be. There were several adults in my life when I was young who had clear ideas on what I should not be, based on my “lack of talent.” One of those things was an artist. The other was a writer. I am now highly successful at both of those things.
Do you have a first memory from childhood that connects you to what you have created today?
Oh yes, a few things come to mind… My very first memory is of being pushed in a baby carriage up a slope on the dirt road I lived on in New Jersey, and hearing a chickadee sing a minor third (fee-bee). When I was age 9/10, I loved taking photos with my Kodak 110 camera. I have distinct memories of looking through the little viewfinder, framing compositions that made my heart leap. I also liked playing school and writing short stories, filling up many a notebook. Amazingly, these childhood experiences are directly connected to what I have created as an adult—I became a music teacher (my first career), moved to the dreamy state of Maine (the state bird happens to be the chickadee), and I am now a photographer who authors books and loves to teach via her books and online courses. Wow, I’m pretty amazed by all these connections myself!
What did you learn from your childhood that impacts you today?
I learned how important it is to have a mentor/witness; someone that sees you and your potential, who inspires and lifts you up. So now, as an adult, a mother, and a teacher, I realize that I have a huge responsibility towards people I care about, including my students. You never know when something you might say or do has an impact on someone, so it's important never to be careless with intent, actions, or words. I am very careful with my children, my students, anyone I may teach along the way; my intent is to encourage, nurture, inspire, and open doors.
If you could do or make something every day that you give away, what would it be?
That is simple. Love.
What is the thing that keeps you up at night?
I usually sleep very well theses days, but if I am ever up it's probably because I have a worry about one of my children. It's never good to ruminate at night. Things always seem more frightening and insurmountable at that hour. I've learned to tell myself that yes, I can be concerned and worried, but at least wait until tomorrow morning to do it. When I wake, things never seem as doom and gloom as they did in the wee hours of the night.
How do you stay nourished and inspired as a soulful creative?
By trying to live a healthy, happy life filled with gratitude. I nourish my body with healthy foods and I do allow treats within moderation (it’s good for my soul and I can’t imagine a life without dessert). I'd say my diet is a Mediterranean style, with mostly vegetables and fruits, with chicken and fish a couple of times per week, and red meat a couple of times per month. I rarely drink alcohol (I enjoy cocktails on the weekends only), try to drink lots of water and herbal tea throughout the day, and do allow myself a cup of coffee each morning. That feeds my soul. I try to exercise daily, both for my body and my mind. I notice that exercising puts me in a really good mood. I love to walk and use exercise bands. I try to use positive self-talk and when I have problems I try to ‘lean into them’ (as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says), instead of running away from them. This way, they can’t become any larger than they need to be. I practice meditation and will soon be training to become a Reiki Master which will enable me to self-heal as well as help others to heal. Good cinema, imaginative books, delectable food, art in many forms, music, gardening, deep conversation, hot sex (orgasms will keep you young—my doctor told me they will lubricate your joints and keep you mobile and flexible as you age).
Who supports you?
My husband who is my soulmate. He is a big supporter of and believer in what I do. We see eye to eye on just about everything in terms of values and beliefs and spirituality. We are both teachers at heart and we have a lot of fun together!
What are your favorite entrepreneurial resources? Business mentors? Please share books, websites, and more.
My favorite business mentors are my business partner Sebastian Michaels, and my book editor, Tonia Jenny. I feel blessed that our relationships have blossomed into true friendships that I cherish. Believe it or not, I have usually gone on instinct, and I have never read a single book on entrepreneurial business. However, I have been connected to other like-minded business entrepreneurials via the Internet. The good ideas get passed around. We teach each other and dip into the pot of collective wisdom, so to speak. It's a give-and-take. We also support each other's endeavors, often by promoting one another's work/online courses.
What was the biggest “lesson” you've learned through your experience in business?
I’ve learned how important it is to develop both a strong moral compass and an internal sense of confidence that cannot be swayed by either positive or negative feedback. The compass (which is really your higher self) will always show you the way, so it is important to slow down and listen. I often simmer on important decisions, letting them marinate in me. In a day or so, without much effort, it becomes clear what to do. In terms of self-confidence, don’t get me wrong, developing an intrinsic form of confidence is definitely a challenge, especially because art is such a personal thing to be sharing with the world, but by knowing yourself and being okay with who you are, your sense of self cannot be altered by anyone else. When you put yourself out there in a public way, you open yourself up to feedback, most of which is positive, some of which is helpful constructive criticism, but sometimes, although rarely, you'll experience some downright nastiness (which by the way, you get used to). It's best to realize that when someone mistreats you, it's not usually about you. It's about them. I am open to constructive criticism and even welcome it, as it informs my growth. And you know, even the meanies and the naysayers may provide us with an opportunity to learn. It's all in how we view it.
Tell us a story or describe a time when something occurred in your business that made your heart leap and you KNEW you were doing the right thing.
I cannot think of any one moment, but more of a collection of moments and a feeling I get about what I do. My artmaking and my teaching make me happy. They are my passions. I never tire of either one. There's always something new to make, something new to learn, something to share, a connection to make with a student or kindred artist spirit, etc. It's exciting. It's an adventure. These lifeblood passions make my life interesting, rich, meaningful, fulfilling, and laced with miracles and surprise.
Please share any messages, wisdom, stories, or insights you have gathered through your entrepreneurial journey.
Energy works like a magnet. When you put something out into the world, you will attract like energies. So, it's important to send out energy backed by positive intent. Doors will open. Opportunities will arise. It is important to stay open. Trust your intuition. Work hard. Celebrate the small steps as well as the leaps. Learn from mistakes. Keep trying. Stay humble. Say sorry when you should. Taste the words in your mouth before you speak. As Don Miguel Ruiz says in his book The Four Agreements, “be impeccable with your word.” Take risks. Take the high road. Don't burn bridges. Make smart decisions. Always keep your priorities straight. Make time for loved ones and yourself. Develop a strong internal confidence and moral compass. Be generous. Never stop learning. Always remain a fan of others’ work (as Austin Kleon emphasizes). Keep pushing and challenging yourself. Keep growing. Stay true!
Susan is a digital SLR and mobile photographer, author, and online instructor who lives in the woods of Maine and is inspired daily by her natural surroundings. She has written four books, published by F+W Media/North Light Books—Art of Everyday Photography: Move Toward Manual and Make Creative Photos (2014), Photo Craft: Creative Mixed-Media and Digital Approaches to Transforming Your Photographs (2012, co-authored with Christy Hydeck), Digital Expressions: Creating Digital Art with Adobe Photoshop Elements (2010), and Exhibition 36: Mixed-Media Demonstrations and Explorations (2008).
Her photography has been exhibited internationally in London, New York City, Paris, Prague, and Hollywood. Susan is also a frequent contributor to Stampington & Company publications and other North Light Books publications, does regular freelance work for Manfrotto and Autodesk Pixlr, and is currently the Technical Advisor for Somerset Digital Studio magazine.
Susan shares, “It is my hope that by sharing I can help others to connect with their artistic selves. It is my belief that if more and more people across the planet create things, there will be more happiness, greater peace, and less destructive behavior.” You can find out more about Susan and view her work and online course offerings at SusanTuttlePhotography.com.