Ray of Light Interview No. 10 :: Susan Sainsbury

Last fall, for the first #recoverygalsartexchange with the theme of reflection, I had the good fortune to get paired up with Susan Sainsbury. You can read more about that project here. Susan ended up making me the most beautiful, thoughtful assemblage and I'm sharing more about it at the end of this post, along with images from our exchange.

Susan is a little mysterious to me and I find myself always wanting to know more about her, her artwork, her creative process and her farm. We are in a private online recovery group and we have messaged through Facebook a little bit over the past year. I love the idea that she lives in a farmhouse in upstate New York, a little bit isolated from the world and hunkered down in her studio with her bits and bobs to keep her company.

It was only through this interview that I learned she has a few small businesses (more on those can be found at the end of this post), is a mama to a sweet little girl and has a pig named Mary Margaret. I knew I liked this woman! She is a true creative soul and I'm so honored she allowed me to send her a few questions to answer and how forthcoming she was. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Ray of Light Artwork featuring Little K + Susan + Mary Margaret (b/w photocopy, acrylic paint on a 4" x 4" wood panel

Ray of Light Artwork featuring Little K + Susan + Mary Margaret (b/w photocopy, acrylic paint on a 4" x 4" wood panel

Name: Susan Sainsbury
Caseworker with the over 60 population
Small Business Owner: ‘Suelo & Sky’ + ‘Joy Sobre’

Founder: ‘Fostering Art & Friendship’
Passion: Working with my hands, head and heart

What is your sobriety date? January 5, 2016

Do you count days, months or years connected to your sobriety?  Why or why not? 
Early on I counted days and months. The 30, 60, and 90 day marks were important to me. And of course living a full year without alcohol was a joyous thing! 

I’m not very good at keeping a solid count of things. I quit smoking a long time ago. I can’t remember the year, I just know I don’t smoke. Sobriety might be like that as well. When I drank, alcohol was always on my mind. I don’t want the fact that I don’t drink to be on my mind every day - if that makes any sense.

What recovery modality do you use in your recovery from alcohol? (this can be one thing or many, traditional or non-traditional) 
Short answer...A little of everything. My first genuine attempt at sobriety was in early November 2015. I was too afraid to go to meetings so I ‘white knuckled’ it and failed. I decided to try again after the holidays. I went to meetings and also discovered sober living blogs and podcasts. I also realized that I could lean on the things that have given strength, peace and knowledge in the past such as art, running, the Virgin Mary, therapy, podcasts, Rumi, books, Jung, my family tree, Buddha, nature, Morihei Ueshiba, saints and a few other things I may be forgetting.

Do you identify yourself as an alcoholic?  If so, please expound on why you do so + how it works for you. (this question is to help start a conversation about stigma associated with the A-word.  Only answer if you feel comfortable to do so
I’m not sure about this. I go to AA meetings but I feel a falseness inside when I say I’m an alcoholic...maybe I could say “My name is Susan and I don’t drink because it messes up my world.”  That’s what I tell the world when asked.

What are your top three tools in your sobriety toolbox?

  1. Therapy. I go to an EMDR therapist and it has really helped me make changes in my life. I get a lot of visual imagery when I use the therapy light board and that works for me more than words. I do quite a bit of drawing and collage work related to the sessions.
  2. Sobriety podcasts + online sober connections. 
  3. Keeping my hands, head and heart busy.

How did you know or decide that you had to quit drinking?
An amazing beautiful little girl came into my life several years ago and I wanted to be the best that I could be for her. I started therapy to learn how to do that. In my first year and a half of therapy I lied about my drinking…And then I just couldn’t do it anymore and told my therapist that I was a ‘heavy drinker’. I was hoping to learn how to moderate. Deep in my heart I’ve known for a long time that drinking was a problem for me.  Addiction runs deep in my family, possibly a learned coping mechanism or hereditary. I know with my temperament and personal history if it wasn’t alcohol and cigarettes it would have easily been something else. 

Do you feel you are more or less creative since you have stopped drinking? 
More! Looking back, the most creative periods in my life have been when I wasn’t drinking. In my early 20s I moved to Boston and I fell into the music scene and made fanzines, flyers, altered clothes, created my own style, painted, tried playing instruments, etc. Later, I exiled myself to my childhood home and then to the Southern California suburbs and started making little boxed collages, homemade postcards, art-zines, wrote tons of letters to friends and journaled. Binge drinking took all of that away. And when I did attempt to do work, in art school or on my own, it was an enormously anxiety ridden experience. 

Now I actually START projects and FINISH projects or put them on the shelf for a bit! At this point, I really don’t make a lot of creative demands on myself, I let the process take me where it wants to go. I also do more crafty stuff, it kind of feels like doing stretches before a run and it’s fun.  

I’ve always been a little physically and mentally hyper so ideas are always popping into my head. I jot them down and drop them in my desk drawer, some I use, some I toss, some I save. 

What has delighted you most since you quit drinking alcohol?
The two things that I’ve been wanting in my life for years and years is art and friendship. As an introvert living in a rural area it was easy for me to hide in my tiny world and drink. I got lost in that place and uncomfortable with people. Sobriety, therapy and a low dose of Lexapro have really helped me to start changing all of that.

I was warned (in blogs, books, podcasts and meetings) that things would get better but I did not expect amazing things to happen! 

Can you recommend three books, bloggers or teachers that have helped you on this path to sobriety?

Are you part of a tribe or a recovery community that supports your sobriety?  If so, how did you figure out how to find that tribe/community.  What was your path to discovering it?
The first podcast I found was The Bubble Hour and that really helped me thru the early months. I found the online Booze Free Brigade Facebook page, met Sondra Primeaux there and she introduced me to the HOME podcast Facebook page. I also go to AA meetings, but it hasn’t been a regular thing for me, but I would like to start going more regularly.

What are you most proud of now that you have removed alcohol from your life?
It’s not so much pride I’m just very happy that I am a healthy vibrant example of sobriety, especially to the younger members of my family; my nieces and nephews and the foster children in my life. Maybe, if they need to, they can look at me and think “Hmmm...I guess a sober life doesn’t suck. It’s actually a beautiful, mysterious and meaningful adventure.”


After I received Susan's interview questions, I inquired a little bit more about her small businesses. Here is what she had to say about her Joy Sobre venture:

"Joy Sobre is a my small batch non-alcoholic beverage mixer syrup. After I stopped drinking I really started to miss the flavor/taste experience of liquor and wine. I quickly became bored with tea and seltzer so I began playing in the kitchen. I have a ginger syrup recipe ready for production and I’m currently working on syrup #2. I am sourcing local products and using the nature in my garden and back yard. I’m putting all this together so that I can be a traveling non-alcoholic bar at weddings and other events."

And, a little bit about her Suelo & Sky business plan:

"Suelo & Sky is our little 7-acre farm located in the lull of the western Catskill mountains. This summer we will be opening our veggie, cacti, craft, art, vintage roadside stand and hope to have the cozy studio apartment available for Airbnb rental."

I love how her whole life has evolved since removing alcohol and how she just keeps creating from a place of honesty and integrity. And, I hope to one day visit her farm and rent that Airbnb she mentions above, all the while sipping mocktails made from her Joy Sobre syrup.

Image of Susan from the mid-80's taken in a Woolworth's Photobooth in San Francisco, CA

Image of Susan from the mid-80's taken in a Woolworth's Photobooth in San Francisco, CA

Susan was one of my first "test pieces" for this Ray of Light Series that I'm currently working on. I found this awesome photo of her taken in the mid-80's while scrolling through her Facebook photos and asked permission to use. The theme for the #artexchange was reflection, so I thought it appropriate to use a photo from her past. She looks so beautiful and strong.

This is the piece she made for me. She used my own words that she had printed out from my blog and then she tea-stained them, along with magazine images, layers of paint, beads, fabric, ephemera and, get this, clean ear wax cleaner tube (!) made from gauze and bee's wax, adhering them to a wood panel. The one-of-a-kind piece of art now resides in my studio, keeping me company and reminding me to pause, take a moment every now and then to reflect, be grateful and find the beauty in my very own life. There are so many layers and meaning wrapped up in her work here. It was a true honor and gift to receive.

Thank you, Susan. For making beautiful things with your hands, head and heart and for sharing them with me and my readers. Your world is so bright now and you are clearly beaming in recovery.