Changing Careers In Your 50s & Growing Old Fabulously With Artist Sue Kreitzman

This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
Meeting artist and writer Sue Kreitzman is one of the most joyful things you can do in life. Not only is her outfit guaranteed to be a riotous visual treat but her energy and lust for life is infectious. At 78 she’s busier than ever, curating exhibitions, making new pieces of art, and writing and designing her own iconic outfits. However, her life hasn’t always been this way.
Originally from New York, Sue lived in Atlanta, Georgia for 18 years before moving to London with her husband Steve and son Shawm. After years of teaching fourth grade, working as a chef, writing endless food articles and 27 cookery books, Sue was in her 50s when she experienced something close to a divine intervention. As she describes it: "Something switched. It was the menopause, a psychotic breakdown, or the muse literally bit me in the bum. I picked up a marker, drew a mermaid and from that point on I was an artist." From that unexpected pivot she has dedicated her life to creating and collecting art. Rather than furnishing her house in polite neutral tones, she has painted each room red and turned it into her own personal gallery showcasing her sculptures, paintings and personal art collection.
There’s a sign in Sue’s kitchen that reads: "Don’t wear beige, it could kill you." That one sign perfectly encapsulates Sue, her house and her outlook on life. Why wear beige when you can wear something bright and fun? Why be boring and stay in when you could go on a colour walk with your friends and brighten up the day of everyone you meet? Why obsess over staying young when you could grow old fabulously? Sue shares her wisdom with us on all of this and much more.
When you get up in the morning, how do you decide which fabulous outfit to put on? Is it your mood or where you're going?
Getting dressed in the morning is pure joy because it's colour, it's pattern, it really starts the day right. I remember where I got every piece of fabric, everything that's on each neck shrine I make and wear. I have very happy memories attached to everything I wear because I don’t shop in Bloomingdale's, I don't shop at Harrods, I don't do department stores. I buy right from the artist or I buy at small markets. The guy who does my stitching is just one little guy all by himself around the corner. This is the way I live and it gives me great pleasure in the morning to put those beliefs on my body. It's fabulous.
You’ve had many different careers in your life – you were a teacher, a chef, a food writer and you came to your art in your late 50s. People feel a lot of pressure now to have their career mapped out and to have made a name for themselves by the time they’re 25. What do you think about that?
I think it's ridiculous because life doesn't go that way. People say, "I have a five-year plan/I have a 10-year plan." Why? It's like putting yourself in prison. Life goes in very funny directions and you have to follow along with it. When I had my baby I thought I’d be going back into teaching but I met someone at a party who worked in publishing and loved my cooking, which led to a three-book deal. It’s not something I planned. I then ended up in London because my husband Steve got a call from Cambridge University about taking a job over here and it all just went crazy.
Do you think you can miss opportunities if you're too blinkered and you're too focused on a specific plan?
Yes. People are so stressed these days. You have to loosen up a little bit because sometimes a window that you didn't even know was there opens a little bit and you never know what's on the other side.
Where do you think that pressure comes from?
Well, people are desperate for security which, these days, is hard to come by. It used to be that if you had a job it could be a job for life. That's not true anymore. So, things change and you have to change with it.
You’ve been married to your husband Steve for over 50 years. What do you think makes a successful marriage or partnership?
Mutual respect and mutual affection. Things go wrong and there are aggravating times but you have to look at the bigger picture and not go around storming out and slamming the door after every disagreement. Hold on for a while, take a breath because you've invested so much in it. You have to realise that all the lovey-dovey true love is fun at the beginning, then something else develops – a deep affection, a deep respect and you share responsibilities. That's the most important thing, you share responsibilities for each other’s lives.
Do you think that side of love and relationships isn't talked enough about, meaning our expectations are very high when it comes to everlasting romance and sex?
Yes. It's not all about romance and sex. Believe me, that doesn't last. You’ve got to find a way to keep each other happy. You have to make sure it’s not just one-sided. You have to work out how to share your life together. Share the childcare, share the responsibility of earning money and understand that there will be lows and to ride them out with the highs.
You’ve got a great set-up between you and your husband. You’re together but he lives in Cambridge where he works and you live here in Bow, London. How does it work?
It's perfect. He is very obsessed with what he does and I am obsessed with what I do so this way we don't get in each other's hair. He doesn’t expect me to have dinner on the table for him every night and just stop whatever I'm doing because he’s home. He calls me every morning at eight o'clock and says, "Are you alive, can you move?"
That’s romance. It’s great, it must keep things fresh and interesting between you?
It does rekindle that little bit of romance because I get to miss him. I do talk to him on the phone several times a day but it's not the same so when we are together it's very nice. We spend weekends together and we have our holidays together. It wouldn’t work for everybody though, you have to find your own path.
How did motherhood change you?
First of all, I always loved kids so it was pure joy when I had my son Shawm. It's like having a tourist to the world, they know nothing so it's your job to teach them wonderful things. Teach them about the world around you and then eventually they will end up teaching you.
Another thing I say to young mothers is "This too will pass" and it will pass much quicker than you think. It might seem really hard right now but it's going to be over so quickly and then they're in school and then they're at university or working and you'll think back on those early years and how they went in a flash.
There's such an obsession with youth and staying young. What do you think about all of that?
I think you really have to embrace age. My mother died when she was in her very early 50s so I always think every day, every month, every year is a gift. Getting old is a privilege and an adventure and if you turn your back on that you're crazy. You're absolutely crazy.
What about trying to fight the ageing process and wanting to carry on looking young?
Putting yourself under the knife for cosmetic purposes is crazy and it's so obviously artificial. Your character is in your face, age is just as beautiful as youth, it's just different. You can't hold on to your youth or you end up looking like a fool and there are more things to think about. Keep your mind going if you possibly can. Stay active. I just don't get it, I really don't get it.
How do you think we can cultivate a better relationship with ourselves as we get older?
That's a hard question because some people will never be happy with themselves. The media is so concentrated on making women unhappy with themselves. We’re fed messages: "You're too fat. You're too thin. You're too hairy." They come up with something new and crazy and suddenly it becomes the norm, like bleaching your anus – that’s a thing that people do now.
I know, it’s pretty extreme!
Or you have to have plastic surgery on your vagina. You have to learn to ignore that. Don't let the media and popular opinion boss you around. Do what you think is right for you. Shave the bits you want to shave and leave the rest. Be a thinking, intelligent person. I sometimes think intelligence is vanishing from this world, I really do.
What is it that you love about getting older?
Things bother me less. I've never really been concerned about what people think, but I care even less so now. I like the way I look. It's interesting, it's me but a slightly different me. I think I was very lucky with my hair.
You've got great hair.
Yes, it's fantastic hair isn’t it?
How do you feel about your own ageing process?
I look in the mirror and I see an ageing old friend, which is fine. I think I'm ageing okay, I'm not too upset about it. Now we have lots of older role models, I try very hard to be an older role model. There are the idiosyncratic fashionistas in New York who are really good friends of mine. Ari Seth Cohen has put us in the zeitgeist with his Advanced Style blog and he has made everybody aware of how really beautiful old people are. We are. We're different but we're beautiful. I mean, look at Iris Apfel. She’s an old lady – a symphony of wrinkles – but she's gorgeous and everybody adores her. We have to look up to these icons who are teaching us how to live.

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