We had the good fortune of connecting with Suzanne Whitaker and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Suzanne, how do you think about risk?
I’m feeling very philosophical approaching this question, especially as I near my sixth decade. I’m sure everyone defines “risk taking” differently depending on their circumstances and how much choice and responsibility have been a part of their lives. And, taking risks doesn’t mean one doesn’t take precaution or do some research before leaping. It just means, we don’t know the eventual outcome (none of us do) but we are willing to put ourselves out there, be courageous for the larger cause, whatever that is for you. And, my personal risk taking list of activities may be very different than yours and require a different level of bravery.
I grew up in a large, Catholic, midwestern family; I am the sixth of eight children. As you can imagine, my mom, an elementary teacher, rarely gave us dinner options or after-school TV viewing choices. “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Lol! Things were rather regimented but also safe, stable and relatively happy. I was extremely fortunate and I feel very grateful to this day, as I think that sense of stability helped me to “jump off the cliff” once in a while. Education was very important to my parents. They were public school employees yet religious education was so important to them. So, they cobbled together tuition for me and my siblings to attend our local Catholic high school where I was fortunate enough to have an excellent art teacher, Mr. Ben Price. He laid the foundation for everything career-wise I chose to pursue later, namely starting my art/mural business. What’s remarkable about this is his classroom was tucked in among a fairly rigid and religious system carried out by the nuns and diocese. But, he taught with such respect for each one of us and in such a relaxed atmosphere that it was our own little oasis, listening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” on the radio.
I think that’s where my “truest self” journey began (thank you, Mr. P!) and the seed of my risk taking. I believe when exposed to rigid rules of obligation, shaming, authoritarianism, falling in line with an established (dysfunctional) system, well, those factors can either suppress creativity and risk taking greatly OR be the thing an artsy kid could discover to fuel a whole new criteria for self. I was shown both.
For me, risk taking has almost always been motivated by a very strong desire for authenticity. With the sudden death of my oldest sister just before my senior year in high school, it was a wake up call to the reality that life is short and I want to live it as my truest self. I soon embarked on a quest to examine assumptions passed down through the generations, be willing to not do life perfectly and learn from my mistakes (and I’ve made a ton), and become my best self by stepping outside my comfort zone. Vulnerability is key to this! I have to be willing to show my soft spots, to go out on the tight rope, be brave and be seen and possibly lose some people in the process… yet gain so much wisdom! At least, after some self-reflection that is how I would describe it now.
If you can imagine there is something in your life that you cannot do even one more day because all the love has gone out of it or it was a part of an “old version of you” and not the person you are becoming… Or that thing you know so well, probably ALL too well, and you’ve stayed in it way too long because it’s ‘The Thing You Know vs. The Great Unknown,’ and then your inside voice begins to BEG you to take that leap of faith… well, that’s more akin to how I think of risk taking now.
However, be forewarned! — on the road to authenticity, you can scare or piss off a whole lot of people!… As you leap, it can tap into others’ sense of obligation or insecurities — they may not see your strength, instead only your struggle. They may perceive you as “selfish,” “crazy,” “disrespectful, “failing” or whatever, and there is nothing you can do to control their perceptions or their judgment. All this is “hypothetical,” of course. Lol!
But, for me, what supersedes their judgment and what is much more important is my intention behind everything I do. There are few things in life that I would classify as a necessary obligation. Of course, pay your taxes, take care of your kids. But, even those things for me come from a sense of wanting to do it vs. obliged to do it. And, the pay off is so much greater as I find my people, my true support system, and as I replace “have to” in my work with “want to.”
What I’ve learned and certainly not without a whole lot of pain and imperfection is this: Whether you are moving, starting a business, speaking out for the first time against injustice, leaving your church or your marriage, eliminating toxic friends, whatever way you define “risk,” surround yourself with a loving support system of willing participants and then periodically check in on their intention. Be clear on what part belongs to you, what part is theirs. I have no use for someone’s martyrdom or conditional sacrifice on my behalf. Human nature can hold both the desire to help and a fear of someone’s failure. So, I think it’s important to check that any assistance is coming from a place of Love rather than Codependence or a belief that you will fail without their help.
It’s all energy… and this is what I call asking for “clean energy”! And, in the end, it’s our acceptance and gratitude for others’ wings of support that fuels our success. We really don’t do anything alone.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am an artist who transforms a room by painting murals or providing plaster and decorative finishes. But, what I am most proud of and excited about is our project, “19 American Women in Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment.” My friend Lainey Prather and I received a $5000 grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Our debut was scheduled for August, 2020 to coincide with the anniversary date. However, with COVID-19, we postponed the unveiling of all 19 portraits. We hope we are able to give a small preview of some of them… “19” seems to be rife with issues at the moment. Lol!
Getting here in my career wasn’t easy. I started my mural business in 1993, taking short breaks for childbirth and a move to Arizona from Ohio. Establishing my business the first time in Ohio was initially slow going and I spent many hours reaching out to designers, baby and child-oriented businesses, and home improvement outlets. It took about 3+ years to get it going with more consistency. Most of my work then was for babies’ nurseries and children’s rooms, which I enjoyed very much. I also did some magazine and book illustration. I moved to Phoenix at the end of 2005 with my two kids. The summer prior, my husband had started in the police academy here. And, not long after our move the bottom fell out of the housing market. I’d only begun to restart my mural business when that happened. So, few people had discretionary income. Also, mix in a divorce and trying to care or find good care for our young children, things were pretty tough for a while. I was so grateful to have family and good friends helping me and my kids in those years especially.
My biggest lesson is we certainly don’t do it alone and we are all inter-connected. Today, my business is pretty well established through the connections I’ve made, mostly through interior designers. I do a real variety of art in many styles in people’s homes and businesses — murals, painted and plastered finishes, and plaster bas relief. I am even in the process of making bas relief sea creatures for a boy’s room. However, a lot has changed in my 27 years of business, so the minimalist taste of most of today’s parents doesn’t necessarily call for the kind of work I did back in the day (recorded in my book, Creative Kids’ Murals You Can Paint). It’s been important to roll with the changes, be flexible, be able to do many kinds of things. However, I still get to do some really fun children’s murals for schools around the city.
While the virus has changed things for most people, my work is often so solitary and that is one thing that has remained the same. In fact, the virus, for those who have quarantined, has made some people want to improve the look of their home environment. And, that is my specialty! I am continuing to look for opportunities to bring my activism and art together as in our “19 Women” project. However, being in service to my clientele by updating and beautifying their spaces is very, very gratifying to me. I will continue that for as long as I can stand on a ladder safely and without too much pain afterward. Lol!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
When friends visit me, we walk the trails at South Mountain, which I can walk to from my house. Some favorite restaurants are Nello’s (Ahwatukee) and Perfect Pear (Ahwatukee near), and my favorite resorts are The Sanctuary on Camelback, Montelucia, and Royal Palms. Last year for my birthday, in August of all months (!), I bought a resort pass for a cabana and drinks at Royal Palms. Close friends and I hung out by the pool and surprisingly, it wasn’t that hot and it ended up being one of the best days! I would most certainly suggest that. I have yet to go to the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum) but I think that would be a great destination. Also, driving all around Cave Creek and Troon you can see the beautiful and unusual landscapes. And, if time allows, going up to Sedona is a “must see” — taking in stunning red rock formations, drinking a wine flight at Page Springs Winery, sitting creekside at L’Auberge Resort for another glass of wine, and then heading to Mariposa Restaurant for some unusual cuisine and a setting sun in the canyon, well, that’s a splendid day!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
So many people! It’s been a village, for sure… My parents (Jack and Dotty Whitaker), my siblings (Cath, Mary Pat, Jim, Rita, Rose, Colette and Shar), my kids (Ean and Sedona) and their dad, in-laws, teachers (especially Mr. Ben Price), my long time friends, my reason/season friends (even the toxic ones!), designers, project coordinators, and co-creators, clients, babysitters, neighbors, community activists, co-workers, essential workers, etc., etc., etc. I didn’t build it alone!