Interview with an Artist: Suzanne Holmes Rutherford

Living your best life takes many forms and requires many skills. One of the top ten skills is creativity. Creativity and mental health and their influence on each other is interesting to me personally and professionally. Sometimes the greatest art is born of pain and suffering. Sometimes pain and suffering rob us of creativity.  Because it's interesting to me, because I hope I can spark some thought and creativity in my clients and readers, and because I selfishly like picking the brains of creative people, I decided to do a series of interviews about creativity and mental health. This interview is a special one for me, not just because its with an uber talented, thoughtful, and generous woman (check out how detailed her responses are!!!), but also because she's my aunt! I hope you enjoy her insight and wit as much as I do!


1. You're an artist. What kind of art do you do?

I'm a manual labourer lol. Pianist, writer, songwriter, playwright, mentor.  Sometimes I'm doing public performances, but most days I'm on my own working from home.

Some days I am playing for corporate events, seniors, high school musicals.   Or even royalty (three VIP solo piano gigs for HRH Princess Anne of Britain in 2013).

Other days I am a writer. I'm a published non-fiction writer with a Fortune 500 Company, but in 2017 I hope to publish some short stories and an illustrated poetry collection.

Some days it's taking the grubby fleece of daily life and spinning it into a song.

Some days it's being a judge at the national level for the JUNOS (Canada's Grammy Awards)

Some days it's teaching a developmentally delayed young adult to play that tune she loves by ear, coaxing her surgically altered fingers to press the keys in the right sequence.

Some days it's mentoring, encouraging young writers to share their stuff at an open mic at a monthly coffeehouse for community youth which artist friends and I helped run for years (hopefully resuming in 2017)

Some days it's creating an entire universe, moving the pieces forward for my two act rock musical for which I wrote the script, lyrics, music and arrangements. Pilgrim's Progress: The Musical has had two workshops with a who's who of actors and directors. It will have an international audience for its Canadian debut in October 2017.  

2. It's not uncommon for creative types to struggle with mental health issues. What do you see as the interplay between mental health and creativity?

No friction, no fire.

Auschwitz survivor psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning is a frequent read for me. He's speaking from the furnace, right?

I believe we make art when we intentionally reflect on our personal quest for sanity, using our gifts to help understand why we're here.  But there's a flip-side: if we are not mindful about it, if we don't process life through our artistic gift, then it is easy to spiral into anxiety/ addictions (like I did today)

Being an artist is like being an alchemist. But the beauty of it is - you don't need the perfect combination of materials to make the gold. You can use anything, the hell and shit that life throws you, or the tiny lovely detail you notice, and transform it into something arresting, something wondrous and memorable. Being an artist is not about having the 'Midas Touch', it's about having divine eyes to truly 'see' the world around you, the world within you, the eyes to look beyond into the future and see what something could be, if you let it pass through your particular gift. 

But you need the energy, the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional energy to do that, to keep doing that.

Daily headlines tell me being an artist is a perilous pursuit.

But the best artists I know are some of the sanest, hard-working, balanced people around.

I find that the very act of making art brings clarity, renews sanity, and restores balance.

Making art means I have to have the humility to submit to my gift in life and the daily discipline to develop that gift to its highest potential.

I am fascinated by the power of humour to energize, slyly inform the audience and also affirm the artist. To laugh daily and to be joyful runs counter to the cult of meh, despair, nihilism and death in our society. Making art is increasingly a comedic (yes there is sorrow and tension but in the end you produce something vs, say, nothing) and a subversive act; it's a middle finger to the haters. Gotta love how Andrew Lloyd Webber named his publishing firm "The Really Useful Company" and that Stephen Spielberg's is "Dreamworks".  

3. You can't possibly feel creative all the time. What do you do to foster creativity and practice your craft even when you're not feeling it? Any tricks you've picked up to help you get out of your own way?

The artist as caregiver is my reality. Having enough time and energy to do my art is a constant battle. I was, of necessity, a stay-at-home mom for my special needs young children, one gifted and two profoundly handicapped. During those years I practiced for my national concert exam for my piano performance degree in chunks of three to five minutes at the piano. I wrote after the kids were in bed.  

Practicing and writing in small windows of time is a constant necessity for me as I continue to care for my loved ones. Reading, getting out to movies, concerts, theatre, eating with friends, encouraging and investing in fellow artists, and self-care are all important soul-renewing activities for me in what is essentially a solitary life.

4. If you could suggest one thing for my readers to do to help them live their best life, what would that be?

Love is the opposite of fear. Love is creative!

I want to rethink the 'artist' paradigm completely. The 'art gene' is not just bestowed on a favoured few, dooming the rest of us who got left behind the door to draw stick figures - badly. The birthright of every human is to be a creative person. Functional MRIs reveal that our every personal encounter biochemically induces physical changes to the structures in our brain. We are actually sculpting one another - for better or worse. Our lives are a vast interconnected work of art.  How awesome is that?

My sense of self-worth comes not from my bank account or reviews. I choose to believe that a loving Creator made me and, though I am very imperfect, loves me perfectly, unconditionally. This leaves me free to love and enjoy and encourage others and free to do my own art -  because I am so loved.

So every day I am free to make a choice: do I feed my own fears - or do I remember I am loved, and use my gifts to make art, seen or unseen,  today?

Suzanne Holmes Rutherford Hon. B.A. ARCT Piano Performance is a Canadian pianist, songwriter, and playwright.She has had a ton of fun judging the JUNO awards, playing piano for HRH Princess Anne, and getting pointers from Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) for writing PILGRIM'S PROGRESS the Musical. The Muskoka Chautauqua Festival will showcase Pilgrim in October 2017; as it is the 100th anniversary of the Muskoka Chautauqua, all international Chautauquas, including the flagship New York State one and all affiliates will be in attendance.

Find Suzanne Holmes Rutherford on LinkedIn