I’ll confess: sometimes I use How She Does It posts to learn more about my own friends; incredible friends who have lived complex, interesting lives, overcome challenges, set forth on new paths. Because there are some questions that seem too probing, too nosy to casually ask on email or Facebook (curiosity is a writer’s curse and blessing) so I shamelessly use this forum to do just that. Besides, how selfish it would be to keep their incredible stories to myself when you too can be enthralled and inspired by them!
Suzanne Cleary and I met when we were both working at Medibank Private in Melbourne. We were both young New Zealanders keen for fun and adventure. We shared stories and drinks and become good friends. I have always been entranced by Suz’s energy, ambition, intelligence, thirst for knowledge and fearless, independent spirit. Suz and her husband, Dave, stayed with us when we lived in Macau and then again in Vancouver. Not long after her stay with us in Canada I learned she had suffered a terrible accident in Colombia. Only through this interview did I come to appreciate the full extent – “I was crossing the road and was hit by a large motorbike. The impact of the blow sent me flying 20 metres down the road and I landed instantly smashing my pelvis in several places. The impact with the motorbike broke my hip, and my left hand (my dominant one) was badly mangled in the bike’s headlight resulting in 3 severed tendons and several fractures in my hand and fingers. Amazingly my spine, neck and legs were all untouched, but I did have a haematoma in my brain (which meant operations to stabilize my pelvis had to be delayed several days).”
These days Suz has not only recovered from her major accident and trauma but is the artist + operator of her own ceramics business, Tess + Trix, works as a Senior Strategic Transport Planner (urban / town planner specialising in transport) and is Mama-bear to a darling 14-month old daughter I recently had the pleasure of meeting. This woman is, in short, an absolute inspiration! But how did she get from a debilitating accident to this happy, busy, creative, fulfilled life? My curiosity got the better of me and I had to find out every little detail.
Suzanne, tell us more about becoming an artist. How did that happen?
I’ve always loved to create. My Nana and mum were creative and I was raised in a world where art and imagination were encouraged, and sewing, making, painting, and baking was the norm. Mum tells stories of me drawing and doodling on everything as soon as I could hold a crayon (much to her frustration!). By the age of seven I was drawing and painting under the tutelage of a renowned Taupo artist, and this continued until my highschool years.
Despite my love of design and aesthetics, sadly at university I didn’t pursue a career in the visual arts, but it was always something I was destined to return to. After uni, I moved to Melbourne which is such an amazing hub of art, design and a real community of makers. Suddenly this world became something tangible that I could immerse myself in, not just an idea lurking in in my peripheral. I completed some short courses in graphic design, jewellery making, resin and silversmithing and really began to reconnect with and develop my arts practice. I spent several years backpacking and living in Asia and Europe, roaming galleries, markets and museums with a sketchbook or camera firmly in hand amassing a mountain of primary and inspirational design materials.
In 2011 my dominant hand was very badly injured in an accident. To the point where it wasn’t hopeful that I would make a full recovery. In the days following my accident I vowed that if my hand regained function, I would use my creative gifts. Even during my healing process it was as if I HAD to make stuff, like I had a sacred contract with the universe and I needed to keep up my end of the bargain. In the rehab hospital I would go outside in my wheelchair and sit in the garden with my sketch book and watercolours, practicing with my hand, willing and working it to get better. My occupational therapist thought the fine motor skills of shaping, carving and sanding involved in pottery would aid my recovery, so she put me in the Royal Talbot’s inpatient pottery program. I was instantly hooked, and loved the tactile and organic nature of working with wet clay. Pottery became both my escape and sanctuary. I used my pottery time as a way to escape the clinical and sterile ward, and the pottery studio provided a quiet place for time out, reflection and mindful attention. Clay is such a beautiful medium to work with, and still now the process of making remains a quiet meditative practice that serves to ground me. I have turned this passion for ceramics into a small business: Tess+Trix where I (bravely, vulnerably, and still hesitantly) put my creations out into the world.
Check out what Suz made during her rehabilitation (blows my mind!)
What did your recovery (from the accident) involve?
My recovery was INTENSE. I spent one month in hospital in Colombia, and had four major operations there to repair and stabilize me. My pelvis was pinned internally at the back to provide bone stability, and I had an external meccano-like fixator that protruded from my hip bones at the front. Eventually we were medivaced back to Australia. I spent a further three months as an inpatient in hospital, and I have had another five operations since being back in Melbourne. As an inpatient I had daily physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and met weekly with a psychologist.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Never travel without insurance. If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel! Buy travel insurance that covers you in the event of a medical emergency for surgery, hospitalisation and repatriation. I’ve travelled for years without ever needing to draw on my insurance, but the one time I did need it, it was invaluable. My recovery improved tenfold once I was back on home turf, and we would’ve been out of pocket $300,000 if we were uninsured!
What were the most challenging aspects of your recovery?
Two things: Acceptance and Dependence.
It took me a long time to accept what had happened to me and the severity of the situation. This lack of acceptance wasn’t great early on as I held unrealistic expectations, but it really helped me to not be a victim of the situation later which hastened my recovery. I don’t think I fully accepted the severity of my injuries until I was back in Australia and I saw the level of awe and concern registering on the faces of the medical professionals here. In Colombia I was lying immobile in my hospital bed, metalwork in my back and a large metal brace protruding from my front but deliriously I was still planning our trip to the Galapagos islands! On the flip side, I wouldn’t accept that this was my state forever, and so I worked extremely hard on being able to walk, rehabbing my hand, healing emotionally and getting off the hard medication.
I’m a fiercely independent person and the accident rendered me completely dependent on others, which I hated, but eventually I learnt to accept the help. My husband was an absolute ROCK during my accident and recovery, and I was a bit of (a total!) pain in the arse. I was a TERRIBLE patient … although it was physically impossible, I kept trying to get up and walk and begging Dave to help me, and being very angry and frustrated when he couldn’t assist. At one point I even accused him of being part of a government conspiracy plot to keep me in Colombia. Clearly I had demasiado morphina! – too much morphine
Tell us about your business – Tess + Trix – what about your work with ceramics brings you the most joy?
I actually really enjoy the making process, squishing wet clay between my fingers. It’s just so calming and meditative working with the clay and seeing it transform before my eyes. I love the feedback I receive from customers, I love that something I’ve made is so cherished and brings them so much delight. I have some really loyal followers who love their pieces and are always checking back in for more.
How / when do you like to work?
I try and grab whatever moments are available these days, and they’re few and far between as I really value time spent with my family – the three of us together. I’m a night owl, so usually I work late into the evening when everyone is in bed. Always with music (usually something folky) or a podcast (usually something inspirational about business and creativity – ‘The Good Life Project’ or a TED talk)
What do you enjoy least about your work?
The moments of paralysing self-doubt and the vulnerability of putting something you’ve made out into the world for judgment and critique.
What do you have to sacrifice or compromise in order to do the work you do?
Sleep. A lot of the making for Tess+Trix is done in stolen moments of time when Hannah is sleeping, which was easier in the early days, but I have a daughter who hates day sleeps. She has a serious case of FOMO!
What have you learnt about creating a small business – advice you might give to others that are curious about selling their art?
The first step is just to start. You’ve got to put yourself out there: it’s uncomfortable, it’s vulnerable, but it’s worth it. Find your tribe – these are your mentors, peers, supporters, customers and competitors. Keep going. Set small goals. Celebrate your wins. Focus on where you are and what you’ve achieved because it’s too easy to become overwhelmed by the task ahead. Use your competitors and peers as a benchmark, something to aspire to and drive you forward, don’t compare yourself and despair. Also you need to be clear about WHY you’re doing it, and that’s YOUR why, not someone else’s version of what you should be doing.
What quality do you think is the most important for a person to be successful in your field?
I think that for any new artist starting out you just need to just keep trying, and if it’s what makes your heart sing, then never.give. up. And you have to back yourself and be your own champion.
How do you think your accident changed your life or impacted the way you live your life?
The accident shattered me, both physically and emotionally, and I basically had to rebuild from the inside out. It’s the hardest thing I have ever been through, but the experience was a great teacher. There’s a beautiful quote by the Sufi mystic Rumi that sums this up and helped me on my journey to health “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
I felt a profound sense of mortality, but also a real sense of purpose emerged. I know that I am lucky to be alive, and there’s a desire to live a better life as a result. My recovery was a very introspective time, and I used this period to clearly define my values are and what is important to me. It’s meant clearing out some old beliefs, behaviours and relationships that didn’t serve me, but it’s also meant that I’m now attracting the right people, experiences and opportunities into my life that are aligned with where I want to be.
What do you still hope to achieve in your field?
I value freedom and creativity so it is my dream to work from home in my own business, and it’s a goal that I am s l o w l y working towards.
I’d love to be a full time artist and for it be self-sustaining (replacing my income at current levels).
Sum up your life right now in three words
Joyous. Full. Content.
This has been fascinating. I really should ask a food question… If we could “beam you up” anywhere in the world for a meal, where would it be, what would it be and with whom?
I’d like to go back to Bocas del Toro in Panama to the seaside restaurant where my husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary just before the accident. The setting was beautiful, and we were bright eyed and the world was full of possibilities, we were hopeful for our future, but our relationship was largely untested. We hadn’t been hurt, broken and proven like we were in the long months following the accident. I’d like to go back there to that magical setting, enjoy the lobster and reflect on how far we’ve come together.
Suz, a huge thank you for stopping by Fork and Fiction and sharing your story – the challenges and triumphs and hopes for the future. We wish you and Tess + Trix all the best and are VERY excited to collaborate in a GIVEAWAY for readers to win $100 worth of your beautiful artwork!
For further details on how to nab this gorgeous loot please check out Fork and Fiction on Facebook and Fork and Fiction on Instagram OR Tess + Trix on Facebook and Tess + Trix on Instagram. So many EASY ways to enter to win! And, the red or blue prize pack (you get to choose) can be POSTED ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. Winner to be drawn on Wednesday 25th of March, 2015 so… hop to it!
(With thanks and credit to Reflect Photography for professional photography shots)
What an inspirational story! Stunning jewelry. I’ll be checking out her website now…instead of making dinner… 🙂
Thank you Hannah and Ria for inviting me on to the blog. I found it really energising and cathartic to share my story with you and your readers. xx
An honour and a pleasure to have you over, Suz! As for that dinner Ria…might need to order pizza?! Bet you are wishing you could enter the competition. I am!!
Isn’t it a great feeling when inspiration and ideas suddenly pop into your brain by reading or hearing about someone else’s story? Reading about Suz overcoming her accident has made me want to look into pottery classes…her items are beautiful and I love the idea of a tactile hobby!