The World of Sue Kreitzman

Sue was interviewed by Beauty Papers Magazine.

"I went to high school in a small ocean side village on Long Island, about 40 minutes from Manhattan. We were very sheltered from the madness of 'The City' as we referred to NYC, although I always escaped to that city as often as I could. It was an easy train ride.

In those days, a visit to Manhattan meant modest stacked heels, white gloves, and a hat. A suit, (pencil skirt), a good girdle that held us tightly in its grip, and a bra that pointed with pride, (very torpedo-like). Stockings, of course, (tights - 'leotards' - were only for dancers) held up with garters (suspenders) that dangled from our girdles.

In school, the girls wore voluminous brightly printed circle skirts with substantial horsehair petticoats underneath, (the girls looked like perambulating hot air balloons), with frilly, starched cotton blouses, all of it tightly cinched in at the waist with wide belts. Socks and flat Capezios completed the look.

Alternately, they wore pencil skirts and cashmere twin sets. Twin sets in every available colour, accessorised with a tasteful gold circle pin, a modest string of cultured pearls, and a laden gold charm bracelet on the wrist. Socks and white sneakers (tennis shoes) on the feet. The hem of the pencil skirt reached the top of the socks. It was actually quite a chic look. Sometimes the cardigan of the twin set was worn on its own, backwards, buttoned in the back. It was the era of Marilyn Monroe; bosoms were very in. (The word breasts was never uttered.)

It's not that I was a rebel. I just didn't care about those looks, and I certainly did not want to swish through the halls looking like everyone else. Besides, there was no money for cashmere in all or any colours. There was no money for circle pins and pearls, but I would have shuddered to wear them in any circumstance.

Two of my uncles were rich. Their very comfortable and indulged wives sent boxes of hand me downs every so often. I had some amazing clothes, very unlike the high school outfits swirling around me every school day. I made them my own. I particularly remember a red wool dress, the hem well below the knee, a parade of red wool loops from neck to hem down the front, comfortable and chic as hell. And red! Accessorized with my treasured collection of jewellery, bought with my hard earned babysitting money in Greenwich Village (bohemian copper brooches) and in Brentano's bookshops (reproductions of pre-Columbian gold). At the time, this stuff only cost a few dollars each. I still have all of it. Many of the pieces have now been incorporated into my memory jugs, my sculptures, and my Neckshrines.

Later, in my late teens, and twenties, I spent many hours exploring 'The City' and I became addicted to what was referred to as 'ethnic' clothing and jewellery. Should you come in possession of a time machine, give me a call. I will direct you to all the fabulous places to find this stuff; beautifully made and absurdly inexpensive. In fact, I'll come with you. It was all considered very bohemian. This was before the hippies, before jeans for anyone other than workmen, before the burning of bras and the divesting of punishing girdles. I was, to put it succinctly, a weirdo. Guatemalan skirts in dizzying colours, Mexican hand embroidered dresses (my favourite was fuchsia pink with orange embroidery), Seminole skirts and jackets, Native American jewellery, Greek wool skirts trimmed with gorgeous braid and tassels. At 22, I was living in Manhattan, earning my own money in a real job, and I could dress as I pleased. No one leveled accusations of cultural appropriation; I was admired (with a bit of incredulity) for my quirky style, brave use of colour and love of other cultures. But I was considered outside the box, not quite suitable for normal company, a slight embarrassment. And my mother pretty much hated my look until the day she died. Hey Ma! You should see me now. Much, much worse. I never learned.

I was a very early reader and a bit of a loner. I pored over books, devoured them, crawled inside and stayed awhile. My first love affair with superbly beautiful beings was with the black tribal female dancers in one of the Babar books. Coal black, bare breasted (do I remember correctly?) wearing short skirts of leaves, and dancing for the pleasure of Babar and his court. In an attack of nostalgia, I returned to the Babar books a few years ago. Shocking revelation: they are deeply racist. They glorify colonialism, telling metaphorical tales of the Belgian Congo. But I was a kid, probably about 6 - what did I know? That image entered my consciousness and has remained to this day. decades later, I discovered Josephine Baker. She took that image and subverted it, made it her own, and rode it to glory, fame and fortune. She is my beauty, she is my Shero, to me, she epitomizes true feminine radiance.

The second person was a statue. Actually a picture of Michael Angelo's David, seen in an ancient volume of the Book of Knowledge, in my preteens. I can still feel the visceral lurch in my prepubescent heart caused by that first viewing. I have outgrown David. My idea of male beauty has radically changed since then. But I visited him in his pearly marble flesh, in Florence, a few years ago. We had a little chat, and I acknowledged that frisson I felt more than a half century ago. Then I went to see Caravaggio's Medusa. A woman with a headful of snakes? Now that's beauty!

I was a teen in the fifties (I turned 13 in 1953). My mother absolutely refused to allow me to use cosmetics until I was 16 - 17. She was a parental tyrant with a very short fuse. Every once in a while, an aunt or a friend of the family would give me some pancake makeup or a lipstick. Oh woe, when I tried to discreetly use any of it. I had extraordinarily hairy legs, but leg shaving was nixed as well. Every once in a while, a sympathetic aunt/family friend would slip me a razor, but it was always a no-go. My mother was, essentially, 'she who must be obeyed'. It was a very tense household. There was no religious belief involved, no bible thumping. My parents just believed that cosmetics on a young girl were unacceptable, and my mother was a powerful enforcer.

My eyebrows were dark and thick. One day, when I was about 15, I decided to do a little tweezing to neaten them up under the brow arch. What was I thinking? Where did I find the tweezers? I have no idea. The new brows were not that different than the old ones, but my mother noticed at once and flew into a rage. Apparently brow control was not a decent activity for someone of my tender years.

Months later, I was babysitting, the kids were asleep, and I was deep in a book. Somewhere, I had picked up a sturdy plastic spoon. With my thumb and the handle of the spoon, I absentmindedly and unconsciously plucked at my right eyebrow. Again, what was I thinking? What kind of new fidgety habit was this? I was plucking all unaware, I was actually pulling out clumps. It certainly wasn't particularly artful, but my subconscious was obviously kicking up a ruckus and causing a lot of trouble. To say there was hell to pay when I got home was to seriously underestimate the situation. There was yelling, there was screaming, there was smacking across the face. In vain I explained the unconsciousness of the plucking, the absent minded fidget of it as I read my book, the fact that it was not done on purpose. I kept insisting it was true, because it was true. Strange, but true.

But, until the end of her life, my mother fixated on that incident, and came back to it every year or so. 'Come on, admit it, you really did it, didn't you? You lied to me, you PLUCKED YOUR EYEBROW ON PURPOSE!!'. So please do not mention eyebrows to me, ever. Eyebrows are traumatic, they are untouchable, they disrupt my subconscious, they cause fury and disorder until the end of time. I am going to quietly step away from this subject now, and pour myself a stiff drink.

By the time I was 15 and a half I was allowed a little bit of lipstick. I don't really remember much about it. What colour? What brand? All the girls in high school used lipstick, and I did too. My boyfriend (now my husband of many, many years) and I had our first kiss around then, sitting on a piano bench. Later that evening, he blotted his lips, and saved the lipstick stained handkerchief. It rests in a cedar box in our loft to this day, a reminder of young love. I should really dig it out, to check the colour. But I became a bit of a prodigy on the oboe by age 16, and eventually won a full oboe scholarship to University. It was a very prestigious thing. I bought my own oboe with babysitting money; an achievement I am very proud of.

I was always having an oboe lesson, or practicing, or making oboe reeds and testing them. or rehearsing, or performing. The oboe is a double reed instrument; you play by wrapping your lips around the reed and forcing air through it and the body of the oboe.. As a result, by my late teens and early 20s, I was out of the habit of lipstick. It got in the way, it messed up my reed and my playing. My mother, ever critical, objected. Everyone wore lipstick, why was I an exception? Patiently I explained, over and over, about my dedication to music and the oboe, how important it was to me, and how lipstick just wasn't practical on days (almost every day), I was playing. So she and my father came up with a term to tell their friends and family why I fell short in the beauty department. 'She's a dedicated slob' they would explain. The word nerd had not been coined yet. I was so dedicated to the oboe, apparently, that I willingly abandoned basic beauty rituals. I wore my first pair of eyeglasses at age 18. I was told that my astigmatism would correct itself in a few years, and it did. I chose my own glasses for that first foray into eyewear, and I chose bright red. Of course, everyone (especially my mother, but also friends and family) objected. After all, nobody wore red spectacles, what was I thinking?! Looking back, I wonder: How was I so fortunate to find those frames? I just don't remember. I can see them in my mind's eye and I wish I still had them, or a least a photo of them on my face. By now, they would be vintage, and they were very very special. But now, in my current stage of life, I am back in the red framed spectacles business. I have drawers of them. Big, red and flamboyant; they bring me great joy. Of course, by now, I'm blind as a bat, so they also enable me to see and to get around without slamming into walls. Flaunt it, make a statement, don't let the minor handicaps of aging get you down.

I never understood the compulsion to dye the grey (I prefer to call it silver) right out of one's hair. Silver strands, silver swathes, a whole damn' head of silver are absolutely gorgeous. If you dye your hair because you have a yen for pink, purple, or variegated stripes, that is another matter entirely. That is art: I put it right up there with exquisite tattoos, flamboyant jewellery and over the top clothing. But the silver strands are a gift - accept them gracefully. First my hair went silver at the temples when I was in my thirties. Then, little by little, the silver took over. Now I have a glorious headful of shining locks - how lucky I am!

That brings me to plastic surgery. Why mummify yourself into a false veneer of vanished youth? Why undergo non-essential and dangerous anaesthesia, only to emerge looking slightly non-human and embalmed before you have actually popped your clogs? Our character, (our life) is in our face - why erase it for a foolish dream of artificial youth? As we travel through time, beauty changes. Old Mister Gravity has his way with us, skin crumples, joints creak. It does not matter! Flaunt it, strut it, rejoice that you are alive. Make your journey count, without wasting precious time trying to freeze yourself into artificial stasis. Sometimes the plastic surgery nonsense happens early in life. In high school, lots of the Jewish girls, with well to do families, had nose jobs. This was before Barbra Streisand made glorious Jewish noses de rigueur. Those young, fresh Eastern European and Mediterranean faces, made grotesque, by the sudden appearance of a pert, incongruous, upturned goyishe nose: what a travesty.

When I was young, I had olive skin, and - because we lived near the sea - I was often deeply tanned. My brows were dark, my lashes long and thick, my hair so dark brown it was almost black. But time has faded me. Thirty six years in the UK has faded me even more. I love my shiny silver hair, but my pasty complexion, not so much. Bright red lipstick makes a huge difference. And blush, and slightly darkened eyebrows, frosted with platinum (I use eye shadow on my brows). The red framed eyeglasses also help lift the colour. In the mid eighties, in London, I began my television cooking career, on the BBC, and other channels. The food was supposed to shine, not my outfits. Black spectacles and black skirts were my uniform, but I always managed to arrive in a brilliantly colourful blouse, and a dramatic brooch. Colour and jewellery (I'm not talking Tiffany's and Cartier here) always defined me. Years later, at age 60, I had my famous and sudden epiphany, and suddenly stopped cooking and began making art. I was dizzy with glee at my newfound ability to make visual my private mythologies, and my vividly hued fantasies. Little by little, my garb and my art melded. Art is life, and life is art. I wear it on my back, I drape it around my neck.

Less is less, more is not nearly enough. I design it myself now. I source gorgeous fabrics. I mine my endless collections of junk. A walking collage, a perambulating art gallery; I am living my dream.

Beauty? It's not the colour of the skin or the shape of the nose. Slim or curvy, young or old? It doesn't matter. Sultry or innocent, blue eyed or brown, blond or brunette? Who cares? Gay, straight, trans or confused? It doesn't matter. Beauty is something else entirely. It's the pizzazz, the moxie, the luminosity shining out of the eyes. It's the lightning bolts of wild talent zapping out of every pore. The compassion and kindness in the face. The sense of humour that manages to be ironic, but falls short of spite and meanness. It's the walk, the talk, the attitude. That is transcendent beauty and always will be.

Photography by John William

Sue features in the latest issue of Raw Vision Magazine...

Women in Outside Art - 'Environments'

Sue Kreitzman is featured in the book 'Bolder - Life Lessons from People Older and Wiser Than You' written by Dominique Afacan and Helen Cathcart. Listen to this interview at Talk Radio by Eamonn Holmes, where Sue describes her experience of getting older and how she maintains a youthful, creative and positive attitude to life, whatever her age. Click the image above to go to Sue's YouTube channel and listen to the whole interview. (Opens in a new window)

Jo Good interviews writer Dominique Afacan and Artist, Curator and fashionista Sue Kreitzman. Dominique talks about her new book, co-written by Helen Cathcart: 'Bolder: Life Lessons From People Older and Wiser Than You'. Sue Kreitzman is featured in the book and talks about her attitude to ageing, fashion and living life to the full. Click the image above to go to Sue's YouTube channel and listen to the whole interview. (Opens in a new window)

Click the photo below to read Sue being interviewed on the ID Magazine website
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Click the photo below to read Sue being interviewed by The Refinery website
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