By Marian Pontz
I hear the prayer flags flapping in the wind; so loud that it’s hard to think, too loud for any conversation, and so colorful and beautiful that, as they traverse the mountains, travelers cannot imagine finding anything more beautiful, or more surreal. I have not actually seen these flags in person, not had the opportunity to touch them. I only see them in my mind’s eye, after my conversation with Susan Gottlieb. She described them to me with such detail that they are now haunting me. I find myself hearing the flags flapping in the constant mountain wind. I see the bright red, blue, and green colors set against the mountain peaks made of rock and stone. I feel the prayers and blessings spreading out onto the world. Our Lancaster community knows Susan as a painter. The Susan I experienced—for a few hours on a warm, rainy, summer morning at a downtown café—was a storyteller who painted the world for me with such powerful descriptions, quotes, experiences, gestures, and sentiments that I felt bedazzled: shiny, new, bright, colorful, and connected to the world, both temporal and eternal.
When you first meet Susan, she seems dreamy, and a bit less focused on pragmatics and logic than she reveals herself to be as you get to know her. As you find out within minutes of meeting her, she is so much more than a title—woman, artist, and teacher—as well as the limiting characteristics we assign to those titles. She refers to her bike as her physical therapy partner named Iris, and then continues on to quote Anne Frank and Joseph Campbell, and to discuss the need to validate and appreciate one another. She captures you with her intellect, turning even skeptics into passionate supporters through story after story. She is a real woman of the world, and as thus, can find our deeply buried humanity. She pushes past your skepticism (which, in reality, we all know is based in fear and worry about our differences) and teaches you instead to listen, connect, and be curious.
She was born, as she tells me, “liking to go where I was not supposed to go. In high school I ran cross-country with the boys. I took Industrial Arts classes. I applied to the Air Force Academy. I prepared myself for adventures. I am insatiably curious.” She has quenched this curiosity through travel. She moved to Rome, lived for a few years, and completely immersed herself in the language and culture. During her travels alone through Tunisia, she was invited to have a meal in the home of a poor girl and her mother, who hosted her with foods that honored her presence. All that these women asked in return was for a Western history book to be sent to them. (They had been denied access to learning about areas outside of their own, and they knew there was more to know.) She has traveled to Cuba, all across Europe, most of Southeast Asia, and across the deserts of the United States and Africa. Through her travels she has discovered universal truths: that we are more alike than different, that people are more generous than we give them credit for being, and that if we can simply be quiet for a moment and put our screens down, we will be able to hear the creative voice that flows through and connects all of us.
Now, Susan is on a new journey via an old path. For thirty-two years, she taught in public and private schools. She experienced the highs and the lows of being an educator, and the lows finally convinced her to retire from teaching. She painted, organized small travel groups to Italy, and did not see herself ever going back into the classroom.
That is, until she received a phone call from Mike Simpson, creator of and administrator at the new The Stone Independent School, located on Lime Street in downtown Lancaster. “Mike caught me at the right time,” she says. “We had worked well together [at another private school in area] and I can completely be myself.” Now, she finds herself back in the classroom, seeing it as another risk taking opportunity and a chance to grow, as this time the school insists on, “being a holistic form of education, where we will take risks and feel supported.” She describes the class she is currently teaching with another member of the Stone School staff—a math teacher— called Art vs. Commerce. Asking: how does art influence business and vice versa?
Susan tells me about a seminal piece of artwork that will be used in the lessons for her new course, created by American Feminist Artist Judy Chicago, called The Dinner Party. Susan described the ways in which the piece exemplifies the history of women’s disenfranchisement and oppression, in the art world and beyond. “The machine does not work for [women],” she states plainly. The Dinner Party was heralded when it was first displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s, and yet, Chicago could not find another museum to exhibit the installation after SFMOMA, as no one wanted to possibly suffer backlash from the “controversy” of the piece. The work sat crated up for years, until Elizabeth Sackler and the Brooklyn Museum created a permanent home for the installation in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the New York City museum in 2007. These are the important lessons and stories that Susan and her colleagues plan to teach. She promises to, “teach to the whole person and allow her students to go out there and make messes. I want to let them walk the walk. I want to help them become well-balanced humans.”
Me? I want to hang prayer flags and hear them flapping in the wind. I want to feel a connection with people in my community and around the world. I want to be 16-years-old again, and take classes with Ms. Gottlieb, so that I can see the world through her eyes—bigger, but not something to be afraid of. Instead, to be empowered by the vast opportunities to be a part of it. Imagine if we all got to travel this journey; Susan would say that we already are. Just close your eyes, listen, and see it.