Susanna Salk



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Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Shoveling snow today, I suddenly thought of them, two college seniors digging their car out from the aftermath of an unexpected blizzard one Sunday morning. They weren’t really my friends. But there I was one winter morning in an unfamiliar Manhattan borough depending on Nick and Joe in their vintage overcoats and converse high tops (sharing a Marlboro) attempt to dig out their car so we could get back to campus in Poughkeepsie. Our mutual friend was a senior named Caroline. Even taller than me with bright blonde hair, her raw energy demanded connection and she was feared and loved in equal parts across campus and somehow had chosen me as her Freshman lady in waiting. She and I had spent the night in search of a party but in the blizzard’s onslaught we were too short on cash and our heels too high to make it. My head was bent so low against the wind, my chin touched the frozen zipper of Caroline’s shaggy chic coat I had borrowed. Sensing my defeat, she stole some string cheese from a convenience store and handed me a stick. “Fuel,” she said and began to do a Tina Tuner impersonation in the middle of Third Avenue. We sought shelter in an apartment of a friend of hers nearby. She rapped loudly on door and it buzzed opened with the enthusiasm of a dying insect. The dark, dank hallway made me want to go back outside but I followed her singing like a flashlight. There was a shower in the kitchen and Caroline hopped in and faked a strip tease until even I felt festive. Nick and Joe were there and offered us a ride home the next day. Where did we spend the night? I don’t recall but eventually there we all were in their car, barreling down the Taconic in the blinding sunshine of the new morning toward the safe grid of Vassar’s campus. As Nick drove, Joe passed him some deodorant and he gamely applied it one handedly. I turned to Caroline, eager for her make one of her perfect jokes but she was watching the city retreat out the window her face gone uncharacteristically soft. “I’m not going back,” she said. “City sucks,” I told her, thinking of my Russian literature homework. “No, school,” she said. And from the depths of her pocket handed me the last of the cheese.

Momentary shadows
Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Hiked high up to the secret pond behind the barn today with my son Winston. I felt privileged to share the view with him. The silence surrounding us up there felt storybook, like looking into the tiny keyhole of an Easter egg to a created, hushed world. The circle of water was almost frozen and dusted with snow. Shadows from the surrounding trees cast their black vertical bands everywhere yet left the snow untouched. I looked down at the footprints we had made and felt a rush of regret. On the footbridge a creature had recently scurried ahead of us, reminding me nothing is ever ours alone. I took a picture and added our shadows momentarily to the landscape and then we went home.

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

My late mother in law had an apartment on Central Park West and on her coffee table was a copy of Ruth Orkin’s book “A World Through My Window” 30 years of panoramic photographs taken from the vantage point of Ruth’s apartment window somewhere near my mother in law’s and at the same height too. Page after page the view was the same and yet entirely different as Ruth reflected life’s remarkable and unremarkable moments through its dependable seasons: parades, picnics, rallies: people and nature unknowingly arranged beneath her window, its own picture frame to her camera’s. Buildings pushed through the skyline over the years making it more crowded; children captured in earlier pages were surely parents by the later pages. You could almost touch the sadness from the crowd gathered in Strawberry Fields after John Lennon died. Ruth seemed to link you in to what was immediately necessary and human. Her photos of winter made the white feel magical and I tried to remember her fairy tale take of its coated trees as I hustled through its stark February paths in the chilled air as a way to warrm myself. From Ruth’s window, everything had a perspective: it was neutral enough not to be judgmental yet it only existed because Ruth committed to capturing it day in and day out. She opened her window and focused her lens and trusted that someone would appreciate her vantage point. Sometimes, I would walk down the sidewalk along the park and I’d imagine she’d be above me, pointing her lens down, capturing the collective moment I happened to be a part of. It made me feel less alone, knowing she might be up there. She needed me to be a participant as much as I needed her to document. The everyday ordinariness in life can only become extraordinary when someone takes the time to trust its unfolding. I wanted to look up in case she was there. But I didn’t want to ruin the shot.

Home Fires
Saturday, December 16th, 2017

When I heard about the Ojai fires I felt a particular sense of despair. Could these fires be impacting Patina Farm, a real life paradise created by Brooke and Steve Giannetti which @quintessence and I were lucky enough to visit last year? On that magical day, Brooke came out in jeans to greet us with her beloved Shih Tzus, hundreds of pale roses blooming around her. The home the Giannettis had created from scratch was as much stylish oasis as working modern farm as envisioned by a designer architect duo who happened to be married. Goats frolicked in a space nestled alongside Brooke’s serene home office, a resplendent chicken coop felt like a dinner party you wanted to join and Sicilian donkeys roamed the property with Zen like purpose. Lush garden vegetables practically pushed themselves into your hand as you walked past. Post shoot, I swung on their swing from the branch of a giant tree and soaring through the warm air, I saw a linen chair perched outside the master bedroom facing the hills: a gentle wind scattered rose petals down around it. And now Brooke’s Instagram showed those same hills licked with hungry frames. I was aghast at Patina Farm’s sudden fragility: surely the devotion and determination gone into creating it could stop the fury of this fire? But there were pictures of the animals being evacuated and Brooke and Steve leaving with no more than hope that when they returned Patina Farm would still be there. I went to bed in Connecticut wishing my snow fall could blanket those fiery hills. A few days later Brooke was hosting a live feed from her backyard. Fires were still burning and ash was omnipresent but Patina Farm was still standing. Relief was pouring in from all over the world in a steady steam of comments. It was a privelege to be able to be in the nerve center along side her even if it was only through phone screens. Brooke’s appreciative voice was still uncertain. Technology could connect all of our prayers for her in live time but all we could do was watch the fires burn together and collectively wonder. But Brooke made us feel like that was enough. Paradise doesn’t exist after all, unless it is shared.

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

At Thanksgiving we went around the table and shared a favorite memory of a grandparent. I knew that I wanted to share a story about my mother’s late mother, Anne Weld. Her unique style and confidence were dazzling to me but never intimidating, even though I was very much an awkward duckling to her swan-like being. She never wore makeup but was always the most beautiful woman in the room. She crossed her legs with the confidence of a general and drank a cocktail with the grace of Garbo. My love for baths, dogs and gardens comes directly from her DNA. One time I told her about a bad boss and she merely said with a sweep of her hand: “What an utter jerk,” and I never let the idea of him bother me again. When I was a child, I picked out the ugliest glasses I knew in hopes I’d convince people I wouldn’t have to wear them. She arrived at my door the following week to pick me up to go shopping, wearing the same pair. “Aren’t they fabulous?!” she said as we climbed into her Peugeot. To this day I don’t know whether she was just being kind or whether she really believed that they were fabulous but it doesn’t matter. But last week I shared the story - even though it was just a moment- about a dinner party at our house when I was thirteen. I had just gotten the new Vogue and I wanted more than anything to share my impressions of its exotic pages with her. Children were not part of the evening festivities but I wormed my way into the noisy, smoky dining room and stood next to her in my pajamas. She stopped immediately listening to her dinner partner and made room for me. We then turned the pages together as if the world had stopped. Relaying the memory last week, I burst into unexpected, persistent tears. My beloved young nieces put protective arms around me like doves’ wings. I didn’t leave their sides for the rest of the night. May we all realize who needs us to witness their days and may we remember to share ourselves with those who may look up to us. May we convince them they matter. The small moments bloom inside us over and over even when we don’t know the seed has been planted until much later.

Fresh Old Eyes
Sunday, November 26th, 2017

They say you should view old things with fresh eyes but how about new things with fresh eyes? Today I had the honor of a visit from an enchanting eight year old girl whom I met by happenstance a few months ago at our neighborhood hair salon. Within seconds we established that she loved dogs and design and dahlias and so we immediately set up a play date through her mother. She arrived today and we perused every item around the new house. She spotted a bouquet of flowers in an an old oil painting I had just bought and hadn’t taken the time to really peruse so quick I was to hang it. She ran her finger along the carved wood figures of a vintage mirror and I told her what Chinoiserie was and said that was “exactly my taste.” Old things new in my house were new yet again and I finally felt sure of their placement under her enthusiasm. She held a gingerbread cookie in one pink mittened hand and pointed out a parrot with delight on a pillow with another. She asked if a crocodile resided in our pond and I teased her that was impossible. Then outside, I told her to suddenly stop inside the crux of a trees’ majestic branch shadows to snap a picture. Suddenly I turned the camera sideways and it appeared as though she was between the jaws of a giant creature. I went to show her hoping she’d see what I saw. Before I could explain she smiled and said: “There’s your crocodile.” Of course it was there all along.

Sweet Dreams
Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Picture a nothing room, the only redeeming feature being a window facing a beautiful country lawn. A space so small there was no closet and only room for a twin bed. My husband wanted to turn it into a closet but my 17-year-old son fervently claimed it for his new bedroom and immediately sent me a picture he found on Instagram of how he envisioned its transformation if I was game. Straight from the Swinging Sixties, an amorous couple luxuriously lounges on a day bed of red velvet a curious screen tilted above their heads. He then texted a sketch: the room would be a continuous structure built along the wall: a queen bed in the middle and window seats on either side of it. A computer screen would be hung on the opposite wall. I sent it to our incredible carpenter Carloman who understands all the possibilities of wood and design. He suggested adding lots drawers for storage below. I ordered a custom mattress pad and my son and I agreed that blue velvet would be more suitable for our Connecticut house. The drawers would be painted in the same glossy gray as the kitchen cabinets with brass handles. I needed three people to help me load the enormous upholstered pad into the back of our pick up truck. I incurred many stares driving the dusty pick up truck home, the blue velvet bobbing alluring in the back. I felt protective of it and couldn’t wait to get home and finally place it down onto the structure that Carloman had so carefully crafted. I had added an Italian light fixture above as a bid to the vintage mood my son loved. An oil painting we had found at Goodwill last year of the Italian riveria for $25 was suddenly moved home from the dorm room. At Thanksgiving he will finally sleep there and understand how amazing design can be when it involves so many artisans and inspirations along the way. Sweet dreams indeed.

Friday, October 20th, 2017

When a detour took me down a road I have not traveled in a number of years, I passed a driveway to a property my husband and I had seriously considered pulling up roots nearby to renovate and live in “forever.” Our children were young and we were exhausted and busy and we did love our current house and yet… One drive up its seemingly endless stretch of driveway bordered by hundred-year-old trees and we were thrown into the fever pitch of possibilities of what if…as we researched and met with contractors and architects we discovered that the Rolling Stones had rented it one summer to rehearse there and my best friend’s mother‘s boyfriend had also rented it and she remembered smooching in front of its grand fireplace which also enamored me. And yet…the numbers just didn’t add up and the what ifs could never satisfactorily be answered. So we walked away. Driving by today was not unlike passing an old lover on the street: the memories flare but the reminder of why it didn’t work ultimately burns brighter. This house which once fervently occupied our daytime and nighttime dreams ultimately was forgotten. We did end up moving only 5 miles away to the lake which we love and in fact are renovating a new place which is maximizing our emotional bandwidth. We have moved on as one does. Still I drove up the endless driveway eager to see if the house had stayed more less in the same shabby chic state it had been when we had known it. Workers were planting bushes by the entrance and a snappy SUV was parked in the driveway. The house looked the same just slightly spiffier. The exterior have been painted a rather gloomy beige as if to tame the funky architecture that had once so intrigued and ultimately proved too challenging. I wondered if what really had enthralled me was the dazzling approach: my grandparents had lived at the end of a luxuriously long driveway near the ocean and the sense of drama every time I visited never got old. How clear everything seemed in hindsight. Or did it? One of workers looked up and waved. I waved back as though I had lived there all along and was just running out and would soon be home.

Curb Appeal
Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Local legend refers to him as Cadillac Joe even though he was always spotted driving a Lincoln. For decades it was said that this former demolition man drove every Sunday to visit and complete the road side folly he had erected stone by stone single handedly over the course of decades. It looked like a drip sand castle Scarlet O Hara would have constructed as a child…if Salvador Dali had been her father. You can Google “abandoned stone house in Woodbury, Connecticut” and many posts pop up, often by fascinated people determined to understand the houses’s story by detective work or through taking their own photos or even videos. The best part about reading these posts is the enthusiastic chain of comments that always follows by equally obsessed people. One woman named Chrissy said that she had snuck onto the property and taken pictures, reveling in its beauty. An anonymous comment immediately followed, warning: “I am watching you, Chrissy.” Was it Cadillac Joe? Or some creepy individual, enjoying the game of speculation? The house seemed to have a magnetic pull both on people who had made pilgrimages from towns far away to see it, to people who passed it on a regular basis. In a world where curb side appeal is measured in tidy window boxes, plush lawns , its intrigue seemed to lay in its unapologetic state of constant construction and deconstruction. Staring at it is like the Esher drawing of the stairway that never goes anywhere yet your eye longs to follow its infinite path just the same. Now that my son was back in school, I passed by today after several months away and suddenly noticed a For Sale sign tacked on its exterior. For Sale signs and houses usually have a codependent relationship but here the pairing felt completely inappropriate and I wanted to rip it down. How could something from the real world have anything to do with something that was obviously so far beyond maps, monetary transactions, and logic? Had Cadillac Joe gone and died or had he finally given up?
Of all the comments online I could find only one person had ever met Cadillac Joe. She had wanted to take pictures of her daughter’s ballet troupe in front of the house for professional purposes. He had happened to be there and although had denied her the picture, gave her a tour. She described him as eccentric but kind. And then there was me.
Five years ago my older son had been scouting for a backdrop to a key scene in his student film and knew he wanted to shoot there, having passed it countless of times on his way to childhood play dates. The house had always seemed deserted whenever we drove by and he’d only need a few minutes to capture his actor walkig by its exterior. On the day of the shoot a light snow was falling which made the bare winter afternoon feel even more cinematic. As we drove up to the house we saw a car pulled over in front: a wisp of smoke was curling out of one of the three stone chimneys that looked like something out of a Grimms fairytale.
As my son and crew expressed frustration I told them to wait in the car and I walked inside. A man in his late 70s was hunched over a small fire in a giant stone fireplace, feeding it sticks in a repetitive, rather than contemplative manner. Stacks and stacks of newspapers crowded around him in the rubble. The top of my head felt wet and I looked up and could see the darkening sky creamy with snow, as at home here as the fire. I said hello and asked permission to quickly shoot outside his property.
When he saw they were just teenagers he nodded and offered the interior as well. As the boys scrambled out of the car I remained by his side and listened to whatever he wanted to tell me. He had built this place for his late girlfriend who died of cancer and he intended on finishing it. “I’m finishing up that stone terrace over there and inside will be a garden.” I looked over to where he gestured and all I could see were more stacks of newspapers, stones and weeds. In the next room giant shadows lay like sleeping house cats. “Are those cars? ” I asked, almost more to myself in amazement than as a question to him. He had once collected cars and watches.
He then inquired if I knew a place where he could sell his watches and I was foolish enough to suggest an online web site. He nodded blankly and I felt a strong sense of powerlessness surge through me.
I don’t know if the house will ever sell and if it does whether it become monument or a McMansion. All I know is up until today every time I drove by it, I still looked to see if the terraced garden had been finished.

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

For years I’ve had pipe dreams about taking over the abandoned boat house near our dock and turning it into an office. I approached the owner and it was soon clear his agreeing to meet was just politesse on his part. Eight years have gone by and for some reason I finally peddled my hydra bike over tonight and entered via the water entrance with a certainty as if I was visiting a dear friend waiting upstairs. Inside lay two beautiful but cobwebbed wooden canoes. I marveled at the patience of abandoned objects that exist only to give us pleasure. Eventually there was nothing else to do but back pedal out and go home. Time does interesting things to our wish lists: it unexpectedly bumps up things from the bottom to the top and things at the top soon become as amorphous as reflections of the hills in the lake water itself. Their magnificent colors- especially this time of year- are magnified yet dissipate as soon as we pass over them with a current of our own creating. I also got to thinking how working in such a splendid spot might change my work and written word. Perhaps for the better but also perhaps for the worst. Delivering our dreams to ourselves does set the bar higher. I’m looking at the boathouse now as I write this from my own dock. I feel lucky to have it in my view. Somehow just knowing those two canoes are there, is enough.