Radio Maine Episode 77: Susan Sherril Axelrod

 

8/21/22

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine today. I have in the studio with me, Susan Cheryl Axelrod, who is a wonderful friend of mine and also an artist in her own. Right. Thanks for coming in today. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Thank you for having me. I'm flattered to have you call me an artist. I never think of myself that way. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I mean, we interview as you do a lot of visual artists, but you've been writing for years. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

I have, I've been writing for a long, long time and sometimes I come out with something that I think, Hmm, that's pretty good. That might approach art. But a lot of I refer to myself as sort of the journeyman of writers. I think I can write about almost anything and make it sound intelligible.  I know I'm being a little self deprecating, but unless you give me a complicated science subject or something involving a lot of math, I'm I'm, I'm okay with it. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Now tell me how long you've actually been writing, cuz I know you've, I mean, you've done this for main home design. You do art matters for us. You are the editor of culture media. You just you've been doing this. I mean, and it's a lot of work to write, but how many years back does this go? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Well, I owned a restaurant as my first career and it's a long time ago, 89 to 99. And I sold the restaurant and had no idea what I was going to do.  I had written for my college newspaper and had done a lot of writing in college because I was a French and Italian literature major. And so I had a friend who had a group of small newspapers and he asked me to join them. And that was in 2000. So it's, it's been that long. yeah. So, and I've been steadily employed in, in media since then 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

French and Italian literature. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

It's a little, a little obscure, isn't it? 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, what made you choose this? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Well, I didn't wanna necessarily be a language major. I wanted to combine it more with reading. And so it was, it was an interesting way to combine my love of learning those languages with my love of literature. So my thesis was on the love sonnets of Petar and Pierre roar, very obscure subject so nothing remotely useful, 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

But as a result, you must have had to learn some Italian and some French. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

I did. And at one time I spoke some both fairly fluently. Now I've had to learn a little Spanish, so it all kind of gets mixed up in my head. I was in Italy a couple months ago and  I kept, I could understand what everyone was saying to me. And when I tried to repeat it back more than once I had someone say Si Espanol so I have to, you know, separate them. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I actually actually have, I have done that  as well. yeah. Somebody has spoken to me in Spanish and I have responded in French. So, but I guess they're all romance languages. So people hopefully are somewhat forgiving of that. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

At  least they are, they said it to me with a chuckle. So that was good. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yeah. So working backwards, you own a restaurant for 10 years. What got you interested in food? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

I don't know exactly. I was a hungry child.  my mother would hate me for saying that cuz there was nothing remotely in my background that should have made me hungry. There was plenty of food in our house, but I was very curious about food and cooking from a very early age. I babysat at a house. I don't know if you remember these books, time, life had a series of books on foods of the world and they had hard covers. And then they had the softcover recipe books that went with them and it was one of these things you would order and they would ship you one a month. And a family I babysat for had the whole collection. So after the kids went to bed, I would sit and, and go through these things and sometimes copy down the recipes. And  I, and I watched Julia Child on TV and Graham Kerr, the galloping gourmet, who I think later was somewhat disgraced, but I just was fascinated by cooking and my mother was a perfectly decent cook, but wasn't, she worked full time and cooked. Wasn't exciting to her.  so I started experimenting in the kitchen when I was pretty young. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, so far we've talked about writing art, literature, food, and you, and you've incorporated all of those things moving forward in your life, both personally and professionally, which is impressive. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Well, thank you. I feel very lucky to be able to do things that I love and get paid for them.  You know, as the editor of culture we're all about the enjoyment and industry of cheese and that work has taken me around the world. So well, not around the world. I shouldn't say that, but since November I've been to Spain, California, Oregon, Italy, and I'm going to be going to Wales this November as a judge at the world cheese awards, something I never got to do. You know, I always worked for regional or local publications, which was great, but travel was obviously regional or local. And now it's been further afield. And I love keeping my hand in the art world by doing the art matters blog because for several years I edited the art guide for the main magazine and loved doing that. And I still occasionally write for the main home and design which is fun to keep my hand in as well. So I've just managed to figure out how to, how to juggle it and keep it, keep it working. So fortunately I have flexible schedules and remote working makes things a lot easier. So yeah, but I love 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Susan. Tell me about the work that you do at the Portland art gallery and specifically art matters. 

 

Susan Axlerod: I am very, very honored to do this work. First of all, I was thrilled when I was asked by Kevin and Emma to do this.  I love having these conversations with artists. I've done most of them on zoom. So what I do is I schedule a 30 minute interview on zoom with the artists I'm going to eventually interview them all. And we have a casual chat about them, primarily about their style and their process. And what's emerged in this whole project. A lot of these artists, which you can imagine have changed things up a little bit because of the pandemic. I mean, and, and whether it's they've explored new subject matter or they are doing something a little differently and how they work. So we've talked about some of that and it's just been fascinating to me how they are, you know, and they're all so different, but they really enjoy talking about how they work. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

You know, we were very clear. Kevin was very clear that he didn't want this to be bio biographical or, you know, sort of a CV kind of situation. He wanted it to be more fluid and they really enjoy the opportunity to talk about those things. So it's just been, and it's been absolutely fascinating. So some of these are in person. I interviewed Jean Jack in person, which was lovely at her home at Freeport and David Mosier asked for an in-person interview as well. And I'll look forward to that when I can pin him down. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, having interviewed him here for the radio podcast series, I can tell you that you will, and you probably already know this. He's a fascinating individual and it'll probably be a lot of fun for you to actually see his process on site. Are you gonna do this at his studio home? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Yes, that's my plan. yeah. So he's  like a lot of people he's, he's away for a chunk of time this summer. So I imagine it'll be this fall. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And when you were with Jean Jack, did you get a chance to see her studio? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Yes, I did. And that was wonderful. And I felt in her home, like I had sort of stepped into what might be behind the walls of the house, the home, she paints in her, in her work. So I love all the folk art and just the feel of the house. It was great. yeah. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's always one of the things that when I'm looking through the Instagram feed for the Portland art gallery and I see the home or the home studio visits, I always enjoy that because I feel like I learn about people just by the pieces that they have around them. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Yes. And even on zoom, most of the artists are in their studio and very often they'll take their device, whatever they're using for the interview. And walk me around the studio to show me, I know Emily Black, she did that. And several of the other artists did that as well. So Anne Haywood, I think, showed me a little bit around her studio, so that's always fun to see. So it's nice to be able to do it even if you're not in person. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yeah. When I've interviewed patients before, just as part of the other work that I do, I also pick up clues about their lives and I get the chance to visit with their cats and  you know, talk to their children as they're learning. yeah. Yesterday I was on camera with somebody that I'm working with in a different area and his wife brought him to a Starbucks so I actually really enjoy that. Yeah. Because I think sometimes when you sit in just, you know, a sit setting like this, it feels not that it's not interesting, but it's just different. It's a little bit more formal and sure. You know, you just sort of what's in front of you is what's in front of you, but it may not represent the actual person. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Absolutely. 

Yeah. We have my office. Well, we don't have an office, but my colleagues and I, when we have our staff meetings on Wednesdays, on zoom, very often a child or an animal will show up somewhere along the line. And it's, I think that that's really nice. Like you said, it just sort of makes it feel more relaxed. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And I like to think about those being the possible benefits of the pandemic. There are many things about the pandemic that have not been beneficial, but if there are things that we can learn and gain from the pandemic, I do like to think that maybe the increase of activity in the virtual space has probably been beneficial for many people. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

I think so too. I really do. I mean, I'm one of those people that wishes I could go to the office a couple days a week. I miss the interaction, you know, the casual, you know, the cup of coffee, the, Hey, let's go have a glass of wine after work. That sort of thing that you don't really get. And, and my colleagues and I were just talking about this, I hired a new digital and social media editor. She's on Martha's vineyard and she's wonderful. We were all at, out in Oregon for a conference. So I got to meet her for the first time. And that was great. But even sometimes in email, you know, things can get misinterpreted. And if you could just walk into someone's office or over to their desk and say, Hey, you know, this is what I'm talking about. It sometimes makes it a lot easier than having to do it through different kinds of communication. And you can't always be in zoos. You can't always do it face to face. But so do I. I agree with you. I think it's been a benefit. You know, if I could do a hybrid work situation, I would do it, but we are, one of us is in the Berkshires, as I said, you know, one's in Martha's vineyard. One is in Alabama now, so it's not possible. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, and, and in some ways that's actually been really nice. I mean, if you think about going back 25 years ago, if you worked remotely, then there wouldn't be a lot of email going back and forth. 

 

Susan Axlerod: No, no. You had to use the phone and I'm still a person who picks up the phone, you know, rather than sending another email. And I think that, that can sometimes just be helpful to just to hear somebody's voice instead of just, yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yeah. I also wonder sometimes, you know, you and I both, one of our things that we spend a lot of time wondering about is the world of words and that works for people like us because we like words, you know, we like speaking them. We like writing them. We like understanding them, but for people who are perhaps more visual or people who communicate in a different, more physical way, I wonder if it's been stressful to have to increasingly rely upon that. 

 

Susan Axlerod: I think so. And I I mean, I work with other people who are words people. So even our creative director who is amazing is a phenomenal email writer. She's, you know, I will just dash off a few sentences. Mallory will spell things out very succinctly and clearly, you know, I do it when I have to, but she's very good at that. She's every bit as good of a writer as she is a designer.  but I think you're absolutely right. And I never really thought about that before I can imagine. And sometimes I get communications from people I'm like, h that's a little harsh or awkward, but it's just because they're not used to communicating that way. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, and I'm thinking about David Moser in particular. I mean, he actually does use words very well, so that's, that's not a thing, but there's also with him being a sculptor and there's such a physicality in what he does that I I'm guessing that, you know, being in the same space with him is gonna create a really much more rich and nuanced interview than just kind of doing something over zoom. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Absolutely. I think that that's really important. And again, in an ideal world, I would visit all of them in person, but you know, it just is not possible, unfortunately, but I agree. I'm really looking forward to that interview. So, and, and some of these artists, John Gable really wants me to come visit him in his studio now. So I'm very excited about doing that. And I keep saying, I've gotta call John and go visit his studio cuz he's right down the road from me. So we had a great interview and he was hesitant to do it.  and then his daughter and I worked together as you know, Kate and  so once she talked to him, he agreed to it and then he was really happy with it. So that was really very, very gratifying for me cuz I think he's a phenomenal artist and a very impressive person. So that was a high point. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And in his studio, I would think the fact that he does these large scale pieces would be very kind of impressive in a way.

 

Susan Axlerod:

Yes, that was in his bath studio. And he's given that up for now. So he's just got his studio at home because right now he's not working on any murals and he doesn't have any coming down the road, he's doing some other work that's smaller. So yeah, but I would love to see that studio where he had the big pieces. Would've been cool. It's hard to get a sense of them looking at them online as how big they are. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How about the idea that as a writer, you are essentially helping people use their voice in a new and different way. And what you're doing in some ways is kind of translating their story into a way for other people to understand it, but also wanting to remain as true to the person as you possibly can. And with artists, I would think that's particularly important. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Absolutely. And it's interesting because some artists are very cautious in how they speak about their work.  and I, and I've had several of them say to me that they appreciate the fact that through talking with me for art matters and by being interviewed by you for this program, it  gets them to step out of their comfort zone and talk about their art in ways that they hadn't, you know, thought about before. And they're grateful for that.  Other artists are just very, you know, loquacious and full of, you know, descriptive terms and phrases and sentences to describe their work and their, and how they feel about their work. And so sometimes my task is to take the, to take something and expand on it. And other times my task is to take something that seems really kind of unwieldy and, you know, get it down to where, you know, the average lay person, cuz that is my, my task is to have this to demystify art, you know, for, and the art process for the average person. 

 

Susan Axlerod:  

so I really appreciate it when I talk to both types.  and it's, it's been a fascinating exercise for me as a writer to have to do that. You know, the interview is the easy part then when I sit down and I transcribe the interview, cuz that's what I do, I record it on zoom and then I listen to it and transcribe it and then I take it and shape it into the blog post. So it's, it's been fascinating and, and, you know, expanding it is an expensive exercise for me as a writer. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about the other work that you do and the board work that you do and some of the exciting things that you have coming up. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Well, I'm on the board for main preservation, which is a statewide organization working to preserve all different kinds of properties.  and they do more different kinds of work than I can describe here, but it's a very vital and important organization for Maine.  We have a new executive director, Tara Kelly, who's doing an amazing job. And our 50th anniversary gala is September 18th from four to seven at Ram island farm. It's the Sprague property in Cape Elizabeth.  and I always forget whether it's Cape Elizabeth or South Portland, but it's definitely Cape Elizabeth and I'm the gala chair somehow. So it's gonna be a really fun event where I'll have live music and  catered food, truck style food. It's not really going to be a food truck. The guy that we're using has a 20 foot mobile kitchen and he's gonna be serving from stations. We're also gonna have the lady shuckers, oyster shuckers and other light bites. And we're talking about doing an art show with the Portland art gallery. So it will just be a fun casual afternoon.  and we're anticipating a good crowd of 250 people. So you can get your tickets online at madepreservation.org. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Very good. Why Maine preservation? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

You know, when I lived in Yarmouth, their headquarters at the time was right down the road from me. And I got to know some of the folks involved there and they asked me to work on the gala because of my food background. And one thing led to another and I was asked to be on the board and it's, it's been really fascinating. I'm still, this is just my first term on the board, so I'm still getting my feet on the ground.  and I just, I've always loved history and old houses and the whole concept of preservation. And I wrote the preservation column for our main home and design during the bicentennial year. So that also connected me to the organization. And I'm, I just, I'm fascinated by everything they do and I don't even know entirely everything they do yet. I'm still learning so, yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You're not originally from Maine. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

No. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How did you end up here? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Spent many summers here?  all my summers when I was a little girl, my dad was an Episcopal priest. Who's now retired and he preached in a summer chapel on Southport island and the family. We, his pay was a cottage for the month, so we would come and sail at Southport yacht club. And my mother was a teacher, so she could take the time to come up. And that was my introduction.  I moved here full-time in 2013 and I wouldn't live anywhere else except maybe in February and March. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I think many of us who live in Maine feel exactly the same way. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Yes. yeah. So yes, I'm fine through January and then I get a little itchy for some sunshine and warmth. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I know that one of the things for you that's been really important is maintaining connections and actually maintaining kind of face to face relationships.  and actually you live not too far away from the artist and scar whose work is behind us right here.  what has this been like for you to not have as somebody who does work remotely a lot of the time, what has it been like to have to kind of pull back as a result of the pandemic? 

 

Susan Axlerod:

It was challenging, especially because I moved during the pandemic.  I moved to Woolwich from Yarmouth a year ago, so I'd settled into a brand new community. Fortunately, I live in Days ferry, this little neighborhood in Woolwich and they have a community. We have a community center that has pretty regular events and starting last spring, I mean a year ago. yeah, just about the time I moved there last spring, they were starting to have some events again, outdoors. And so I did get to meet some people locally and that was really helpful, but it was hard to number one, being so far away from a lot of my friends and connections that were in Portland. And but I've, I've had to, and I realize that you have to really work at it now, you know, those casual encounters again, you know, Hey, let's meet after work or let's go for a walk at lunch. You know, those things just don't happen. So you have to make them happen. You have to make the time to make them happen.  but I'm grateful that now that we've all been vaccinated and boosted and many of us have had COVID you know, there seems to be some more freedom to be able to move around and, and connect and, and see each other. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And in addition to the travel you have been able to do as a result of being part of culture you have upcoming travel as well. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Yes. I'm going to be going to Wales in early November, my second stint as a judge for the world cheese awards. And this is very exciting. It's like the Olympics of cheese last year, there were 4,700 cheeses. I did not taste them all. I'm one of the 251st tier judges. And each of us gets a table of about 45 cheeses to judge in a team. And then there's 16 super judges who determine the best in  show, the best in the world. So it's very exciting. It was supposed to be in Ukraine, which was disappointing.  but hopefully one day it will be in Ukraine. And interestingly, I'm in touch with a Ukrainian cheese maker who was on the super judging panel last year in Oviedo, Spain, which is where the awards were then. And she keeps in touch and sends me essays regularly on how Ukrainian cheese makers are doing and we publish them on our website. So that's pretty cool. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, we are fortunate at the Portland art gallery to have you writing the art matters blog because clearly you are a woman of the world and have many talents. And the fact that we're able to kind of bring you into the group and have your talents be used for the benefit of our artists is really a wonderful thing. 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Well, thank you. It truly is my pleasure and I love staying in touch with the artists by coming to the openings. And I really feel like I've gotten to know a number of them well, and it's always fun to see them on the first Thursday. So it is it, it is a mutual admiration society between port Portland, art gallery and, and me. So thank you for the opportunity. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with Susan Cheryl Axelrod. You can read her pieces in art matters through the Portland art gallery and maybe come to one of our openings and perhaps you will have a chance to meet her in person. Thanks so much for coming in 

 

Susan Axlerod:

Today. Thank  you for having me.