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From Fashion Editor to Painter
Susan Kurnit found a subject that speaks to her, giving her the strength to start a new business at 68
As a child, whenever someone asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Susan Kurnit proclaimed she’d be a painter. But instead of painting, she studied cultural anthropology in college, and went on to have careers in fashion and teaching. Here, she talks about how she started a joyful third act and finally found her way back to her childhood dream.
TheCovey: How did you begin your reinvention path?
Susan Kurnit: I was working as a secretary in real estate, but because I always loved clothing and used to daydream about becoming a fashion designer and going to Paris, I wrote a letter to Conde Nast inquiring about a job there. My favorite magazine was Mademoiselle — I used to hide one in my books during the campus protests for open admissions to City University.
Conde Nast wrote me back and scheduled an interview. Even though I failed the typing test and never took the stenography test, I was hired as secretary to the marketing director. Every time I had to “take a letter” and type it, I used my very limited speed writing skills and my very accurate memory to complete the task.
When my boss left, I became an assistant in the fashion department going on shoots, meeting with photographers, working with manufacturers to call in clothes for the monthly meetings. I took polaroids of the fittings before the shoots and was the all-around schlep. But I loved it.
Eventually I ended up as fashion and shoe editor at Seventeen Magazine, and worked my way up at age 28 to Fashion Director. I left to become the General Merchandise Manager of Unique Clothing Warehouse in Noho, whose owner I married. We moved to Chappaqua and I became a stay-at-home mom for 22 years.
After Harvey and I divorced, I got my Master’s degree for teaching and became a high school assistant principal, teaching social studies as well.
I met husband number three on Match.com and moved to New Orleans in July 2005, about six weeks before Katrina devastated the city. I became a substitute teacher in the St. Tammany Parish schools and applied to the University of New Orleans for a PhD in curriculum and instruction. Because the hurricane caused so many people to evacuate, the chairman of the department hired me to teach at UNO and become a college coordinator. Eventually I segued to teaching at a private day school in Metairie, LA (the best teaching job I ever had), married the man I’d met online, and lived in NOLA for six years.
Because the economy had crashed, my husband, a ghost writer, had a difficult time finding clients, so I supported him. When he found it difficult to integrate my children into our lives, we divorced and I moved back to New York, where I landed a job teaching at an orthodox Jewish Day School. I was thrilled when two of my eighth-grade girls came in first place in New York City History Day Contest for a 10-minute video they produced on the topic, “Protest Movements in America.” They then placed second in the state contest.
I taught for two more years, but found that New York parents were not open to criticism about their children. This was so different from the parents in New Orleans, who treated teachers as respected professionals.
I turned to my painting for release. My new boyfriend encouraged me to take a painting course at the local high school and came up with a name for a business I could run painting portraits of pets: PettraitsbySusan. A PR friend sent a press release to all the local papers and I started getting a bunch of commissions. I was substitute-teaching as well while caring for two Labrador retriever puppies.
I found an agent/manager in California who believes in my artwork and helps bring in clients. I just had a local show and redid my website.
TheCovey: Why did you choose to paint pets?
Susan Kurnit: I decided to paint animals because I saw a picture of a cheetah in National Geographic that moved me. I painted the cheetah from the photo and it came pretty easily. I liked that it was different from what others in the class were doing.
I love animals, especially dogs. I can’t pass one up without saying hello. To me they are almost human. I also loved going to the Bronx Zoo when I lived closer. I took my kids there many times and went on a couple of class trips there as well. Someday I would love to go on a photographic Safari, but it better be soon before all these wonderful gifts from nature are gone.
TheCovey: What is the most outrageous portrait you were ever asked to do?
Susan Kurnit: A dog in a baseball cap! It was going to be a gift for the client’s friend. I really don’t like the painting and have never displayed it on my website or Facebook page. However she was happy.
My most rewarding painting was the first one I did for someone. I photocopied her check and still have it, although I didn’t frame it. I think knowing that my work is hanging in someone’s house is really rewarding.
TheCovey: What was the biggest surprise about reinventing? How did you handle it?
Susan Kurnit: The biggest surprise was that people actually commissioned me to paint their pets. I was beyond thrilled to know that my paintings would hang in someone else’s home.
TheCovey: What have you learned about being a reinventor? Would you do it again?
Susan Kurnit: It’s not easy to reinvent oneself, especially at 68 years old.
TheCovey: What is your reinvention mantra?
Susan Kurnit: Never give up or give in to negativity. Believe in yourself.
TheCovey: What do you think has been the one secret to your success as a reinventor?
Susan Kurnit: Always look to do something that you love. I always wanted to be an artist, but life took some unexpected turns. For the most part the job that I loved the most was the one that trained me for this latest reinvention. Working with photographers and talented editors taught me about perspective, color, and composition.
TheCovey: Does your reinvention pay the bills now? Will it in the future?
Susan Kurnit: I can’t support myself with painting yet because each one takes a long time to complete. I supplement my painting with my social security and substitute teaching.
TheCovey: Can you give readers two unexpected tips for reinventing themselves like you did?
Susan Kurnit: Don’t put your faith in others. Reinvention is scary. You have to step up to the plate alone.
TheCovey: What would you warn others never to do?
Susan Kurnit: Don’t be discouraged by others. I have a good friend who I love, but she doesn’t respect my ability to paint. I’m not sure what her motivation is. I’m not Vincent Van Gogh but I do believe I can paint.