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Guestwords: Of Places and People

Wed, 02/01/2023 - 18:15

I admire those with the spirit and stamina for adventure travel. But I have no stomach for scaling cliffs, and deep-sea diving terrifies me. I have no interest in hours of shopping or guided group tours. I seek out quiet places that reflect the vision and ambition of the exceptional people whose legacies they preserve. I find joy and inspiration in physical venues made sacred by the human spirit soaring within them.

Sometimes I visit once, reaping amazing memories and savoring the experiences; other times I am drawn to a spot over and over again, not just for the nostalgia of the first visit, but also for a sense of renewal about how they make me feel and think, and give me energy.

For over a decade I’ve been visiting presidential libraries. Sometimes I go by myself and walk quietly through the grounds, imagining past presidents doing the same. On multiple occasions I have brought my team members — some of whom share my fascination — as part of business trips in those areas (get out and see something!).

My favorites are the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Tex. The Kennedy Library is dedicated to “our nation’s thirty-fifth president and to all those who through the art of politics seek a new and better world.” Despite the sadness of President Kennedy’s assassination, I left feeling hopeful.

The Johnson Library, situated on the University of Texas at Austin campus, teems with life. Black-and-white photos impress visitors with the volume of L.B.J.’s legislative accomplishments and his enormous footprint on American history.

Each library amplifies the leader’s legacy. The William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., is prideful, gleaming with blond wood floors and shining with glass and steel walls. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., is surprisingly humble, with low buildings and threadbare carpets. Each tells a story of a man, his style and way of life.

Creative people often express themselves in their homes and studios. When visiting St. Ives in the South of England I discovered the light-filled studio of Barbara Hepworth, an English artist. This modern sculptor thrived among a colony of fellow artists on the British coast. Touring her home and work space, I imagined Hepworth and her contemporaries’ work being inspired by the magnificent views and enriched by the salt air.

Several years later, I went with my art-loving mom to Marfa, Tex., for her 80th birthday to see the Chinati Foundation museum created by the artist Donald Judd. His large works are situated on the surrounding land. The art and environment appear to be in conversation. Judd’s compound gives an intimate look at how he worked and lived.

Recently, I went with my family to Phoenix and visited Taliesin West, the Scottsdale home and desert laboratory of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin West is Wright’s autobiography written in wood and stone. It’s been named a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the highlight of our vacation. 

I’m so fortunate to be involved with The Church in Sag Harbor. Its mission is to foster creativity on the East End and to honor the living history of Sag Harbor as an enclave for artists and writers.

Decades after the East End’s “artistic wave,” as The New York Times called it, following World War II, the artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik bought and renovated a Methodist church built in 1835 and founded The Church. I’m on the board of directors and a frequent participant in the center’s wide-ranging programming, including exhibitions, book talks, workshops, and even a holiday market featuring local crafts. The Church enriches my life and is a cultural hub in my beloved Sag Harbor.

I live a stone’s throw away from John Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor home. The future of his property has been debated, and it appears that a group of neighbors, fans, and philanthropists may have raised the money and signed a contract to make that property a writers retreat. (If you’re wondering where I stand on this debate, my heart will always belong to those who write.) If achieved, it will allow Steinbeck’s spirit to live on in the rooms where he wrote and reflected. There is a small sign on the driveway that reads “East of Eden.” Preservation of what the author called his “little fishing place” is a noble cause.

Home is the ultimate expression of self and the legacies we hope to leave. Many of us on the East End have shaped our houses and cottages into reflections of our best selves. We design and decorate with a passion. For me, my prized possession is my writing desk from which I can see the sun both rise and set.

Sally Susman is chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer and the author of “Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World,” which will be published by Harvard Business Review Press on March 28.

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