RapidChat: Susan J. Smith

Susan J. Smith is many things, but bored she is not. Susan is a world traveler, blogger, Gilda’s Club founder, amateur photographer, community stakeholder, and grandmother. She has a professional background in fashion and writing, but these days she can be found with passport or grandchild in hand. Susan publishes a weekly design-focused travel blog at DesignDestinations.org where she catalogs her wanderlust. Rapid Growth sat down with Susan at her home to chat about her adventures, both in the community and abroad.
Susan J. Smith finds adventure around the world and in her own local community. She's a passionate amateur photographer, inspired by her former writing career with the Grand Rapids Press. Using her writing and photography skills, she catalogs her wanderlust with a weekly design-focused travel blog. Rapid Growth sat down with Susan at her home to chat about her experiences as a world traveler, blogger, grandmother, and Gilda's Club Founder.
Rapid Growth: Tell me about your travel blog, DesignDestinations. How did that come to be?

Susan J. Smith: I wrote for the Grand Rapids Press for years. I wrote the Sunday cover stories for the Home and Garden section. I covered fashion and interior design. It was wonderful.

Four years ago, I wasn’t working for the Press anymore but I still wanted to write and I had been learning photography. I loved assisting with styling for my Grand Rapids Press pieces. I had so much fun producing the stories and collaborating with the photographers, so I was inspired to pick up some photography skills myself.

I took classes at the community college and learned photography. I wanted an outlet for my creativity, both photography and writing, so I started the blog. There is something so satisfying about publishing and posting.

RG: Have you always lived in Grand Rapids?    

SJS: I was born in Grand Rapids but grew up in Spring Lake. I came into Grand Rapids as a child. My mother would bring us in to go to the Grand Rapids Art Museum, especially at the holidays to see the Christmas trees from around the world. We would go to Welsh Auditorium. She had a library card so we would go get a big stack of books. I remember going to the big department stores: Herpolsheimer’s and Steketee’s. My mom would wear her hat and gloves. It was a really big deal. We would come into town for the zoo. I grew up with the Grand Rapids experience.

Then I went to University of Michigan for college and spent ten years in Detroit. I was a buyer in Detroit so I traveled a lot, New York Fashion Week being a highlight. Then Jack and I moved back to West Michigan to continue raising our family.

RG: How long have you had this beautiful, modern home on Fisk Lake?

SJS: About five years. We were considering a condo downtown but I had a grandchild on the way and decided I wanted space for her and for future grandchildren (I now have two with one more on the way!). We basically rebuilt the house we’re in.

After having written about homes, it was fun to say, “Okay, this is what I would like to have.” I really like green and clean lines of sight, so both of those things influence our home. When we came across this view, so close to downtown, our decision was made.

RG: Have you always been a world traveler?

SJS: With kids we didn’t do that much travel. I would join my husband for some business travel and we had an annual spring break trip. I’ve always enjoyed travel, but definitely more so in the last ten years. There aren’t too many places in the world I don’t want to go. I love trip planning. I am happiest when I have a trip to work on.

Recently we took a boat trip up the fjords of Norway. We chartered a boat with friends in Croatia.  We took a Scotland train tour a year ago. The men all wore kilts; it was a lovely experience. We went to Paris with friends. We went to North Vietnam and took a night train into the mountains where ladies blacken their teeth. We walked around the villages, it was like going back in time, a very neat experience.

RG: It must be fun to channel all of those experiences into the blog and record them.

SJS: I love blogging about the travels. The blog works for me because I needed deadlines. It allows me to write and showcase photography in a specific way. I like taking pictures of places and of my grandchildren. I think, “How can I capture the essence of this place?”

We were on a National Geographic tour with a Nat Geo photographer Jim Richardson. He is a charming man and he helped us with our photos. At one point, he did a lesson on the anatomy of the National Geographic photo shoots. He said the first thing he does when he gets to a new place is look at the postcards. Then he decides he will photograph something different.

I’d arranged a tour in Vietnam with a local photographer. He took me to the iconic red bridge, and I remembered what Jim Richardson had said, so I told the photographer about my desire to photograph something different. His eyes lit up and he said, “Let’s go!” He was so excited. We had a wonderful day.

The cliché photographs are typically cliché because they are beautiful… but now I look at, is there some way to capture the feeling of the place without looking like a postcard on a twirly stand? It’s a terrific challenge.

RG: So you co-founded Gilda’s Club in the late nineties. Tell me about that process.

SJS: Well, I’m a breast cancer survivor and I’ve always been involved in community service. I really like to do one community project at a time and give it my all. I was just coming off a project when Twink Frey told me about Gilda’s Club. I read the info Twink sent me and realized, wow, this is what was missing in my cancer experience. I had wonderful friends and a supportive family but at the time there wasn’t a place to go to be with other people experiencing the same thing. That emotional support is very healing.  

So Twink Frey, Deb Bailey and I founded Gilda’s Club. It was a very consuming project. It raised awareness that when you are going through a life-threatening illness, you need to be around people going through the same thing.

It was wonderful working with Twink and Deb. We all complemented each other. In two years, we hired the first executive director and had a terrific board of directors. We founded the 501(c)3, located the house, and made the decision to affiliate with the national organization. I met with them in New York and we decided a direct affiliation was the best strategy. Now there are hundreds of volunteers and the very successful LaughFest.

RG: What an amazing achievement. You must be so proud. Speaking of citywide events, are you looking forward to ArtPrize?

SJS: Yes! I love ArtPrize, I’m really looking forward to it this year. My son Justin Smith is an ArtPrize artist. Justin lives in San Francisco and has a business called J-Storm Urban Maps. He’s interested in digital design and last year he created the G-Rap Map mural on the west side of Sheldon Avenue downtown. This year, he has a 2D wooden, Caulder-red map installed at DeVos Place. He’s also participating in the Middle West pop up September 19 and 20.

RG: What do you enjoy doing in Grand Rapids? Why is this your home base?

SJS: Jack and I both like to cook; generally, I’m the sous chef. We have a round table that can seat 10, something I love. We enjoy entertaining. We’re in a cooking group where everyone gets together and cooks. The hosts organize the ingredients and we prepare dinner together. A few might pour the wine and do the dishes.

We have a cottage in Grand Haven, so we enjoying going there. I love the art museum. I often walk to Gaslight Village.

Editor’s Note: At this point Susan’s husband, Jack Smith, chimed in to share what he loves about his home.  

Jack Smith: This is a great community for raising a family. On Friday nights we can hear the football games, the spirit of the community. It is like a Steinbeck novel and we’re so close to Lake Michigan. 

SJS: I visited the Public Museum last week two times with my granddaughters – once for the planetarium show and then again for the Maker Faire. I love taking them to Meijer Gardens.

JS: In Grand Rapids you can feel the vectors are heading up – the arrows are pointing up – healthcare, Grand Valley, city-wide events: there is so much positive energy. The great families have stayed and reinvested. This is unique; it doesn’t always work this way. It is a really wonderful thing to be part of this community.

SJS: Absolutely, I agree. 

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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