The literary arts have been a treasure to Susan Robinson since she was a child - moreover, the written word. Books and writings of all sorts took her to places she never thought she could go. Susan has a passion to bring this same opportunity to others.
Growing up in Cleveland, her mother was a fixture in the arts of that community involved in music clubs, community concerts and as a music instructor as well.
Susan says, “My first jump into the arts – I had to play the piano. I loved it. Music is a background that I enjoy. I don’t play anymore, but I love to listen to great music of all kinds.” She played the flute in the fifth grade and had wanted to be a musician in a national orchestra.
“In today’s world, it takes both your right and your left brain. The push from my parents to be involved in the arts and with music helped me to be well rounded,” Susan insists.
Growing up, Susan loved the outdoors and loved to be in the water. Her mother taught her and her siblings how to swim in the Harrison Bay State Park pool.
“My brother and I were always underneath the water instead of on top, with our mask and fins and snorkels. When we went to the beach, my brother and I were always in the water playing,” Susan says.
Her love for the water led her to scuba diving. She became a certified diving instructor about the time she moved to Chattanooga. In 1983 she became a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) teaching at a local diving store called Choo-Choo Dive Shop and then moved to Panama City to work with friends in their dive center.
While in college, Susan did not pursue her childhood dreams of performing music. She had a couple of years under her belt from Cleveland State, but after her time in Florida, she felt it was time to continue her education and she attended UTC for a degree in business.
“I was pretty much burned out on diving. I had worked so hard and when your hobby becomes your job, it is no longer your hobby,” Susan explains.
Heading into her thirties, she felt it would be best to go into business administration. Susan worked part time at the college and also worked a part time job at an insurance company trying to pave the way through her studies.
“That was the best diet I had ever been on in my life! I basically had no money living on $5,000.00 a year. I spent $15 a week on groceries and I ate a lot of mac and cheese,” Susan laughs.
The week of her finals, Susan had met her future husband Rob on a blind date. After paying her dues and working hard to meet her goals, Susan took a break and became a board member of the Arts and Education Council in 1991. She later became the executive director, a position which she still holds today.
“We recently made a strategic shift and changed our name. We had always been a programing arm for the community. The organization began in 1952 as an adult education council and then it sort of streamlined adding more educational programs for students and became the Arts and Education Council. Just recently we became the Southern Lit Alliance,” Susan says.
One of the main programs that Susan takes pride in is the “Celebration of Southern Literature” where writers and readers come together, talking, listening and learning.
“We also have other educational programs that go along with that. We have a creative writing program for students K-12 with Hamilton County. It has grown since we started the program in 1999. We went from 45 winners to over 500 and with 500 entries to 5,500 entries – that is a significant part of what we do,” Susan voices.
“We used to do a big program called “Culture Fest” in partnership with the Chattanooga Market, in which they now have ownership of that program. Any program we started that we are not doing now – they have been given homes and they still continue. Culture Fest sent ethnic artists into the schools to work with elementary students. It is promoting and building bridges through the arts and is a wonderful program,” Susan declares.
“This community is changing fast. There is a really heavy Latin community here and when we first started Culture Fest, we really wanted to build roads and bridges into the Latin community – it doesn’t happen overnight,” Susan vows, “The arts are non-threatening and the perfect way to reach children is by having a group such as “Adismonta” who are from Mexico and do this indigenous music of the mountains where these five brothers grew up. That was one of our first rings we jumped in and they stayed here for a month working in area schools with fifth grade students,”
Culture Fest enables teachers to incorporate music, history and geography and to reach students they would not normally reach.
“By teaching the importance of writing and reading in the creative writing programs, we are reaching this young audience and they have to use their right brain and their left brain. The creative writing aspect really builds that right brain function that is so important in today’s global economy. I am extremely proud of that program and it stands out in our community,” Susan says.
“The celebration of Southern Literature is the passion - it is the reason why we all are here. There are no other communities in the region that offer quite what we do. It is because we have built relationships with the writers here in Chattanooga,” Susan maintains.
Last month the Council hosted the country music artist and songwriter Marshal Chapman who has worked with two Chattanooga writers, Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, in writing a musical called “Good Old Girls” that opened off Broadway.
“All good music has to be written,” Susan says, “and we still feature a little bit and that’s fun. There are other organizations here in town who do music, so I try not to step in that arena - it’s just a personal passion of mine.”
After having worked 10 years scuba diving, Susan and Rob now dive for recreation. “We enjoy it. Rob is a big rock climber. We hike, and when we are in areas where people are climbing, we are also cleaning up trails,” Susan says.
Rob and his mother, former councilwoman Sally Robinson, run Metro Real Estate. Susan and Rob have no children, but they have their four-legged children Goldie, Starlight and Carly – all rescue animals.
The huge event the AEC held recently before their name change was the “Celebration of Southern Literature” and was a three-day event which brought 50 writers to town.
“The arts are my passion. I love to read. Our focus now is to celebrate southern writers and readers through community education and innovative literary arts. We are taking the biggest outreach program we have and focusing on that and the literary arts. There is a need here in the community. We need to be exposed to the literary arts. Every day we are dealing with the written word and we all need to be working at a higher order,” Susan encourages.
“It makes us better citizens and better persons. If we can provide just a little bit of help along the way, we are fulfilling our mission in reaching our audience.”