Inspiration for this Lancaster artist’s landscapes, figures and still lifes “grows” out of wherever her travels may take her. Susan’s garden follows suit and is a microcosm that reflects her love of exploring, not to mention her artistry, creativity and green thumb.
For years I was told by plant enthusiasts – both the backyard variety and professionals – that if I was looking for the unusual, I had to visit Henrys’ Farm & Greenhouses in the Southern End. Two years ago, I finally made it to Henrys’. It was everything – and more – that was promised.
To my surprise, I also saw a familiar face working at Henrys’ – Susan Gottlieb, who has known owner Marty Henry since their college days at Millersville University. Susan works at Henrys’ for a variety of reasons – friendship, a love of plants and, of course, inspiration.
On opening night in April 2018, Susan treated guests to a seminar in which she explained her garden-design philosophy. She encouraged guests to transplant their personalities into their gardens and bring them to life with the things they love, whether it’s vacation mementos, whimsical statuary, statement containers, antiques or artful finds. Susan’s own garden contains all of the above and more.
“Henrys’ isn’t just about selling people plants; education is a big part of the business,” she explains. It’s also a place to get ideas – here, you’ll see plants spilling from containers as small as teapots to as large as claw-foot bathtubs. “You have to think beyond the norm,” Susan says. “If you keep doing things the same way, it dulls the senses.”
“The World is a Fascinating Place.”
Susan credits her artistic talents to both sides of her family. Her mother, who grew up in Ephrata, became a nurse and took a job with a hospital in Atlantic City, where she met Susan’s father. The couple ultimately settled in Ephrata. She describes her paternal grandfather, who was an attorney, as also being passionate about art and fishing. Her mother’s brother was an oil painter and historian. “Living in Ephrata and visiting Atlantic City provided a nice balance,” she says of her childhood.
However, it was a high school teacher who helped Susan to determine her career path. She received a nomination to the Air Force Academy, but the teacher, who had served in the military, encouraged her to instead pursue her art. “He felt the military would destroy my creativity,” she explains. “I trusted him, so I enrolled at Millersville and majored in art education.”
After graduating, she became a teacher in the Donegal School District. She also pursued her MFA through the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her love of art and history manifested itself through student trips she led to Italy. Susan explains that as a result of making those trips, “everything changed.”
In 1986, Susan moved to Rome, where she lived with 72-year-old Lydia (the mother of a friend’s friend) for a few months before moving out on her own. Lydia taught Susan about the culture and cuisine of Italy. She stayed in Rome for a year and then returned to teaching at Donegal.
After seven years at Donegal, she began teaching studio art and art history on the college level (Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, Lebanon Valley College and later, Millersville University). From Millersville, she moved to Lancaster Country Day School, where she chaired the art department.
In 2014, she took a three-year break from teaching to concentrate on painting and travel. Then, in 2017, along with fellow colleagues, she helped to found The Stone Independent School in Lancaster, where she is a part-time faculty member and serves as the Dean of Joy.
Susan’s time in Rome inspired her to travel solo in an effort to deepen her understanding of world cultures and then apply that knowledge to her teaching. “I would save every penny so that I could spend my summers traveling off the beaten path, going alone, which allowed me to focus most intensely on what I was experiencing,” she explains. “Traveling solo naturally expanded my comfort zone.”
That philosophy continues to “paint” Susan’s itineraries. She has a special affinity for exploring ancient sites, explaining they represent the foundations of the world’s various cultures. She views them as “bridges” that connect the past to the future. She especially loves to explore ancient places of worship and took note early on of the global “visual connections” that exist among them.
She’s toured Europe (including Italy more than 50 times) and has been to Cambodia three times. She’s also visited China, Vietnam and India. Last summer, she toured Israel and Jordan. “I travel every summer,” she explains.
One of her favorite trips took her to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire in Tunisia, where she crossed the desert and stayed at an oasis. She also traveled to Malta in order to see the Megalithic Temples, which are among the oldest free-standing monuments on Earth, as they date to as early as 5,500 B.C.
This year’s travels included taking a group of Stone students on a road trip across the United States during spring break. In June, she will take another Stone group to the Umbria region in Italy, which is regarded as the center of the slow-food movement, a global grass roots campaign that promotes local food and cooking traditions.
Susan laughs and reports that she and her husband of 10 years, Andy Null, enjoy different kinds of travel. “He’s an outdoorsman,” she explains. “He climbs mountains, I dig into cultures.”
“Art Changes All the Time.”
Susan’s far-flung adventures provide the inspiration for her paintings. “What you see depends upon my experiences and what I’m fascinated with,” she remarks. “I think of my paintings as pure adventures.” Her portfolio verifies that. For a time, the archetypal symbolism she discovered in temples and cathedrals manifested itself in her paintings. Light – or what she calls “atmospheric reactions” – has been celebrated in her work. “Light defines everything,” she says of an artist’s quest to capture the sky and landscape during that fleeting golden moment, whether it’s at dawn, dusk or during a storm. “The light in the greenhouse around 3:30 or 4 p.m. is magic,” she says.
While Susan is best known for her symbolistic and impressionistic work, she is venturing more into still life. Her interpretation of fruit and vegetables is bold and bright. “I’m kind of liking the results,” she says.
Her florals are a best-kept secret. “I’m seduced by beauty,” she explains of capturing flowers at peak bloom. “I’ve always painted flowers, but they sell right away, so people rarely get to see them.”
She is excited for her upcoming solo art exhibit at Red Raven Art Company (Gallery Row), which will be on view during the month of September.
“A Garden is a Creative Process.”
“I’ve learned so much from Marty about flowers,” Susan says of her college roommate. While Marty’s love and knowledge of flowers led to the creation of Henrys’ Farm & Greenhouses, family also was a factor. In 1990, Marty saw a greenhouse business as both a way to further her career and remain a stay-at-home mom to her two toddler-aged daughters. Now, nearly 30 years later, the business has evolved from mainly a wholesale venture to one that includes contract growing and retail divisions. Through those three decades, Henrys’ has become a family affair that includes Marty, her husband, Tom, and their three daughters, Anna Mary, Sarah and Miriam. Marty’s employees are mostly extended family – plus the college roommate.
Just as strong roots provide the foundation for a family, Marty believes a solid root system is essential to growing healthy plants. “A strong foundation equals better flowers,” Susan echoes. She also reports that Henrys’ success can be attributed to the fact that Marty is a stickler for research. “She is continually reading about and researching plants,” Susan notes of Marty. “She pays careful attention to what is new and works well in the plant world, which enables Henrys’ to bring interesting things to well-known public gardens, municipalities, amusement parks and estates, as well as gardening enthusiasts in Lancaster.”
Susan celebrated a milestone in 1990, as well – she became a homeowner, buying a house in the West End of the city. She transformed the postage-stamp-sized backyard into a garden that oozed with color and creativity. “I tried to grow produce but didn’t have much luck,” she recalls.
In 2006, she and Andy purchased a house (circa 1880) in the Chestnut Hill area of the city. A previous owner had carried out extensive remodeling that included outfitting the rooms at the back of the house with oversized windows that provide wonderful views of the garden.
However, when Susan became its owner, the garden wasn’t in the best of shape. “The ground had been torn up by dogs, the shrubbery was overgrown, and some trees needed attention,” she explains. A garden makeover took root. “I think of gardens as visual compositions,” she explains. “They need to have lines, shape and texture.”
Susan also had to learn to deal with the fact that the yard is heavily shaded and retains moisture. She began experimenting with annuals and has moved to mostly perennials, along with annuals that provide pops of color. “I bring lots of plants home from Henrys’ to experiment with,” she says. “It helps me assist customers as they select flowers for their gardens.” Because of the shade factor, plants such as hosta, hellebores, coleus, ferns, caladium and begonias thrive in Susan’s garden.
Susan also carved “rooms” into her garden. There’s a space for dining, one for socializing and a third for what she calls a “secret garden,” which contains a hammock that provides the perfect place to read and relax.
The latest project, a low stone wall, multitasks as it expands the dining and socializing areas. The wall also provided a solution to a problematic area that constantly stayed wet. “Nothing would grow there,” she explains.
The garden’s decor includes a pergola, colorful Adirondack chairs, interesting containers, art and shells. “It’s a work in progress,” she says.
For more information about Susan, visit susanjgottlieb.com.
Henrys’ Farm & Greenhouses is located at 1258 Oregon Hollow Rd., Holtwood. Henrys’ will be open April 26-May 25. Hours are Tuesday and Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m.-12 p.m. Holiday hours are offered in November/December. For details and information about special events, visit henrysgreenhouses.com or Facebook.