Capturing serenity

Published 8:21 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Delicate Balance" was shot on the shores of Lake Superior.

Growing up, the camera was no unfamiliar item to Susan Johnston as her father was a photojournalist before he purchased a newspaper in the Detroit area.

“I never thought of my parents as artsy types,” Johnston said. “My godmother was a watercolorist, and my godfather was a photographer — some of his World War II pictures are in the Library of Congress.”

Johnston had taken the usual art classes — painting, drawing and ceramics —  when she was young but did not pursue art seriously until she retired 10 years ago.

Instead, Johnston did what so many women do: She got married and became a mother, raising two children and influencing two stepchildren. That happened all so quickly that one thinks “what next?”

Johnston, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, became a corporate executive at General Motors, where she was director of Process Engineering. Retiring from General Motors left her with time again.

In 2001, Johnston began studying digital photography as an art form, attending Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, where one can study everything from basic digital photography, to landscape, nature, portraiture and various digital processes. Johnston studied under several accomplished photographers there, including digital photographer John Paul Caponigro, whose primary focus is the natural world; digital master Maggie Taylor, who uses a flat-bed scanner and digital manipulation with Photoshop; and Nick Valenti, another talented photograher.

“I considered myself an artist by the time I moved to Stevensville from Detroit in 2005,” she said

She defines this as her “third path,” and as her artistic journey continues, its direction is changing. She draws inspiration from the Grand Mere Dune area near her Lake Michigan home, where her studio has views of nature playing out endless cycles. The area allows her to reconnect with nature in a meaningful way that seems to satisfy a contemplative spirit. She watches the Great Blue herons, mute swans, Monarch butterflies, goldfinches, wrens and Canada geese, who raise their young and continue the circle of life.

Her first body of work, “Quiet Moments,” was an exploration of calm after realizing that, when immersed in nature with its tall trees, still waters and variety of sounds — both animal and vegetable — she reached a near-meditative state. Many of the images of this body of work were taken at a “sacred space” discovered in a park in Mississippi she visited several times over several years. Her photographs from that period have titles such as “Cathedral,” “Patterns” and “Transformation.”

Most images from that series include water—“because of its stillness and mirror-like quality,” she said. “The reflections in the water reinforce the reflections of the mind. Insights often accompany a stillness of mind.”

Johnston knows nature is a teacher, using its daily rhythm and seasonal cycles as a reminder that “life is not static; permanence is an illusion. I use my photographs to celebrate these moments: moonrise, sunrise and seasonal change. For me, these images are important reminders that life cycles ebb and flow and are part of the natural order.”

A new body of work created in 2011 continues on these themes, with titles such as “Almost Silent” and “Delicate Balance,” but now Johnston concentrates on locations in southwest Michigan, focusing on close-up images of native plants and fauna around the dunes.

Asked where her work will take her in the future, and how she sees her photography developing, Johnston would only say excitedly,
“It is difficult to adequately describe briefly.”

Reach Johnston at

Kathee Kiesselbach loves to hear from people about her column. If you are a professional artist whose work has not been showcased here, she’d love to hear from you at