How the Single Worst Tragedy in This Artist's Life Made Her Figure Out How to Heal and Get Stronger
When her assistant lost his life in a tragic car accident, New York artist Elizabeth Sutton had no blueprint on how to move forward.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they've had while building their business -- and how they recovered.
For Elizabeth Sutton, it was tragedy that forged her as an artist and entrepreneur. She's had prestigious jobs and successes -- including New York area art fairs and shows, a collaboration with Bari Lynn Accessories for Bergdorf Goodman and an artistic partnership with beverage chain Joe & the Juice. But her life changed irrevocably on December 10, 2017. The New York artist and entrepreneur -- who uses paint, photographs and vibrant colors to bring geometric shapes, portraits and landscapes to life -- was exhibiting her work in Miami when she tragically lost her right-hand art assistant in a car accident. Sutton tells us about the experience, what she learned and how she moved forward.
What follows is a firsthand account of this person's experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
"December 10, 2017, marked the singular worst moment of my life, and I've had many. Last December, I had the opportunity to exhibit my artwork during Miami Art Week, at my own pop-up gallery in Wynwood, and had given two of my art assistants an opportunity to showcase their work in my gallery as well. They are both incredible artists, classically trained in some of the best schools in Cuba. On the last night of Miami Art Week, December 9, I hosted a party there to celebrate my birthday, and it was an incredible night -- until it became the worst night of my life. At 2:40 a.m. on December 10, my art assistants, Juan and Pedro, left the party to drive home for the night in my car. I was set to fly home early that morning, and as I was locking the door to my gallery at 3:20 a.m. so I could head to the airport, I received a call saying my car had been in a serious accident.
My car had been hit by a speeding vehicle on the shoulder of the highway. By the time I arrived at the scene of the accident 20 minutes later, both Pedro and Juan had been taken to two separate trauma units. As I assessed the scene of the accident alone, I knew my life would never be the same. From there, I headed to the trauma unit and sat there, pretty much in a state of shock, awaiting updates. Sparing the details, Juan passed away within 48 hours of the accident: a 28-year-old friend and assistant to me, but worse, a husband and a father to a 3-year-old daughter. Pedro remained in the hospital, having undergone intensive surgery and had to stay in Miami for the month, but by the grace of God, he has now made an almost full recovery and has returned to my team, along with his wife, who now works with us as well.
This incident affected every single aspect of my life, both business and personal. I struggled with feeling. I was numb. I was shocked. I had trauma. When I walked into my apartment in New York -- after not having seen my kids for a week (the longest since they were born) -- I looked my son lying in my bed and felt nothing. I knew I was in a bad place, and I had to be babysat for a few days myself. Then, once emotion returned, I felt and still feel deep, immense sadness and a profound sense of loss. I felt scared. I felt helpless. I felt responsible, though I know I wasn't. It was the loss of a dear friend in one single instant -- someone my age who had a daughter the same age as my son. When I found out that Juan would not recover, I sat on my couch and posted videos on my social media asking for help raising funds for my assistants' families. I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn't stop crying in the videos, but they helped me raise critical funds and make a bigger impact for them both than I could've alone.
On a business level, this was also an absolute disaster. It cost me a lot of money as well as lost revenues, which for a new business and a single mother-of-two in my situation was devastating. My car was totaled, I was dealing with insurance companies and lawyers, and much of my artwork was irreparably damaged during shipping. I was in a state of numbness, so instead of doing all the follow-up and networking I should have done after such a large art fair, I was just trying to figure out how to keep putting one foot in front of the next. December, which should have been my best month of the year revenue-wise, went bust. But by far the worst thing (again, from a business standpoint) was that my two key men were down. Juan, my number one, was gone -- forever. Pedro was stuck in Miami for the month because he couldn't fly because of his medical status. At the time, in addition to my pop-up in Miami, I had a pop-up in the West Village, as well as my usual studio in Long Island City that I was managing, and Juan and Pedro were the ones that helped me with everything. It was a lot to deal with.
I'm grateful that the rest of my team, my family, and friends rallied around me. I told my interns that under no circumstances were they to allow me to stay in bed, not even for one day. The rest of my team turned my gallery opening, which was set to take place three days later, into a fundraiser. We raised $38,000 through my social media and that event in a matter of two weeks, which was definitely step one to being able to start moving forward. I went straight into grief counseling thanks to an incredible woman who reached out to me offering me some free sessions, and she is still my therapist to this day. I spoke to her about four times a week in the beginning, and I also took a very healing trip to Aspen with a friend to reset. I ended up meeting others in the Aspen art world and building new friendships and relationships, which helped me focus on what I can do next and how my work -- creating "happy art' -- can also help me heal.
From this, I learned that life can be taken in one sheer instant, that it's important to appreciate every waking minute you have and that I am a very strong woman. I have such an amazing support system and team, for which I am forever grateful, but the sadness never quite goes away. Juan was an incredibly important person in my life on many levels, and that is why I intend to continue to support his family and legacy. I hope that no one ever experiences a compounded tragedy like this but, since I know "such is life' and that accidents happen, I'd say: Stay strong, surround yourself by the people who will make you strong when you can't be and pray. Do not lose faith, because that's when you will really lose. I'd also recommend getting into counseling, because it is not shameful. In those moments, I think it is absolutely essential if you are to recover in any healthy manner. Lastly, make sure your business is insured and protected in case the worst strikes."
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