Odds are those tonsils that live deep in your throat will never win a beauty contest.
“When separated from the body,” says Susan Emmerson, a highly experienced ear-nose-and-throat surgeon, “they look kind of like messy little meatballs. They are not aesthetically pleasing.”
You probably already figured that.
But here’s the thing about Susan, a popular surgeon in Bloomington-Normal for 16 years until she quietly retired in 2004, the veteran of hundreds of tonsillectomies, perhaps on your children’s or maybe even your own:
Tonsils, as unattractive as they can be, can instead be great art.
“I think the juxtaposition between beauty and disgust — or ‘grossed-outed-ness,’ if there can be such a word — can make for interesting art,” laughs Susan.
You think you’ve heard of interesting career switches mid-stream through life?
Susan deserves mention.
The same tonsils that were the object of her scalpel through her first 47 years are these days the recipients of her talent at art, as she enjoys a second career that, at age 60, has also become her only.
Dr. Susan Emmerson, circa 2018?
She paints, draws and sculpts objects inspired by the human body, particularly internal organs.
Using Tyvek, the same plastic covering that sides your house, she heats it until “it puckers and becomes three-dimensional” and sculpts it so that, after mastery of hand and tool, “it looks strangely like body organs.”
The good doctor — umm, good ex-doc — is quite successful at this.
Her works are drawing $2,500 apiece in the art market.
Last month, her career switch from operating room to artist’s table even became a feature story in Money magazine.
A newer version of the American Dream?
Susan is surely living it in a most fascinating way.
“Oh my gosh, yes!” she says. “I miss the people with whom I worked, the mental stimulation of medical science ... my patients were wonderful people and I wish them the best ...”
She pauses ...
“(But) my paintings don’t bleed or call me from the emergency room at night."
Good back in school and recipient of straight-As in science, Susan earned a B.S., then a medical license and for almost two decades, made nice money as a doctor.
But, largely out of public sight, she also never lost sight of her first love — art.
While the medical field, like all others, is changing rather dramatically in these amazing times, the Emmerson story is not one of a bad day at work, or a bad year, or a labored decision to step away before the job as a doctor makes her also see one.
She planned this all along.
Talented at art as a child, her parents nonetheless discouraged it as a career, suggesting she’d never find work.
Susan went along.
As she performed surgeries and gained patients in her late 20s and 30s, quietly she also enrolled in art classes — at Heartland College and Illinois State University.
That’s where she eventually succeeded at a bachelor of fine arts degree.
As time wore on, she quietly also dialed back her work to three days a week and began scheduling surgeries around her classes.
Married to a fellow physician, Dr. Michael Emmerson, they started socking back money each month that they invested in lower-risk but nicely producing mutual funds.
In time, came the purchase of Central Illinois farmland. Hired also was a farm manager who oversaw the Emmerson crop management, working with corn and bean farmers.
Eventually even came the placement of a wind turbine among the Emmerson acres to generate a little more money.
In 2007, husband Mike died suddenly of a heart attack. Widowed and a mother of then two teenage boys — Gordon, now 24, and Sam, now 21 — life supplied its own loops, dips and rather un-artistic hurdles but never lost on Susan was the desire to seek out the calm of art.
Two years ago, she moved to Boston, a favorite city, in its historic Dorchester neighborhood, to get away, enjoy the coast, catch up on sleep (“I think I have a 30-year sleep deficit to make up”) and more complete her goal.
Thus, two or three times a year now, she comes back to B-N to visit, renew and catch up on her farming interests.
"I miss driving miles and miles through flat black farmland and I miss never having to worry about finding parking or paying for it,” she says. “I miss my friends and walking around a town where every single thing has a good memory clinging to it.”
But she also loves Boston, and the quiet calm that comes with her first life love.
They are valuable to a body but can also be highly ugly.
It thus is following another internal organ that has ultimately brought Susan to a life dream — her heart.