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This is Personal | Susan Tillett - Mesa Refuge (Point Reyes, California)

This is the age of information. We are online, on the phone, on newsfeeds, on air, and sometimes on overload. Take a deep breath with us now as we turn off the data streams and make room for some plain old wit and wisdom in This is Personal, a new series of short interviews with directors of artists communities in which we invite them to tell us what's on their minds and ask them how they got here from there.

After over a decade at the Ragdale Foundation, Susan Page Tillett embarked on a new journey, taking the helm of the ecological writers residency Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes Station, California. In this month's This Is Personal Esther Grisham Grimm - Alliance Board Member and Executive Director of 3Arts - sits down with Susan to talk shifting gears, possibilities at the edge, and finding your inner compass.

Alliance: After leading Ragdale Foundation through not one, but two, capital campaigns, you made the decision a couple of years ago to move on to a very different sort of adventure - one that didn't involve another residency program, except, perhaps, as a resident artist. Obviously, something changed. What paved the road from Ragdale to Mesa Refuge and how did you find the courage to shift gears again?

Susan: You are right! When I left Ragdale in July of 2012, it was to take a Creative Sabbatical Year. After 12 years, $10 million, and renovating every building on the property, all during the economic roller coaster of the 21st century, I never thought I would lead another artist community!

What happened is that I finally received the gift of two weeks at the incredibly beautiful Mesa Refuge, where I was able to focus on my own writing. I was so grateful that I offered founder Peter Barnes some free consulting. Before I left, I told him that the Mesa Refuge was a real gem and that all it needed was a good Executive Director and a Five-Year Plan. He invited me back for a second residency in April 2013...which turned into a job interview!

My Creative Sabbatical Year was ending, but it had left me with a renewed sense of adventure. Having left Ragdale, sold my house and spent a year traveling and writing, made it easier to make this leap. Peter's integrity and generosity of spirit made me want to help him move his start-up to the next stage... and have some fun doing it just one more time!

Alliance: You are volunteering on the flower brigade, as I like to call it, cataloguing wildflowers in Point Reyes. When we visited at your new home in the mountains at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, it was clear that something in the environment speaks to you and gives you strength.What does the San-Andreas-Fault landscape stir in you?

Susan: The first time I saw the mixture of two tectonic plates and the wetlands between them, I totally fell in love! To be literally "at the edge" of the San Andreas Fault and find it stunningly beautiful rather than scary was a complete surprise. Interesting things happen at edges, physically and philosophically that is what the Mesa Refuge is all about.

I spent the first 30 years of my life in the eastern part of the country, followed by 30 in Chicago and on those beautiful Midwestern prairies. In some ways it makes perfect sense to be starting the next 30 from the vantage point of the West Coast. I have lived enough places and made enough friends to know that if my internal compass and light are strong I will find my way. I can have adventures and remain centered. If you think sudoku is good for keeping your brain passages open, try moving cross-country and not knowing where the only gas station in 30 miles is located!

Alliance: What are three things you are thinking about, asking yourself, or just stewing on these days?


  1. How will our culture come to value Wisdom in an age that worships Information?
  2. When will I find the time to finish the book I worked on last year?
  3. What are the deep lessons that I am learning from being in Nature's Classroom, here on the edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore?

Alliance: What do you most want to talk about with your peers at the Alliance’s conference in Charleston this year?


  1. What are the new patterns of effective fundraising that are emerging? How can we best use Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other innovations?
  2. What does sustainability look like for newer organizations without endowment funds?
  3. As usual, I want to see the inspirational things my colleagues are doing, to have my mind blown and my world expanded.
  4. Finally, I want to sit and laugh with my brilliant, funny colleagues about this crazy field we share. That always does me such good!