Just call Susan MacKay of Uncasville an expert multi-tasker. She paints, sculpts, makes jewelry, and plays the piano and accordion in two local bands — “Ken Atkins and the Honky Tonk Kind” and “Chris MacKay and the Tone Shifters” (led by her husband) — all while raising two boys, teaching Saturday morning art classes, and working as a bartender at night.
Her artistic endeavors are more than hobbies. In the 1980s, she spent five years at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts on a full scholarship studying painting, sculpture, figure and portrait drawing. Later, she went on to double major in art and art history at Connecticut College. “I’ve been painting my whole life,” MacKay says. “When I was 3, I would draw very detailed pictures of ladies. I’ve always, always wanted to draw people.”
She credits the wonderful teachers she studied with for inspiring her to continue her passion into adulthood, and for wanting to become a teacher herself. “I always figured later in life I would teach because I always had such excellent teachers,” she says. “When you get these great teachers, it’s almost kind of your duty to pass it on to the next generation.”
One striking characteristic about MacKay is that you’d expect her to be a bit harried, considering her schedule. But friends say she’s kind, enthusiastic, gracious and humble. She’s made many friends working as a bartender at Go Fish in Olde Mistick Village for 15 years.
Rich Lotz, a fellow bartender who has worked with MacKay for seven years, says, “I feel like she’s family. A few years ago, after having seen her work, I hired her to paint a portrait of our recently passed dog and my fiancee, Jess, at our favorite spot. She nailed it. My fiancee cried like a baby — not just because she lost her dog of 13 years, but because she realized Sue had done the painting for us.”
He added, “At work Sue and I have a sibling-like relationship, but as much grief as I give her, there’s no one I would defend more, nor anyone I’d rather work with. I wish her the best always and wish more people knew her how I do.”
Go Fish’s owner, Jon Kodama, says, “She is a favorite of many regulars, as well as the staff, as she combines her high level of energy and enthusiasm with her artsy and musical roots.”
MacKay is careful to avoid the common trap many busy folks fall into, of letting obligations take over her life. She knows that’s no way to live.
“You have to make time for what you love,” she says, “and my husband helps so much with the kids when I’m working at night.”
By incorporating just the right balance of routine and creativity into her day, MacKay says she makes sure to touch on at least a little of each activity she loves.
A lifelong pianist, she began playing at weddings in the early 1990s, initially as a favor for a friend. Attendees took notice, and demand for her talent took off via word of mouth. “By the end of that summer I was doing three weddings a day.” To overcome her anxiety about performing in front of a crowd, she says, “I would pretend that there was no one in the church and I was just practicing.”
She became a bona fide band musician around 1992. “My sister and I had stumbled upon people who played country music, original honky tonk stuff,” MacKay says. “One day my sister said, ‘You ought to have Susan play piano.’ I never thought I’d play in a band.” She is now the proud owner of seven accordions, and plays the instrument professionally as well.
“It’s magic when there are other musicians out there and all the notes just blend together,” she says. “I call it musician’s high.”
Bandleader Ken Atkins says MacKay brings something special to her music. “Sue’s been in my band since the 1990s. She has great creative energy in both music and art. Much of the music we play in ‘The Honky Tonk Kind’ is original. Sue has the ability to listen and then play. That’s probably the one of the most valued traits among players: the ability to listen.”
He added, “I love Sue’s paintings and have several in our house. She’s a lot fun to be around — her great positive energy definitely rubs off on all of us.”
MacKay features many of her paintings, in all their phases, on her Facebook page, showcasing her artistic process every step of the way. “A couple years ago someone hired me to paint a portrait. I took pictures as I was going along to show them what I was doing, and so many people liked it,” she explains.
One of her current projects is a portrait of her sons, ages 6 and 11. “I can’t paint when they’re around,” she says. “I have to be able to ignore everyone and everything. I blast my music and sing and paint.”
Sounds like a great way to combine her passions to entertain and inspire herself — while doing the same for others.