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Susan Tessem Paints a Geometric Window to the World

Let’s do a visualizing exercise. Imagine the coast of Maryland: Pre-Revolutionary houses preserved to stand as beautiful as the day they were designed back in the 1700s. Tobacco fields plowed over and converted into beautiful, lush gardens of roses, rhododendrons, and boxwoods. The calming mists fill marine docks lined with antique sailing ships and charming waterfront bars. Now, take a look at this painting:


Is this the coast you pictured? This 1968 painting by Susan Tessem, titled Hard Grape, is modeled after that very scenery.

As Tessem observed the Maryland coast’s beauty, she became infatuated with it as a subject. While the sharp edges, solid planes of color, and geometric illusions are present, as they were in much of her earlier work, Tessem’s paintings expressive and romantic depictions of The Free State’s rustic countryside and crisp, arid waterfront.

In Hard Grape, Tessem cuts out a small corner of the purple right triangle to diffuse the imbalance of the left-side-heavy painting. She often incorporated such techniques in the earlier work she painted before arriving in Chestertown, Maryland in 1973. Hard edges, geometric angles and impossible perspectives are arranged in a calculated composition that takes the viewer on a journey across the canvas, while the use of cool, still, and muted color gradients make the journey as bump-less as possible.


Notice also the window-like structure in the top left of the painting. Although the look might have changed throughout her career. As she puts it, “I think I’ve been making the same painting for 20 years, just different versions of it.”

Tessem moved to Chestertown, Maryland in 1973 after leaving the University of Delaware due to a rule that she couldn’t be married to someone who worked in the same department as her. , where she essentially created their visual art program from scratch.

As the artist says, “When I arrived in 1973, the art department was two small rooms in the basement of the theater, no windows, I had 25 wooden easels and ten rows of athletic lockers. My office was a cage with a padlock on it… …and they gave me a budget of 200 dollars a year to run the program. So, with that, off I went.”

Over time,  and with the help of local benefactors such as renowned WWII-era photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee, Tessem would grow the Washington College’s art program and produce award-winning students such as artist and woodworker Vicco Von Voss, who had this to say about Tessem:

“From Tessem [I] learned the importance of negative space and “the spaces in between.” In her own work, Tessem would establish a boundary line, a white line, and then go beyond it. It was a signature of her paintings.”


Written by Joel Settlemoir, curatorial work study student, University of Arkansas.