Background photo by Tom Lyons

Susie Nielsen

Cape Creator

Everybody assumes I’m from Connecticut or Colorado, but I’m originally from New York City. I grew up there, finished high school in New Jersey, and went to Boston for college at Northeastern University . . . As a kid, my dad would take us down to Falmouth in the summers. But it was always a big deal to come to Cahoon Hollow Beach and take our rafts into the waves. Wellfleet was on my radar pretty early.

I moved here for love. When I was in college at Northeastern, my boyfriend got a job running The Beachcomber, and I came here in 1991. I was 21, not ready to settle anywhere, so we broke up, I took off after two or three months, and that was it. When I left, I didn’t think I was coming back. And I never thought about coming back for almost 20 years.

Susie Nielsen


I was never really into art as a kid—outside of my grandmother, nobody else in my family was an artist. Somehow, I picked it up right after college. I worked in the film and video industry, but all the creative things I was doing were on the side, very sporadic. Then when I was in my 30s, I went back to graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design and studied graphic design. I wanted time to be fully immersed, to have a chance to concentrate and do something I love.

After I graduated, I decided to move out to Portland, Oregon, about an hour away from a farm where my friend Christine Gallagher lived. We started to co-teach together, doing projects and doing some unconventional gallery work in different venues, like an exhibition in an apartment or in a boxing gym. I was the director of a gallery at Western Oregon University, and we taught and did our own work out there.

The Farm Gallery started as conversations between Christine and me . . . We talked about all of these ideas and not getting caught up in things like, “What should a painter do?” It was about getting outside of that and letting the ideas dictate the materials and the medium.

I’m drawn to meaningful abstraction. The light on the Cape is so beautiful, so compelling, and the more I’m here, the more I appreciate it, but that’s not where my interest is.

I like work that’s suggestive—suggestive enough that you won’t just say “I don’t get it” and lose interest. It becomes about looking and seeing, and it becomes about something different than just whether you like it or not, or whether it’s pretty or not. That ambiguous place that’s between things freaks people out, including myself—and that’s where things can really happen.


In Portland, things got to a point where my roots were starting to form. And I’m an East Coaster—I love New England. I love the seasons, the grit, the sweaters (laughs).

I moved back to Boston, and shortly after, my boyfriend and I started seeing each other again. Nine months later, we got back together, and I moved down here permanently.

I was walking down Commercial Street one day in 2007. I looked in the window of what had been a frame shop at the time, and I said, I want a space like that. A year later, I heard about this place, its three rooms, were for rent. I decided to rent it without any plan—just open the doors, meet people, and do my work here.

The first time I showed the space to some of my architect friends, they said I should knock down a wall, get rid of these boards—they basically thought I should make it look like a New York gallery. I was feeling the pressure, and I thought, Why try to hide these old floors? Why not let it be what it is? And I think it actually works to put contemporary, abstract art in an old space.

One of the most memorable artists we’ve exhibited was May Tveit. She’s an industrial designer and artist, and she coated these giant bales of hay with a plastic used by companies that make outdoor signs. We exhibited them in the gallery, and then we went around town with them—we’d put them in restaurants, or at the town pier, or someplace else. Everyone got involved—the bales weighed a ton, so you couldn’t just take them off the truck. People were helping us push them down the street, helping us stop traffic, and they were always moving. One day, they’d be at the Flying Fish Café. The next day they’d be on someone’s lawn.


I’ve done a lot of moving around in my life, and I felt like I was always transitioning. So if I’m going to be in a small town, I want to be part of it. If I’m going to live here, I need to live here all year round.

My fall, winter, and spring are just as busy, just in a different way. I moved myself out of the Farm space when I started doing shows, so my studio is at home. I do my painting at home—in the summer, I don’t really get to do it at all, and that’s why it’s so important for me to stay here in the fall, winter, and spring to do my work.

I’ll never be considered a Wellfleetian. But you know what? I’m okay with that. I love having pride in places, but I don’t need to claim anything. I’m not a New Yorker, but I lived in New York and it’s part of my life. So is this.

For so many people that come here, this is their haven. How much better does life get when you can live somewhere that people call their special place?


Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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Beach and Dunes at Cahoon’s Hollow, Wellfleet

Beach and Dunes at Cahoon's Hollow, Wellfleet