Instructive Illusion: The Art of Susan Waters-Eller

Share the News


Artist and MICA prof Susan Waters-Eller thinks, talks, and walks hummingbird fast, but she may spend quiet month upon month making a single drawing. A drawing designed to rejigger your perception in a matter of seconds.

A close friend of mine, Susan has always viewed the world her renegade way, taking cues from other greats who create and share their own provocative ways of seeing life on planet earth. When she was a teen, she trained herself to become mesmerized by a poster on her wall of an involved image by French surrealist painter Yves Tanguy.

“What attracted me [to Tanguy’s piece] was how solidly realistic the scene felt while having nothing recognizable in it,” Susan says. “It seemed to hold an essence true of many adolescents, of seeing everything clearly and it making no sense.”

Two more major influences: M.C. Escher and Georgia O’Keeffe.

“[Escher’s] presentation of impossible but believable spaces stirred my interest in paradoxical realism as a way to provoke ideas and uncertainty in the viewer,” Susan explains. “Georgia O’Keefe’s painting that cropped the composition, so we were examining the inner dynamics of flowers and bones, affected my own compositions more powerfully than any other artist. It was a way to step beyond thing-ness — of objects in their categories — to get to the life force beneath and powering the whole and our interconnection.”


When I study Susan’s intricate, interconnected drawings — like “Consciousness” above — and paintings — find “Earth” below — I experience a near psychedelic rush of possibility; for me, it’s like standing on the ledge of a dream in a new land born of textured line. I dare not look away. Somehow I sense, without words, this view’s going to challenge me, change my mind’s patterns. Though I can’t yet verbalize a syllable.


Two years ago, I met my friend cute, in a cinematic, light-green-leafed setting in Brittany, where we both attended the Alfred and Trafford Klots residency through MICA.

As I marked up my manuscript in the garden, she sat nearby and sketched round and blocky hedges for hours on end, each stroke purposeful, each building to deepen her narrative – in the end, waves of energy seemed to radiate from the shrubbery, an ancient mystery afoot. During breaks, we’d talk and talk.

As impressive as her intuitive ability to map an imagined terrain, Susan is a born brain with an avid interest in neuroscience, philosophy, and meditation — and in people. She’s possibly the most alert person I know, in the real, unplanned moment.

“[My] really formative experiences [as an artist] were not formal,” Susan says. “Speaking at a prison, seeing how we shame and humiliate people, cage them like animals, struck me as a pathology in society that puts too much stock in obedience and quantification and very little in harmony and humanity. The residency in France was equally affecting because it radiated harmony and attention to beauty.”  

“Uncertain Procedure”

Twice honored with the MICA Trustees’ Award for Excellence in Teaching, Susan, a MICA alum herself, has taught drawing at the Institute since 1978.

Her drawing courses — branded with trippy, enticing titles like “Illusionism” and “Imaging the Idea” — pack the studios.

“The Illusionism class drew out of my constant pushing the edges of illusion in my work,” she says. “It almost required the science of perception… Imaging the Idea, philosophically that course does what my blog [Seeing Meaning] does. It’s the idea there’s a whole lot of conscious understanding of meaning that can be expressed visually better than verbally.”

When her former student, Jon Marro, now a graphic designer and teacher on the West Coast, stage designed a tour for singer-songwriter Jason Mraz a few years ago, he immediately saw Susan’s work for the backdrop.

“One of the most intense experiences I’ve had in regard to my work being shown was seeing one of my drawings projected 30-feet high behind Jason Mraz in such a way it looked like he’d stepped out of it,” Susan says. “The blend with the music made my heart beat faster.”

“Convergence,” below, is one of the pastel and color pencil images displayed in the Mraz show.


“Stimulating thought with imagery is central to all of my work,” Susan says. “I’ve always been interested in the deep and specific relationship of images and psychological states. It’s what I explore in both visual art and writing. An image is how I show myself how I feel. In my blog, I let people know that they can do that by looking at art, by making choices among the endless examples now available.”

In December, Susan lost her father. She found it therapeutic – essential – to begin to process her grief through image first. The result: “Collapse.”


“I couldn’t move forward with my visual or written work until I used both to digest that loss,” she says. “I couldn’t write until I put the feeling out in front of me in a drawing that helped me see my emotions more clearly, then I could begin to verbalize it.”

This summer, Susan’s busy drawing and writing as usual — currently in her home studio, she explores a more biologically descriptive surrealism through a series of graphite drawings called “EKG.” “Pulse,” below, part of “EKG,” demonstrates her recent experimentation with red thread, a new gesture in the artist’s book of eye-pulling tricks.

“Using the red thread brings symbolic implications,” Susan says, speaking nearly more speedily than I can type. “Trying to make the drawing’s surface look like it’s pulled and puckered by the thread, to make the drawing look like it’s actually responding to the stitches, has been my goal. Doing new things with illusion is always my goal.”






Share the News


  1. Susan was my illustration instructor at Maryland Institute (MICA) in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Lessons learned in her class “Symbol and Fantasy” have served me in my marketing/advertising career. Her creativity continues to inspire. Thanks for the update.

  2. My life as a working artist and illustrator would have not been possible without having Susan as an instructor at the Institute in 80-83. She inspired me to take a leap into the world of illustration, and 7 award winning picture books including a New York Times Best Illustrated and more to come would not have been possible without her encouragement! Thank you Susan!!! Absolutely love your work including the print I have of yours hanging in my studio for the past 32 years. All my best! Wade

  3. The article was totally wonderful. Your art work has always stood out and I envy that fact that your mind can imagine such things and you can actually put it on paper. You are very gifted and a pleasure to know and work with Susan.

  4. It still mystifies me how your able to synthesize such emotion rich paradoxical constructs; elements that chaotic yet simultaneously harmonic. Your work summons very perplexing thoughts, it’s almost like being bombarded by waves of awesome abstract dreams while still awake being awake, and it’s like “Magic- Eye”, resulting in Cross-Sensory Perception. The Piece Titled “Uncertain Procedure just makes my mouth water, it’s like Lemons, not just because of its color but that sour tongue twisting maze like feeling I get when I eat them, love it.
    I recommend one image for every day of the week so different. All great, wicked article, thumbs up!!!
    Madame Waters-Eller, your incredible, the most inspirational, motivational super-geeky cool teacher ever. Thank you for everything!

Comments are closed.