St. Joseph artist Suzanne Knecht draws from her love of the sea for inspiration. Photo by Kathee Kiesselbach

Archived Story

Wherever the tide takes her

Published 6:46pm Sunday, November 28, 2010

Suzanne Knecht, or Zan, began her far-from-ordinary life in Flint, Mich.

Her artistic life started as a kid at the Flint Institute of Art, where she later did ceramics and studied under Katherine Sharbauh. Though that was her first and only training in art, she made art a part of her life, using it to work out emotions — good and bad — into her adult life.

Knecht headed for the College of the Atlantic and received a bachelor’s degree in human ecology and marine biology. She took off on a year’s-long adventure in marine biology with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she worked on Russian and South Korean ships.

She started thinking that she wanted to do something that had purpose in the world, and the importance of feeding people came to mind. A short career in commercial fishing was not planned, but she ended up working on a 54-foot commercial fishing boat in the Gulf of Maine for three years. During those days, she became enamored by the beauty of the fish, and did a series of now-cherished fish prints, inking the fish itself to print on paper. They now decorate the dining room of the beautiful mission-style home she shares with her husband and son in St. Joseph.

While working in Ireland for Sherkin Island Marine Laboratory, she met an Irishman who operated a charter sailing business in the French West Indies, and she became a liveaboard. She lived on the sailboat for three years and continued to do fish prints and paintings including silhouettes of women, T-shirts and potato prints, which she sold at different ports for extra money. At one time she had a land studio in Portland, Maine, where she could go and work away from the boat.

Her work — done in gouache, acrylics and ink — expressed what she could not put into words. After one very long, windless period at sea, she decided that the liveaboard experience had come to an end.

Ovarian cancer struck her mother, and Knecht returned home to reconnect with her family and friends. It was a choice made easier after nearly dying in a hurricane at sea. She wanted to be of help to her mother, and, having a natural intellectual curiosity, her mother’s illness sparked an interest in women’s health. She received a bachelor of science in nursing with a focus in maternal and child health from Grand Valley State University, then a master of nursing degree focusing on women’s health, then a doctorate in women’s health and international reproductive health — both from the University of Michigan.

By then she had already been working in Nepal doing reproductive health training for John’s Hopkins University, and after receiving her doctorate, went on to work in Washington, D.C., and was lead technical adviser for sexual and reproductive health programs in Romania, Yemen, Egypt, India, Nepal, Peru and Cambodia.

Knecht met her husband in Ann Arbor, and they later moved to Yemen. After her caravan was ambushed when she was 10 months pregnant, Knecht decided not to travel anymore under a heavy sense of responsibility for her child. I have no doubt that Knecht’s art has helped her roll with the punches in her life. They decided together that near Lake Michigan — the inland sea, the largest body of freshwater — was the ideal place to be.

Lifestyle has fed her work, and she has used it to document the places she’s been, and her love for those places. While working in Antarctica, the beautiful fish there again fed her love of color. Her contemporary paintings reflect the icebergs, open seas and storm clouds she lived with out at sea for years. One can look at her work and understand why a canvas is simply painted sea blue — or sky blue. One can understand why the orange and blue might give the impression of a breathtaking sunset over the ocean. I have seen Knecht look into her painting of the sea, and you would swear that she is looking out from the bow of a vessel at sea. When confronted with a painting hanging in front of you, you feel the breeze, taste the salt and hear the gulls in the distance. Your stance changes to accommodate your sea legs. Looking at some paintings, one feels the coolness of icebergs and the desolate open sea where they live.

You can see Suzanne Knecht’s work at She will be having a show at the Box Factory in St. Joseph in 2011, and is working on a video project about Lake Michigan for the art lab at the Krasl Art Center. You can contact Knecht at

You can reach Kathee Kiesselbach at She would love to receive your comments about this column.

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