Together Again—For the First Time

Considering all that Susan Nissman has accomplished since she moved to Topanga in 1978, “Wonder Woman” comes to mind as an apt moniker.

For starters, marrying the inimitable, irrepressible and surely, indestructible Arthur Nissman, who recently recovered from a near-fatal car accident, she easily took up the concerns of the community as it faced the onslaught of inappropriate development, taking on the role of activist under the leadership of Bob Bates, then president of the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC). Throughout the 16-year battle, she became a key player in fighting the Montevideo Country Club development, later to be taken over by the Disney family.

When Zev Yaroslavsky was elected our Third District Supervisor in 1994, Nissman went to work for him to fight bigger battles. As Senior Deputy, she was deeply engaged in projects such as the building of the Topanga Library, the plastic bag ban, and both watershed and emergency management plans, all the while  working with a boss and his team, who loved the Santa Monica Mountains as much as Nissman does. They never stopped doing all they could to preserve and protect the mountains and the coast.

all the while making sure her boss understood the importance of protecting mountain environments. Twenty years later, Zev termed out and she spent six more months with his successor, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and retired.

In that time, she and Arthur raised two remarkable children–Max, a financial planner living in New York City’s East Village, and Zoë, an artist and designer who lives in Silver Lake.

Now, in retirement, the Nissmans live with Hunter, the Basset Hound, and two cats. Arthur is a dedicated member of the Topanga Coalition of Emergency Preparedness (TCEP) and the Disaster Radio Team (DRT) that augments one of the most important needs during a disaster—communications.

Throughout what can only be described as an overflowing life and career, a true artist’s soul has always come through for Susan.

“I’ve been hand-building ceramics for more than 36 years,” she said. “A local mom and potter, Patti Marcus, handed me my first piece of clay back in 1981; I took to the medium immediately.”

As a result, Nissman, who has been a member of the Topanga Canyon Gallery cooperative since its inception in 1989, has had her work exhibited in juried shows and galleries nearly 70 times over the years, including a one-woman show at the former Howell & Greene Fine Art Gallery in Topanga, in the Gallery’s annual Studio Tour and at showings for private charitable fundraisers.

“My instincts are kind of contra-symmetry, but pro-balance,” she says. “Builders can go off kilter, but still find balance. The building and shaping aspects of a clay slab versus throwing at a wheel continues to hook me. I like the physicality of clay, pounding it, rolling it out, trying to sense where it wants to go, what it wants to become.” In fact, she said, she has literally been “throwing” wedges of clay against hard surfaces and even paddling them to get “some interesting results.”

She has always found inspiration in the ancient hills of Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains which shows in the patterns of nature that reside in her art. “Just living here influences me; I can’t help it,” she said. “Layers of nature, geology, the wild environment has stuck with me. For most artists, I think there is a lot of memory that comes into play when you’re creating.

One of my early childhood memories starts with looking out from the back seat of my parents’ car traveling from some big California valley to the ocean through California’s coastal mountains,” she recalls. “The landscape, rolling hills of grass, oaks with moss hanging from their branches, submerging into distant box canyons, captivated me. Almost everything I do in clay, functional or not, is evocative of those early, often mysterious, impressions of California wildlands.”

Nissman admits that life experiences and politics also influence her work, but she holds onto a mantra that gets her through the toughest times: “Trust your imagination as you walk upon that creative landscape, for you carry with you the human condition,” she said.

“It gets me through the anxious times directly having to do with my art. It got me through working to affect solutions as an activist and then in government. The ‘creative landscape,’ for me, is really any endeavor I embark on, and that mantra gives me courage to take risks and go outside myself.”

Susan Nissman can be contacted at


As a result of the world-wide refugee crisis, twenty percent of the show’s proceeds will be donated to Build: Not Impossible, where learning and imagination lead to innovation, empowering youth refugees to create sustainable solutions for their communities through project-based learning. (www.notimpossible/build)

Black + White + Color opens November 1-26, at the Topanga Canyon Gallery, 120 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Suite 109, Topanga Canyon, CA 90290. (310) 455-7909.

An artist’s reception will take place on Saturday, November 11 at the Gallery, 6 -9 p.m. For more information:


Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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