Art, friendship and mustangs: The Wyndmoor connection


Susannah Thomer and Joe Borrelli, both in their 70s, have admired one another for more than 50 years. They grew up together, living just a few blocks apart on Gravers Lane in Wyndmoor, and Joe was drawn to Susannah's watercolor paintings way back then. And he still is. Now a gallery owner, he has exhibited her work numerous times over the years.

And now they are again united on Gravers Lane. An artist her entire life, Thomer's watercolor paintings are currently being exhibited until June 12 at the Gravers Lane Gallery, 8405 Germantown Ave., owned by Borrelli. (Other pieces by Thomer are also currently on exhibit until June 17 at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Montgomery County.)

“What attracts me to Susanna's paintings,” Borrelli told us last week, “is how versatile and unpredictable they are while being filled with light and color. And how cheerful she is about painting. And such a nice person, too.”

Growing up in Wyndmoor, Thomer always lived to paint. But she did it on the sly. Her late father, who worked for Philco Ford, “thought it was the stupidest thing imaginable,” she said. 

“He said I could never make a living out of it,” she said. “As a result, I did not want to paint when he was around, so I would go into the backyard and hide and paint.”

Her mother, however, was a different story. 

“Thank goodness my mom encouraged me, as well as my high school art teacher,” she said. “Mom would take me to art classes at Allens Lane Art Center and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I always loved them.”

Thomer graduated from Germantown Friends School and Moore College of Art, then was a fashion illustrator for advertisements for numerous stores in Germantown and Chestnut Hill while living in Mt. Airy. After a few years as a fashion illustrator, she was able to get her art into numerous galleries in and near Northwest Philadelphia.

Contrary to her father's expectations, Thomer has been able to make a living from her art for decades. When she was in her early 20s, however, the art did not pay the bills, so to make ends meet for a few years, she pumped gas at a gas station in Wyndmoor. There she met her husband-to-be, David, who was an auto mechanic at the station.

But making money was never the main point. 

“I just love painting so much,” she said. “I will always do it, whether I have a show or not. I may paint at 2 a.m., 6 p.m., or any other time, whenever I am inspired, I sit down on the floor and paint. Art keeps me young.”

Thomer also enjoys driving around in her old Mustang convertible, which her husband David keeps in good running order. 

“When I drive it around the neighborhood, people wave at me, and I feel like I am 17 years old again,” she said. “I don't go too far with it, though. I'm afraid it might die.” 

Thomer's husband is now retired. They have one son, David Jr., an engineer now living in Oklahoma who also raised donkeys, horses and other animals. David Jr. has five children. Thomer and her husband currently live in Plymouth Meeting with Dakota, a seven-year-old cocker spaniel. 

“And I would like to add that Joe Borrelli is a really good guy,” Thomer said. “He has put up with me for years. His studio is home to me. To have my work shown now on Gravers Lane may not mean anything to anyone else, but it is a very big deal to me!”

These days, when not running his art gallery and framing business at the corner of East Gravers Lane and Germantown Avenue, Borrelli performs with 56 Men, a pop-rock group named after the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. He has been a lead singer, bass guitarist and songwriter since the 1970s when he toured with a best-selling rock 'n' roll group from the 1950s called Danny & the Juniors.

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