Meet Susu Knight: Artist, Translator, and Santa Fe's First Tenured Female Tutor

June 25, 2024 | By Jennifer Levin

St. John’s Santa Fe is turning 60! To celebrate, we’ll be looking back at key figures, moments, and movements from the campus’s past, all of which have proved instrumental in transforming the foothills of Monte Sol into a beloved home for generations of Johnnies.

St. John’s College keeps a mind elastic, able and eager to capture and utilize new information. While alumni use this capacity in their careers, faculty often use it to enliven retirement. Take tutor Susu Knight: since retiring from the Santa Fe campus, where she spent decades debating philosophy, she now spends her days making art and translating Chinese poetry. “It’s an art form to even know how to look things up,” she says of the painstaking approach, which she compares to Johnnies translating Sophocles from ancient Greek.

Retired Santa Fe tutor Susu Knight, today a translator and artist, bears the distinction of being the western campus’s first tenured female faculty member. 

Knight’s wide-ranging interests might be typical for a liberal arts institution like St. John’s, where she taught from 1974 until 2006, but she also holds the distinction of being the first woman to receive tenure in Santa Fe. Today, she finds it hard to believe that the college’s Western campus is nearing its 60th birthday.

“To me it seems that it has weathered a lot of inclemency with grace and still has a faithful devotion to its center—reading wonderful books by fascinating authors and learning to discuss them through the lessons of true collegiality,” she reflects. “When I think about all the tutors, students, and staff on both campuses with whom I shared my life—and still do—and from whom I stole nourishing ideas and honed my observations through listening, I am so grateful. Even more, I owe the shape of my life to them.”

Knight has spent much of the past 50 years discussing the merits of classical versus modern philosophy with her husband, fellow tutor David Bolotin. She favors the moderns: “My guys are Hume and Wittgenstein, some Nietzsche. They don’t like philosophic tinker toys and the mechanical sort of earnest philosophy of, particularly Germans, who like to build things. I’m sort of a plain vanilla person, and I think my guys are, too,” she says. “And I developed a whole subset of guys in French literature of the late 19th century—Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust.”

Knight and Bolotin met “over the dean’s wife’s punchbowl” when she taught in Annapolis in 1977, and they got together when he moved to Santa Fe the following year. “Our first date, I took him to Bandelier National Monument,” she says. “Up and down all the ladders in his Boston shoes and trench coat.”

Given the era in which Knight arrived at the college, it would be easy to assume that she was an outspoken feminist who fought her way up the academic ladder. The accomplishment is historically accurate, but as a badge of honor, “I reject it,” she says. In fact, Knight never struggled to be taken seriously among her colleagues, most of whom happened to be men and all of whom mentored each other as they learned to teach across the Program. “The early days were magic—an unbelievable amalgam of a real job and feeding all kinds of curiosities for me,” she recalls. “My colleagues were generous and smart, and wonderfully idiosyncratic.”

Knight and Bolotin today live in a book-filled house in central Santa Fe, where they have resided since 1978. Now 82, she struggles with joint pain that makes walking tough—though it crucially hasn’t affected her hands. In addition to translating Chinese texts, Knight is an accomplished pastel artist of landscapes that convey an intimate familiarity with the Southwest. The term “pastel” connotes a sort of softness, but Knight’s compositions are vivid while focusing on the movement of light and shadow. “My first teacher said I was sincere,” she says. “That made me very happy.” She can still draw and blend with her pastels, although “the better I get, the less blending I do,” she says. “You get impressionistic about it. There are all kinds of ‘rules,’ but most of them I’ve disobeyed.”

One of Knight’s most recent drawings is of a snowstorm outside Dixon, New Mexico, near the home of Betsy Williams (SF87). Williams is a potter and co-owner of Rift Gallery on Highway 68 in Rinconada, which represents Knight’s work and published her poetry translations. (Her latest, Nineteen Ancient Poems and Other Selections, came out this past year.)

“Susu’s work is infused with the experience of real places—their sounds and quiet, smells, textures, temperatures,” Williams says. “She’s spent so much time exploring off-the-beaten-trail places all over the West that really looking and being in the outside vastness of those places somehow comes through clearly in her work. I love the way her pastels let you in on the breathtaking and the ordinary as one and the same.”

St. John’s Santa Fe, in its own way, is like Knight’s artworks: irreverent yet sincere, all-encompassing yet unique. And she hopes that as the college goes on to celebrate even more birthdays, it “will continue to consciously choose to be its ‘contrarian’ self—to stand out as a bastion for the mind and the heart,” she says.

See some photos of Knight and her artwork throughout the years: