Kate Brandes / Tessa O’Brien

Home From Nowhere 



When I think about where I’m from, it’s not a location that comes to mind, but cornmeal mush, wonder bread, jewel cookies, and lousy babysitters. It’s fire escapes and hot pavement. Glossy-leafed magnolias, broken glass, blues music on the street, rivers cutting rock, and ephemeral wildflowers like jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, and bloodroot. 

©Tessa O’Brien, “Addition,” 42” x 42” Oil on panel, 2019

©Tessa O’Brien, “Windowsill,” 36” x 48” Oil on panel, 2019

From age five I rode shotgun in my mother’s car, map on my lap, tracing our route with my finger as we traveled from one part of her life to another: leaving my father, going to school, onto a string of jobs, state after state, me figuring out the roads to get there. When we moved somewhere new, it meant reinvention and a new identity, better than the one I’d left behind. Freedom and promise came with being a stranger. I was drawn to mountain vistas where the possibilities seemed endless and narrowing options that came from committing to a person or place faded into a distant vanishing point. 

Well into adulthood, I believed in starting over someplace new. That seemed a fair exchange for lack of friends and family. Different jobs, my own marriage, divorce, and remarriage kept me resettling, in search of a new beginning. Until I began to see that starting over didn’t change me. It kept me from living. 


Home is now a small Pennsylvania town next to the Delaware River, where the shad, a schooling ocean fish, migrate from the Atlantic into the river each June. They swim past our house, navigating by smell into their natal waters to lay eggs. The shad head toward narrowing tributaries that will give their young the best chance. Some travel more than two hundred miles from the estuary. Others go almost twice that distance. They do all this without eating, driven by a mysterious homing instinct. 

©Tessa O’Brien, “Windows (Yellow),” 16” x 20” Oil on panel, 2019

©Tessa O’Brien, “Plant Shelf,” 14” x 14” Oil on panel, 2019


In my town, people go back for generations. Tradition is woven tightly into the community. I’ve lived here for eight years, but I will always be considered an outsider. Yet, the feeling of being known and unknown, belonging, but not belonging, also feels like home. 

I found my place by tracing a finger along an internal map, navigating narrowing passages carved out by years of getting it wrong. The slate on my roof is from rock of the Appalachians. The flowers in my gardens are from those same mountains and valleys. The stones that make up the foundation of my house were rounded by the Delaware River. 

On frigid winter days, mist rises from the river and crystallizes into rime that sparkles as it falls back to where it came from. Not unlike, in June, when the shad return and the water shimmers with their silver swimming bodies.

©Tessa O’Brien, “Green Room,” 14” x 14” Oil on Panel, 2019



Kate Brandes lives with her husband and two sons in the small river town of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania.  She’s an author and artist interested in local confluences of people, place, and nature. She also teaches geology and a course on Landscape, Culture and Story of Place at Moravian College. For more, visit her on Facebook or Instagram

Tessa O’Brien has shown throughout the US, including solo exhibitions at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, ME and Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth, ME. O’Brien earned a B.S. in Fine Art from Skidmore College, and received her MFA from Maine College of Art. In addition to her studio practice, O’Brien has worked in arts administration and public art, co-founding the Portland Mural Initiative with her partner Will Sears, and is currently the director of Able Baker Contemporary Gallery in Portland, ME.

“These paintings are part of a series called Kinney Woods Rd, named for the road that I grew up on in rural midcoast Maine. I was raised in the midst of construction sites and amateur architectural models as my parents DIYed their way through several renovation projects to make our small house fit the needs of our growing family. The series documents the various stages that the house went through during my childhood, painted from memory, photographs, and recent visits to the site.”