Fun Fact: When she's not creating art, you can find Susan on the pickleball court! Photos by John Yeatman, Jr.

Piece by Piece

Artist Susan Thornberg creates colorful puzzles of Rehoboth

Growing up in Wadsworth, Ohio, Susan Thornberg and her two older brothers quickly learned to entertain themselves. Their father was sick for most of their childhood and died when she was 15. Their mother worked at J.M. Smucker Co.—also known as Smucker’s. In those pre-Internet days, the siblings played cards and games and pulled out puzzles. “Any kind of puzzle,” she recalls. “That was our thing.” Today, Thornberg’s love for puzzles has evolved into a fun art form. She designs the Rehoboth Beach-themed jigsaw puzzles sold at Browseabout Books. The limited-edition images have a loyal following. “Browseabout has enjoyed working with Susan since 2015, and we could not be happier with our partnership,” says Susan Kehoe, Browseabout’s owner. “Her artwork spoke to us immediately, and we have created beautiful, exclusive Rehoboth-themed products with her.” Puzzles are not an artist’s typical outlet. But then, Thornberg is not your typical artist. In many respects, her medium demonstrates the marriage of art and technology.

A Can-Do Attitude

As a child, Thornberg wanted to be an investigator. “I like to figure things out,” she explains. However, she discovered art in high school, when students were largely allowed to select their class schedule. “I took every art class I could because I thought the art teacher was phenomenal,” she says.  After a brief period at the University of Akron, she pursued her muse at a two-year fashion institute in Fort Lauderdale. She received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Nova Southeastern University, also in Florida. Looking back, she realizes she fell in love with the beach while living in Fort Lauderdale. But back in Ohio, she was less enamored by fashion merchandising. After working two years in the field, she moved to Washington, D.C., to get a job as an investigator. 

What Thornberg lacked in experience she made up for with determination. She tied her tennis shoes, grabbed her resume and went door-to-door between government buildings. She got hired. For 33 years, Thornberg conducted criminal investigations and background checks. Toward the end of her career, she interviewed people before they took a polygraph test or met with psychologists. Meanwhile, she met and married Rich Thornberg and had two daughters, Emma and Rochelle. When she found time for art—which was rare—she pulled out her watercolor paints. 

The Road to Rehoboth 

When the children were small, the family vacationed in the Outer Banks. They got tired of the travel time and switched to Rehoboth Beach. “You’ve got Funland, the boardwalk—everything is walkable,” she says. “We fell in love with Rehoboth.” So much so that they bought a condo in Spring Lake on the Forgotten Mile and then a home in Rehoboth proper. In 2020, the family leased the condo to traveling nurses assisting Beebe Healthcare with its COVID-19 response. 

When the couple heard that hospital ICU space was tight, they went to their Reston, Virginia, home. “If we got sick, we didn’t want to take one of the ICU beds because we had another place to go,” explains Thornberg, who continued renting to the nurses without raising the rent as long as they needed the accommodations. The Thornbergs have since sold the Spring Lake condo and now divide their time between Rehoboth and Reston. When Rich retires, they plan to make Rehoboth their primary address.

Behind the Lens

Credit a Nikon D100 digital camera for rekindling Thornberg’s interest in art. She bought her first camera in 1998. “I was fascinated by it,” she says. “I took photos of my kids, and they were all online. I started playing with it, painting online, and combining technologies to create the vision of whatever I wanted to create.” She taught herself to use Adobe Photoshop, which remains her preferred software. After using Procreate, or another application, she usually finishes the work in Photoshop. Unsurprisingly, she regularly upgrades her equipment. 

The artwork is vibrant—daytime skies are often pale blue, and there are typically touches of fire engine red, tiffany teal and lemon yellow. Meanwhile, sunset scenes are streaked with lavender, gold and pink. The colors—and the Rehoboth settings—caught the eye of Kehoe at Browseabout Books, who approached the artist to create pieces for the store. Meanwhile, Thornberg had unsuccessfully searched for a Rehoboth-themed jigsaw puzzle and suggested they collaborate on a series. They agreed on a lump annual sum. Thornberg does not receive royalties but gets an additional fee if Browseabout reorders a product. “It was a handshake and a hug,” Thornberg recalls. That was in 2015, and the first puzzle sold out within two weeks. 

Connecting the Pieces 

A puzzle starts with a scene, and Thornberg continually snaps photos for her massive online library—her source of inspiration. After Browseabout approves the idea, she uses software to add or subtract elements as needed. For instance, her puzzle of the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, complete with the old Dolle’s sign, has flags atop the Atlantic Sands Hotel. But they’re not in the original photo. She’s added Hoda Kotb, a regular Browseabout customer and even included Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.”  Thornberg’s latest beach puzzle boasts a Rehoboth Beach sign on the umbrella shack, which was not in her photo. Seagulls are frequent additions; at least one usually has a pilfered French fry in its beak. “It’s just your typical beach day in Rehoboth,” she says. “It’s a full day with the ocean, a boat and all different colored umbrellas.”

Those in the know look for Thornberg’s Taylor Swift-like Easter eggs, such as the letters VT. (Her daughters and Kehoe went to Virginia Tech.) “You probably can’t see it on the box, but when you’re putting it together, you’ll see a VT on a piece,” she hints. You may also spot the letters, R, E, A and D. She reuses certain aspects, such as a seagull, thanks to digital technology. But she will only insert the image if it fits the scene—and it’s not as easy as it sounds. For instance, the gull may require a shadow.

Filling a Niche

The puzzles are mostly 500 pieces, although some can have as many as 2,000. The smaller puzzles are easier to mail, Thornberg notes. Regardless of size, the puzzles are perfect for vacation rental homes, and Thornberg has even seen them in hotel lobbies. The boardwalk scene with the rooftop Dolle’s sign remains a bestseller. Indeed, when Susan Eliason learned the sign was coming down, the Felton resident purchased the edition. “I wanted to remember [the boardwalk] as it was during my childhood,” she says. When two Dolle’s signs were up, Thornberg created a puzzle called “Double Dolle’s.”

The jigsaws also found a grateful audience during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I purchased her puzzle from Browseabout, and it really added a lot of joy during that time,” says Karen Falk of Rehoboth Beach, who assembled it with her husband and two children. “It also took over the dining room table, but that was OK.” Jennifer DeBernardis is another Browseabout customer who bought a puzzle during the pandemic. “I wanted to support a local business and artist,” says the Millsboro resident.  Locals like items that salute their hometown. Says Falk, “We were saying that we know we live in a special town when an artist makes a puzzle from a landmark where you live.” Thornberg would be happy to hear it. She’s so attached to Rehoboth Beach that she hopes people enjoy putting the pieces together, she says.

More than Puzzles

Thornberg retains the rights to the illustration, and her agreement with the bookstore isn’t limited to puzzles. Thornberg’s illustrations can appear on towels, mugs and other items that Browseabout wants to sell. She works with third-party vendors through the production process. On her Etsy site, customers can purchase prints, some of which were used for puzzles. She also sells botanicals, such as lotus flowers and dogwood, and there are scenes from Spain, Long Island and Reston, Virginia. (Her work is available at The Blue House, a Bethesda, Maryland, store.) 

Now that Thornberg has been bitten by the pickleball bug, she has a line of greeting cards featuring a pickle in a pleated pink skirt holding a paddle. “I have these creative ideas, and I need to get them out of my mind,” she says. On average, she spends about 20 hours a week on her art. However, when she’s designing a puzzle, that number jumps to nearly 80 hours. When the collaboration began, Thornberg did up to three a year. Because Browseabout only has so much room to store the boxes, Thornberg does about one a year. The beach scene, available now, is her 17th puzzle, and Kehoe is eager for more of the artist’s colorful, whimsical products, be it puzzles or other gift items. “We look forward to working with Susan to collaborate on new and exciting items for years to come,” she says.  

Susan’s Local Faves

  • Beach Queen Street
  • Restaurant Drift
  • Coffee Cafe A Go-Go
  • Dessert Key Lime Pie from Henlopen City Oyster House
  • Shop Browseabout Books
  • Sunset Spot Tower Road (Bayside) 
  • Trail Gordons Pond Trail
  • Lunch Spot Lori’s Oy Vey! Cafe 
  • Beach Activity Socializing and People Watching
  • Beach Read Elin Hilderbrand 
  • Ice Cream Spot The Ice Cream Store
  • Live Music Scene Aqua or Bandstand
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