STERLING SILVER BROOCH by Susan Brooks is of sterling silver, with a vintage Czech glass cabochon; 8.9 centimeters high, 2006. The brooch is pierced, repousséed, engraved, chased, with acid patina. Brooks uses steel and diamond-coated burrs in an electric enraver and flex-shaft tool so that the techniques mimic drawing with a pencil, one of her favorite endeavors.
Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament

PENCIL SKETCH by Susan Brooks.

STERLING SILVER BROOCH is hand-fabricated, repousséed, engraved, chased, pierced, and patinated, 8.3 centimeters wide, 2001.

Photographs by Kate Cameron unless stated otherwise.

You could say Brooks is working, because this—hammering a Morse code of pattern, line and portraiture into silver and gold—is how she makes her living. Brooks would probably choose another verb to describe what she is doing—playing, meditating, daydreaming. She is also drawing, translating the sensibility of her paintings into jewelry. Brooks has managed to weave all of the things she loves into a business and a life. “I love what I do,” she says simply.

For nearly thirty years she has sold her paintings, prints, illustrations, and adornments through her Berkeley, California studio. The brilliant colors of her paintings punctuate the white walls of her studio. These are mostly female figures or fanciful creatures, cats and dogs, motifs she never tires of exploring. Her glass bead earrings and spiral Slinky bracelets shimmer in a display island in the center of the room, picking up the jewel tones of the paintings. In other cases, oversize brooches of silver, dangling asymmetrical earrings, rings, and pins lie in elegant repose. Brooks, on the other hand, is a buzz of motion. She fields telephone calls, doodling on scraps of paper while chatting, then uses the doodles as inspiration for her pieces. The drumbeat of that thing called work never seems to dampen her consistent good cheer.

“I do practically all my drawings while I’m on phone. It makes them very non-self-conscious,” she says. “I keep pencils and good paper everywhere. I love line, putting things on paper. I’ll always paint or draw. It helps in the jewelry work, frees the mind and hands. Because I draw so much, I’m not so fearful of making a mistake. When I do make a mistake, I’m not afraid to start over.”

STERLING SILVER BROOCH is hand-fabricated, repousséed, engraved,
chased, pierced, and patinated, 11.0 centimeters high, 1998.

That is helpful when it is time to begin a piece. She demonstrates her process on a piece of two-by-three-inch sterling silver sheet. "I like big brooches," she says. "They're certain to get you noticed.

“I didn’t study much metalsmithing; I’m an artist who picked up on metal. So I came up with a method on my own. I use a lot of older techniques of chasing and engraving. I work directly on the metal. I don’t necessarily plan the design in advance; it’s actually harder for me to translate from a sketch, although I’m definitely inspired by my sketches and paintings. My hand actually is pretty sure of line; it’s fun to see where the freedom takes you. Generally I try to make these as painterly as they can be.”

As she talks, she works a Dremel tool over the sterling silver, handling it like a pencil. An iconic face appears, a woman with almond eyes, a long nose and pointed chin, part of Brooks’s palette of favorite images. A pair of eyes might float beneath that chin, or a smaller face superimpose the first, as if one is dreaming the other. “I love metaphors, and simple clichés. The floating eyes mean ‘Always try to see in a different way.’ I like the idea of reframing.” Picking up a chasing tool, she hammers a totemic pattern of lines and triangles around the edge, literally framing the portrait as if it is a painting. “Certain things I know at this point, like that this row of faces will be interesting if I leave spaces to cut out later. It’ll looks like they’re peering out a window. It helps to know in advance. I don’t always know where I’m going, but do have a bit of an idea.” After the metal receives a patina and the edges are smoothed, the brooch is finished with a handmade head pin.

She treasures her chasing tools, many of them inherited from her father, a sculptor who worked as a model and mold maker for a toy company. “I have a scrapbook of shapes I tend to use over and over,” she says. “I’m very attached to circle tools, like these ‘fish egg’ circles I use a lot as filler. I like a lot of edges and borders. I make cross hatching with a broken drill bit that’s been sharpened. One of my favorite tools makes a ‘coin edge’ ”—Brooks shows a row of short horizontal lines like those on the edge of a dime—“and my favorite lining tool is this one, sharp from age. It has its own kind of texture, very different from a new tool. Occasionally I’ve found the same marks in my work on toys my dad made sixty years ago.”

Her father’s workshop was her first classroom. She spent hours playing there on the Saturdays he would ride into Manhattan with her from their home in the Bronx. There, she was allowed to mold clay, carve plaster and at the end of the day, pour molten lead into the plaster mold with her father’s help. “I learned to be comfortable with tools early on. It was an amazing environment and a great gift—to have his tools now is really exciting.” Surrounded by collections of antique buttons and baubles used as source material (the manufacturer for which her father worked also produced plastic buttons and beads), Brooks developed an eye for color and form early on.

"I began to make jewelry out of lust for it," she recalls. An early childhood illness had kept her bedridden and "put me in my own world. To entertain myself, I would cut out pictures of jewelry from magazines and turn them into bracelets I could fasten on my wrist. I would make little dioramas out of boxes that you could peer into. I was very encouraged. My mom was a painter; she taught students at our dining room table. She sold her paintings at arts shows in the Greenwich Village art show. I was allowed to help. We’d go down with our suitcase of stuff and sell like crazy.

"When I was six I remember my mother letting me cut school to go shopping at a junk store in City Island in the Bronx. I bought my first piece of jewelry there, a piece of pink cut glass in a Victorian setting. I still have it." She brings out a tray of old beads and brooches, a carefully saved inventory of her formative years. "I liked the bohemian life. I didn't know that's what I was in, but I knew that if I was in a house with plastic slipcovers on all the furniture, I didn't feel quite right. I do find a lot of the shapes and images of objects from my childhood reappearing in my work.

“Here’s a face my dad made,” she says, picking up a heavy piece of silver with the outlines of a woman’s profile. “It’s a portrait of my mother he cast from a silver wedding gift ashtray. Here’s a chased piece, a salamander I made for my dad when I was a kid. This lead frog was a mold for casting plastic toys. These bug belt buckles were an inspiration, and I am in love with beads. I have a passion for Egyptian revival beads, which were very popular in the 1920s—these King Tuts, scarabs and totems cast in colored glass. Everything I love could show up in jewelry form.”

She went on to study at Parsons School of design, but she was a restless student. “I wanted to be painting, but I was studying fashion illustration and graphic design. I talked to the department chair who said,‘Maybe you should go to California.’ It was the early seventies and I had friends here. It seemed like a good idea. My first day I saw this little, ordinary downtown and thought I’d made a mistake. Berkeley seemed really provincial. The next day I went to Telegraph Avenue [near the University of California campus] where there were little head shops and people selling stuff on the street. I said, ‘OK, I’ll stay.’

“I was immediately interested in buying old things. I learned a lot about jewelry and ended up fixating on it. My initial love was Mexican jewelry, George Jensen silver, that kind of thing that has a patina on it and a beautiful integrity of design.” She sold her finds to antique stores, and filled out her income by designing posters for a local jazz club, producing illustrations for periodicals and making handlettered wedding invitations— “all kinds of things using my artistic skills. I bought broken necklaces and restrung them into my own designs. Those sold well, and I still like doing them.”

Today, her bead collection fills a cabinet. She can roll a chair up to the treasure trove of old charms, freshwater pearls, rhinestones, and vintage glass, and start piecing together a confection of color. “Putting things together is so much fun, but painstaking. I have to be very conscious of what I’m doing. It took years for me to decide what to do with some of these beads I’d been collecting for twenty years. Some are from my childhood. I used to not want to part with them, but now I feel no reason to hoard them.” She has often thought of abandoning the beadwork to concentrate on other areas of her business, but the line is extremely popular. “Every time I think I don’t want to do beads anymore, people don’t let me stop,” she says.

A decade passed, and by the early 1980s Brooks decided she wanted to learn to make ‘real’ jewelry. With no money for tuition, she turned to a low-cost civic arts program and found the best education she could imagine. “I went to the Richmond Art Center, took my first classes and immediately knew I loved it. As soon as I was able. I started amassing tools.”

STERLING SILVER BROOCH is hand-fabricated, repousséed, engraved, chased,
pierced, and patinated, 8.0 centimeters high, 2003. Photograph by George Post.

She picks up those tools again, returning to the "mesmerizing little world" beneath the magnifying visor. She begins chasing around some appliquéd gold, building up a sense of three-dimensional depth where the two metals meet. Sometimes she will flip a piece over to hammer the back, creating a raised area on the front for more depth. When her chasing is finished, the pieces receive a patina that is later buffed and removed with Q-tips and an eraser stick to highlight the contrast in surface tones.

In all, about ten steps are needed for one small part when she is working on her earrings and Brooks makes as many as two hundred parts a week, or a day producing a half-year's supply of sterling silver head pins. "I try not to think of all the steps at once, or it feels overwhelming," she says. Each earring in a pair will be slightly different and a good deal of time is spent choosing elements that work in dialogue. "I rely a lot on a lot of repetition of patterns, yet no two pieces are the same," she says. "I'll make two hundred parts and look for two that are the same and can't. I sit here cracking up. It's a good thing I work asymmetrically."

That feeling of surprise in her work turns the shoppers who visit her studio (she is open by appointment in addition to three open studios a year) into avid collectors. Her prices satisfy a range of customers and buyers have pieces that are unduplicated. “One lady buys from every open house since we met about twenty years ago,” says Brooks, relishing the connection they have made with each other. “I’ve been lucky to have a wonderful clientele over the past thirty years. I like working for people who have a passion for jewelry. My job is to continually come up with something different for them. I don’t watch trends, but I do listen to what people say, and I’ve been fortunate to have had such wonderful validation in the marketplace.”

Her business acumen has also helped Brooks succeed in an arena where it is easy to starve. For twelve years, she shared studio space with fiber artist and good friend Carol Lee Shanks (Ornament, Spring 2003). “I was able to grow and do things I couldn’t do on my own. It was an adventure together. We cut costs, she kept the mailing list; I was inspired by her work and I think I inspired her. We had a similar sense of color, so her clothing and my jewelry looked good together. When you’re making a living by yourself, it’s important to throw a wide net, and to surround yourself with like-minded people.”

A search for like-minded people launched Berkeley’s premiere holiday crafts event. “Carol and I started Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios because we wanted to be part of an excellent studio event. We invited other artists whose work we knew to join us. It’s always been a juried event, so people know the quality of work will be high.” By November, posters and free maps let shoppers plan routes to artisan’s studios to find the best examples of woodworking, blown glass, ceramics, fiber, and other handmade goods. “After fifteen years we have it down to a science. This year we had more publicity than ever. We wanted to put together a cohesive show, and it turned out to be a good vision. But past October, I have no time to work on my own stuff!”

The rest of the year, you can stop by the studio, peer through the open door and find Brooks playing. “I’m so glad it’s come to this,” she states. “It’s hard to make a living as a painter, so I’m glad to have discovered a wonderful other medium that works. Both painting and jewelry are so incredibly important to me; I can’t live without them. I totally crave the color in the paintings, so when I have time, I’ll paint for as long as I can, a month or two at a stretch. Eventually that’ll morph into something different, and I’m happy to put on my apron and go back to jewelry.”

Reprinted courtesy of Ornament Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 3
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