Susan Richter-O’Connell: Transitioning Elements

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Photo by Larry Sanders

Some artists are made in a way that they excel in many mediums. They are not held back to one single thing that drives and propels them onward. Or sometimes, as it happened for Susan Richter-O’Connell, you begin with one medium and find another that draws you in until you ultimately make a choice about which one will sustain you to the end.

“I think one of the things that interested me in jewelry making, of many things, was the physicality of it, much like dancing was for me,” Susan says thoughtfully. “I loved the physical challenges of being a professional dancer and it is not unlike the physical challenges of metalsmithing. Both techniques require strength, flexibility, and endurance. You need those skills in jewelry making in order to move and manipulate metal. And unfortunately for me, the repetition in this very physical art form has resulted in two carpel tunnel injuries.”

We chat on the phone very recently after double carpel tunnel surgery on both of her wrists. As a dancer, you know that someday your body will betray you in a sense—that you will no longer be able to perform at a level you once could because it is such a physically demanding endeavor. It is easy to forget that other mediums—pottery, sculpture, furniture making, metalsmithing—because of technology and mass production, are also so physically demanding when made by the hands of an artisan or craftsperson.

Photo by Larry Sanders

“For better or worse,” Susan says, “the physical challenge of metalsmithing is exciting to me. I kind-of left dance knowing that it was a profession with a limited lifetime and I thought jewelry making was something I could do for the rest of my life. So I was really surprised when I started running into some physical challenges, but yet, I really shouldn’t have been.

“I received my BFA in dance from the Boston Conservatory in Boston, MA. The transition from dance to jewelry was more about leaving large cities where I was dancing. Chicago was the last place we lived in where I was both dancing and teaching dance. We then moved up here to Wisconsin where my husband got a job as an industrial designer. We came to Sheboygan 25 years ago and at that time there weren’t any opportunities for me to dance here. But by then, my husband and I had been together for 10 years and we were interested in starting a family. I found that jewelry making was something that I could do at home and could schedule around children, around naps, and all of that. It wasn’t so much that I was interested in giving up dance, but dance wasn’t going to be easy to fit into our lives here.

“However, I was and still am involved at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) here in Sheboygan. It’s one of the reasons Sheboygan has been a great place for my family. My kids attended preschool there, and it’s afforded me many opportunities to share my passion and my skills with the community through teaching, and that’s been wonderful. I first began teaching dance and then later, metalsmithing as well. But eventually I phased out teaching dance to teaching only jewelry making. I just felt I couldn’t do both well. But also, as importantly, I finally no longer identified myself as a dancer,” Susan laughs jovially. “That was my identity for most of my life, so it took me awhile to let go of that. But I see myself as a metalsmith now, and not as a dancer. There was a transition time, though, where I was straddling the fence. I felt that I had to pick one or the other. It seemed metalsmithing was the natural thing to move on to.”

Dance and jewelry have both existed for much of human history. There is something to be said for both mediums that is ceremonial, ritualistic, and expressive. While jewelry is something worn as adornment on the outside of the body, dance is something that begins on the inside and flows out. Both can be used to heal and to celebrate. The connections between these two mediums is not something I had given much thought to until Susan and I began to speak about her journey from dance to metalsmithing, but it seems the process for both form at and emanate from a similar place within the artist.

Photo by Larry Sanders

“I didn’t come to jewelry making because I was particularly interested in wearing jewelry,” Susan tells me, “but rather, it was my solution to do something with all the natural ‘treasures’ I would collect. Although I use a variety of found materials in my pieces, for several reasons, the majority of my pieces have beachstones in them. The first and most obvious reason, I love being near water and beachcombing, and for the majority of my life have lived in close proximity to Lake Michigan, and not too far from Lake Superior as well. The beachstones are also very easy to work with because of their durability. But probably most importantly, because it’s an element that seems to speak to me, as well as other people, more than any other materials that I’ve used.

“25 years ago, when I started making jewelry, I went to UW-Oshkosh and took one basic metalsmithing class. It wasn’t like it is today, where you can readily find places like the ‘Bead & Button Show’ in Milwaukee and learn jewelry and metalsmithing skills through week-long classes. Back then it was hard to find a metals class outside of a college art department. So the class in Oshkosh got me started with my basic skills but then for several years while my children were still young, I was experimenting on my own and slowly developing my technique. Later on, when my kids were a little older, I took a handful of workshops with people like Andy Cooperman, Harold O’Conner, Christopher Darway, and some other notable teachers who offered workshops. I would learn more advanced techniques from them and then go home and explore these skills even further and find how to integrate them into my own body of work. Most of my metalsmithing background is really my exploration and learning through trial and error.”

About 10 years ago, Susan began the metalsmithing program at JMKAC. Her youngest child was starting school and this was when she really transitioned into jewelry making full time. Her work developed at a greater pace, and she began to take on bigger art fairs and shows, and to exhibit in larger galleries and shops.

“I’d say it’s been a good 10 to 12 years that I’ve been doing this full time, although I’ve really been making jewelry for 25 years now,” states Susan. “Teaching jewelry at John Michael Kohler Arts Center has been wonderful because I have to keep re-visiting techniques as I teach them, which in turn forces me to re-look at my own work. As a metalsmith, there are only so many techniques, and it’s really more about where you are as an artisan and how you choose to use that technique. When I am teaching, because I am in a different place as a metalsmith each time I re-visit a technique, I find my work develops and moves in a new direction.

Photo by Larry Sanders

“My students wanted to learn how to torch enamel, which I hadn’t done before. So I learned how to do it and then taught them. And because I then had an array of sample elements that I had made for class, I wanted to figure out how to incorporate these in my own work. Now I’m taking my beachstones and coring them out and putting enamel in the interior. That is something I never would have done had I not needed to learn that technique to teach my students. They also wanted to learn how to set faceted gemstones, and because I predominantly use beachstones and other found materials in my work, prong-setting was not a technique I had used much. So again, I had to work on a new skill set, which has also now come to influence my newer work when I use faceted stone-setting techniques to capture beachstones.

“It can be difficult to deviate from the tried and true styles I know people like, but that’s one of the benefits of doing art fairs and trunk shows. I can talk about my work and learn about what appeals to my customer and in turn, they learn something personal about me. When I hear stories of people owning my work it thrills me!” Susan says enthusiastically. “It makes me want to keep going. Sometimes my newer work doesn’t fit my longtime customers’ aesthetic, and never will. Other times they come around, and other times I find completely new customers for those new pieces, like the addition of enamel elements in my cored out beachstones. I just love that people wear my work and really love it.”

You will be able to find Susan back on the art fair circuit this summer. You can contact her at rocformations@gmail.com for her complete schedule. Her work is also available at many fine galleries across the state, including Madison Museum of Contemporary Art-Madison, WI, Artisan Gallery-Paoli, WI, John Michael Kohler Arts Center-Sheboygan, WI, Nest-Sheboygan, WI, 2 Fish Gallery-Elkhart Lake, WI, 3rd Ward Jewelry-Milwaukee, WI, Fine Line Design Gallery-Sister Bay, WI, and Box Lab-Manhattan, KS. If you are interested in being a student of Susan’s, you can join her in one of her many jewelry making classes throughout the year at JMKAC or at the Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek, WI this coming summer June 8–11. More information is available at jmkac.org and peninsulaschoolofart.org .

Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.