Susan Clarkson spends hours a day making tiny glass masterpieces.
Susan Clarkson spends hours a day making tiny glass masterpieces. Alistair Brightman

Susan's glass jewellery on display

GROWING up with a mother who loved painting and print making, Susan Clarkson met many artists.

They would always be staying in her childhood Kingaroy home as they attended art schools in the area.

She described her early exposure to the art world as diverse and interesting.

Her mother, Merle, has been attending art schools for 30 years and completed a university degree in visual arts at the age of 50, 13 years ago.

It is no wonder some of her interest and talent have rubbed off on Susan, who is also intensely passionate and drawn to art.

Despite her natural creativity, it was not until Susan was 21 and attending a teachers training college that she unexpectedly decided to pursue the art world.

Her art teacher saw her potential and asked her to take home tjanting tools and dye to learn about batik over the holidays.

“I fell in love with it and quit uni,” laughs Susan.

“I’ve been dabbling in that ever since.”

Susan also dabbled in beads before taking her talents more seriously.

“I started fiddling with beads when my kids were little. But they were just cheap and nasty beads that I used to make sun catchers.”

Soon after she discovered the beauty of glass beads and also began making jewellery.

For the past four years, she has been building on her skills professionally and has started Irish Willow Jewellery and Art Glass.

It came after she attended a USQ Toowoomba McGregor Summer School with Kathryn Wardill.

She had been going to the school on and off since she was 13 years old, first learning about theatre and later textile design, silver smithing and bead art.

“I have always been interested in basically wearable art and I’ve always been interested in jewellery.”

The glass beads Susan creates are intricate and time-consuming.

She can spend anywhere up to two hours to make just one bead.

The technique she employs is known as lampworking, where glass beads are hand-made by artists one at a time.

People often misconceive that Susan’s beads are made of blown glass but instead the glass is wound around a length of stainless steel called a mandrel. She melts narrow rods of coloured glass with a torch flame and adds swirls and writing, as well as twisted glass.

Making the process even more delicate, Susan does not allow her beads to quickly cool down naturally. Instead, she cools them in vermiculite (a natural mineral) which slows the process and prevents thermal shots (breaking).

“When I have enough beads I fire them in a kiln for 13 hours and it takes the stress out of the glass and gives it strength.”

If Susan does not do that, the glass has another opportunity to fracture.

“Even as you’re making them,” she explains, “if you let the glass cool down and then reintroduce it to the flame it will break. It’s one of those things, once you start making a bead you can’t stop.”

Of the beads she makes, the most peculiar is a creature she calls Dudema.

“It looks like a little alien with a very cute bottom. He’s got three-toed feet and my kids like him.”

There are also frogs with hand-made murrini eyes, hearts, butterflies, fish, horse heads and goddess beads.

“Like most obsessed artists it’s the finished product; it’s the process,” she says when asked what she loves about bead-making.

“Like everything there’s parts that I don’t like – like cleaning beads isn‘t much fun.”

Despite Susan’s obvious obsession with beads and jewellery she deviates with her creativity, owning five sewing machines and a pottery wheel.

But this North Isis resident’s desire to continue learning about beads does not allow her to stray for too long.

“The glass has definitely been something that’s captured my imagination.”

Susan has five pieces in the Hervey Bay Regional Gallery exhibition Grid II: Contemporary Craft in the Worldwide Grid. They can be viewed until March 27.

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