Worms of Silk
By Rebecca Wheeler
At the tail end of King Street in front of Old Town Alexandria’s Potomac River pier, painting students, curious tourists, and a man with an easel climb the stairs to an old weapons manufacturing plant. The now-automatic doors slide open to reveal an aquamarine torpedo, once a product of the factory, now a symbol for the since-converted Art Center; ironically, the old sub missile now stands for Creation at The Torpedo Factory, which attracts upwards of 500,000 visitors a year with its 82 artists studios, six galleries, two workshops, and the Alexandria Archaeology museum. In addition, the Art League School offers art classes of all sorts at the Art Center.
On the second level of the industrial building, artist Susan Sanders stands behind the glass show case of her Torpedo Factory studio, #206, holding a needle-and-thread in one hand and a series of inter-connected colorful fabric tubes in the other. She brings both items up to her be-spectacled face, bites on her tongue as she scrutinizes each, plunges her needle into the top of the fibrous mass, and finally knots the thread in two gruff and graceful loops; she is “putting the finishing touches” on her latest Silkworms creation. Susan is the designer of three different jewelry lines, all under the label “Silkworms”, featuring gold and precious stones, intarsia (stone inlay), and fiber work. This particular masterpiece, she informs me, is made of handcrafted felt and dyed silk fabric, sewed around a particular type of chord, which is what gives it the distinctive tubular shape. I can’t help but think of the woolly worm-like strands of a Rastafarian’s dread-locks. “Well actually,” she says in a matter-of-fact voice, “felt is basically just wool plus some soap, water, and a little elbow grease.”
Susan is a reserved, modest woman, clad in a handsome black-knit sweater that clings at her angular shoulders, with a dark maroon-and-purple felt scarf (that she made herself, of course). She raises her eyebrows, ever so slightly when she says a little, which is enough to hint at the hours of studio time and television time she spends tending to her wool fabric—and it shows. On the wall behind her, countless necklaces in felt, silk, and her newest incarnation, “ultrasuede,” hang from a mounted metal sheet by the unique painted, resin-cast magnetic clasps that hold Susan’s necklaces together. “This is my livelihood,” she says, gesturing to the studio around her.
And it has been ever since 1974, when Susan stumbled upon the opportunity to become a resident artist at the Torpedo Factory, which was reopening as a newly renovated haven for artists. She had just graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied architectural design, and was planning to move to a remote part of Kentucky to design refrigerators when she learned of the open studio and gallery space near Washington, D.C. It proved an easy decision for Susan, one she has never questioned, considering she has maintained her studio at the Art Center for 37 years.
Her love for design and creation dates back much further than college, however: for “as long as [she] can remember, [she’s] known that [she’s] wanted to make things and sell them for a living.” Susan’s parents, an accomplished Seamstress and a graphic designer, taught her the importance of craftiness and ingenuity at an early age. Growing up around such creativity gave her “sewing skills and an appreciation and an eye for architectural lines.” When she first tried her hand at jewelry making, however, it was “immediate love. And why do something you don’t love anyway?”
Luckily, pursuing her life’s passion as a career has proven a professional pay-off for Susan, who is more of an anomaly than ever in this recessing economy, especially in the art world. Her “bold, geometric, and often asymmetric designs” have earned her numerous awards, including First Prize in the American Gem Trade Association Spectrum competition for gemstone design in North America. “[Her] work is shown throughout the U.S. and has recently been exhibited in Moscow, Russia, and Seoul, South Korea; in addition, she’s “been featured in books on jewelry design and many magazines in the U. S. and abroad. Some of [her] non-jewelry pieces are currently part of the State Department Arts in Embassies program.” Her work ranges from $250-$20,000, a relatively normal price range for handcrafted art, so she tells me. Something tells me that she is again being modest—Susan is no ordinary craftswoman.
I was initially surprised, but not at all confused to discover that there is still a market for such things as her delicate, sometimes custom-commission engagement rings and even, handcrafted boxes to house them. If I weren’t a lowly high school student, I would spend my savings on a random assortment of her notions. But even having the opportunity to watch Susan work for a short time, I feel lucky to have learned even a little about her craft. Looking around at all of her heavy-duty diamond-cutting and sanding tools, and boxes upon boxes of random fabric scraps, I wonder aloud if she would ever allow students to intern with her in her studio. Sighing slightly, she explains that she once taught classes for the Art League but she just doesn’t have the time, let alone the motivation. “I barely have the energy to take care of my cat, poor thing,” she says, showing me a picture of her cone-headed kitty who “scratched her own eye” in Susan’s absence.
The daily life of “the artist” blurs the lines between personal and professional activities, resting somewhere in between the two. Even Susan admits that her art seeps into every facet of her existence—she makes some of her own clothes as well. I jokingly ask her if she has a family that she’s neglecting as a result of Silkworms. Again she sighs, “just the cat,” she says, matter-of-factly. I leave it at that, still completely in awe of her resigned perseverance and brusque precision. She has started sewing the magnetic clasp on an earth-toned felt and silk-plaited neck cuff, and I can’t help but notice how the corners of her mouth turn up ever-so-slightly as she gazes down at her incomplete masterpiece, critically. I recognize the loving glance of a hardened mother, determined to send something better than herself into the world.
I came to the Torpedo Factory looking for a story—I leave feeling overwhelmed by the talent I witnessed in just one of the 82 artist studios the place has to offer. I can’t even imagine how much progress Susan will have made in just a day or two, how many more pieces of her soul will be magnetized to the wall the next time I visit.
I’ve been aimlessly saving my money for a while now (probably in an attempt to create some small personal victory for myself amidst the grueling college process)—and I’ve finally found what I’ve been saving for, without even meaning to: a purple ultrasuede necklace that Susan insists will “tickle my neck with those purple worms of silk that are just perfect for my complexion.”
Come to The Torpedo Factory any day of the week from ten A.M to six P.M, nine on Thursdays, to check out Susan Sanders’, or any of the other Resident Artists’ amazing work. Brava Silkworms. And thank you to the Art Center for keeping the dreams and crafts of artists like Susan alive.