Sue Szabo puts a copper disk covered with powdered enamel into her kiln as she works in her home studio earlier this month.
Delete, delete, delete.
Sue Szabo usually just taps “delete all” when it comes to e-mail that’s gone to Spam.
But one day in January she was going through these ridiculous sales pitches one by one.
Delete, delete, de … a subject line caught her eye: “Commission Query.”
“Here’s this guy named Tom in London who said, ‘We’ve seen your jewelry online.’ He represented P&O Cruises,” she says. “I read it to my husband and said, ‘Do you think this is legitimate?’ I wrote back and said ‘Sure, I’ll bite. What do you got?’ ”
What he had, she wanted, and visa versa.
Seven months later, she’s up to her eyeballs in an excruciatingly labor-intensive job, creating 18 wall sculptures studded with 720 individually crafted enamel disks. At intervals, the sculptures will surround the elegant and huge Meridian, main dining room on the Brittania, the largest-yet United Kingdom cruise ship scheduled to set sail in February.
PHOTO GALLERY: See more of Szabo‘s work at her home studio
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The rectangular sculptures, measuring 45-inches wide by 60-inches high, will fit into a recessed and lit niche. Each will be composed of 40 to 50 disks ranging in size from one-and-one-half- to five inches in diameter. Szabo is making 750 copper disks (30 extra), every one of which she will heat and hammer into a slightly cupped shape, sprinkle on colored glass powder (enamel) six to eight times, bake individually in a kiln six to eight times (that’s 4,500 to 6,000 kiln visits). Following each heating, each disk is given a special cleaning.
Hers is the second largest of the 8,000 artworks commissioned from 60 artists (only three from the United States) for Brittania’s cabins, restaurants, bars, gym, spa, and other spaces, said Tom Tempest-Radford, of Tempest Radford Ltd., who’s spent the last 20 years advising large British companies about art.
He was inspired by the pendant necklaces that she makes from gently-cupped copper disks on which she enamels color and etches radial designs, priced in the $300 range.
“My inspiration was 1950s fabric designs on barkcloth,” she says. But Tempest-Radford, who has commissioned art from hundreds of people around the world, was concerned about the project’s scope.
“Tom told me to put a team of artists together, he was really worried,” about the job meeting deadline. He came to Toledo in spring and they talked over dinner at Ciao’s, along with her husband, David Smith.
“I’ve never been late on a deadline in my life,” says Szabo, 55. (To verify this claim, we studied Smith’s body language. “That’s true, as long as it’s not getting ready for dinner,” he says.)
“I’m having a blast! Life’s too short to be wasted on things you don’t like,” enthuses Szabo, a high-energy, loquacious redhead, who’s putting in 50-plus hours a week in the basement studio of their Sylvania Township home.
Sue Szabo and her husband David Smith use a peg board to arrange completed disks helping them visualize the final layout, at their Sylvania Township home.
“I just told my best friend this experience has been one of the best things of my marriage. David’s always said he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, and he’s having a blast.” (He nods.) “And now he sees what I do in my free time.”
Smith is pitching in on repetitive tasks, such as sliding disks in and out of the 1,500-degree kiln. He’s also picking up the slack on the home front and at her day job, which she continues to work 25 hours a week. The two, along with two others, are physicians at an internal medicine practice in Sylvania.
Szabo has two gears: Full Speed Ahead and OFF for eight hours of sleep. “We check her thyroid every year,” says Smith.
“We do not,” she fires back, but adds, “I’ve often had patients ask me if they can have some of my blood.”
Doesn’t she need down time?
“This is how I recharge. Hammering on metal for a couple of hours is a great de-stresser,” she says, pulling out of her purse the padded weight-lifting glove she wears when hammering metal. If she’s got a bout of elbow tendonitis or rotator-cuff pain, she turns to a different task, such as applying enamel or firing disks.
Just for fun
The daughter of teachers, Szabo grew up in Oregon where her second-grade teacher noticed her love of drawing and arranged for her to attend classes at the Toledo Museum of Art. She continued into high school, then got busy and art went on the back burner.
“I never thought of it as something you could make a living at. It was something you did for fun,” she laughs. She graduated from Clay high School in 1977 and in 1988 from the University of Toledo Medical College, formerly known as the Medical College of Ohio.
On vacation in Boston 25 years ago, she and Smith wandered into Mobilia, a gallery devoted to art jewelry. She was captivated.
“I had no idea art jewelry existed. I was in there for six hours. [Smith stayed with her.] I studied every piece. I asked a million questions. And I bought my first piece of art jewelry. Every time I wore it I got compliments. It’s a good conversation starter. And when you wear your art, lots of people become interested in it.”
She read books and studied techniques of jewelers such as Earl Pardon, Harold O’Connor, Lola Brooks, Bettina Speckner.
“I became crazed about the idea of collecting this stuff. Then we started planning vacations to places where there were art-jewelry fairs.”
And after a decade or so, Smith suggested she try her own hand at it.
“He kept saying ‘You have a great eye, you should try and do this.’ I finally caved and decided just to try it.”
She enrolled in a metal class at the museum taught by Hans Rubel, and took jewelry classes. In the last decade, she’s sold her necklaces, earrings, brooches, and bracelets, often made of silver and enamel, at more than 50 national and international shows, and at the museum and Hudson Gallery in Sylvania. Blue ribbons are pinned to a bulletin board in the kitchen.
For the Brittania, Tempest-Radford gave her fabric swatches that will be used in the dining room; a muted palette of cream, taupe, ivory, white, golden brown, chocolate brown, and dark navy.
“I told Tom if I just did those colors it would be the most boring thing in the world,” she says. “I was told I could throw in some ‘naughty’ colors,” so she’s adding a few soft yellow, orange, and red disks that will grab the eye.
The final creative piece has to do with a pegboard, a ladder, and wine.
She’s cut a pegboard to the size of the sculpture and will fill the board’s holes with 40 to 50 disks, arranging them to please her eye. Then she’ll climb the ladder for perspective.
“And probably have my poor husband move this one two-inches to the left.”
When she’s happy with the pattern, she’ll photograph the arrangement, number the back of each disk with a Sharpie (numbering the niche as well as the order in which each disk should be placed), and pack them into a box along with the photo and a paper template. She’ll repeat this exercise 17 times.
“I think that will be a lot of fun. I think adult beverages will be involved,” and probably some friends, she says.
“They need to be in London by Oct. 30 but I have every intention of being a month early in case they’re held up in customs. If they’re not in Tom’s hands then, I’m out everything.”
Szabo will sell her jewelry July 27 at Art on the Mall at the University of Toledo. To see her jewelry, check lsueszabo.com.
Contact Tahree Lane at email@example.com and 419-724-6075.