MARSEILLES — Susan Burton has found the place she likes to be in the world of art.
“For a long time, it was about selling art and making money,” the Marseilles artist, who works out her own inspirations rather than using patterns, says. “I got rid of that, and now I’m just into the creative process totally.”
Which ranges from a large concrete statue of the moon she and her husband, local attorney Richard Burton, are building at the entrance to their driveway, to tiny pieces of jewelry like a moonstone pendant wrapped in mini loops of brushed silver wire.
“My mom and my grandmother were very creative,” she said. “It’s kind of a natural born ability.”
Some of her ideas come from eying a scrap piece of metal for its possibilities. Copper is her favorite. She lets the piece of medal do what it wants, depending on the kind of artwork she is creating.
During the fall and winter months, when working outdoors on their 10-acre homestead can get pretty cold, she retreats to her studio and creates jewelry pieces like copper pendants with beads and tiny mementos attached.
“I always try to do something that is not in vogue, and it’s got to look very artisan to me,” she said. “I started doing wire bending after I had surgery for carpal tunnel. I spent the whole winter bending wire and got really good at it, which is very handy with everything else that I do.”
Susan has always been into art. Her major at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale was interior design, with a minor in architecture art. She also worked as the assistant to the woman who was the assistant to the art department.
“I was around art all the time,” she said.
Her latest piece is a wire and concrete statue of a calf. She has started the piece with the nose, and began building it up Monday from there. When she’s finished, the statue will be named “Lucy.”
“She’s going to live over here and stick her head through the fence,” Susan said, pointing to the location by the lawn. “I’m going to build little critters to put all over.”
She starts the process with the same wire lathe used by the construction trades. She dons gloves to prevent getting cut from the sharp edges on the wire, bends it into shape, and fastens the pieces together with little ties.
“You have to use a lot of geometry in doing these things,” she said. “Richard and I have sat here in the artist studio at midnight, figuring out the geometry — the geometric cuts to get the shape that you want because you can only bend the wire so far. It bends easier in one direction than the other. It’s the whole process, and you learn to work with it.”
A two-foot tall, partially completed lathe-and-concrete crane with outstretched wings looms over the workshop from a bench. Susan started constructing the crane feet first for the stability.
“This is rolled lathe wire,” she said of the spindly, gangly legs. “Last night, I connected the body and concreted it this far because I want to make sure the weight distributes evenly. If I went all the way up to the neck and head, it would be too heavy before it could support itself.”
The body is actually two pieces of wire lathe fastened together, waiting for their first layer of concrete.
“These are all original,” she said, pointing out the various concrete statuary reposing in the workshop. “I’m not using a pattern. Very rarely do I ever use one. I really like the freedom of creating. Sometimes I just let the material do it. It kind of talks to me.”
Richard built the artist’s workshop for his wife. The studio actually began life as a garage attached to the home he had also built. He converted it into the art studio about five years ago.
Mosaics abound in the studio and throughout the house and garden area. The pieces come alive with all the color glass inserts which make up the patterns. Susan became involved in stained glass after taking lessons several years ago, and finding it was something that had so many different ways of being used.
“I started doing mosaics because I have a lot of scrap glass left from projects,” she said. “It’s great. You can take little tiny pieces, throw them in the kiln to melt, and have a bigger piece of glass. It’s like this whole transitory medium that does all this stuff.”
Susan only creates small stained glass pieces, never anything like big stained glass windows. She noted her father-in-law, Abbott Burton of Marseilles, was into stained glass some years ago, too. He donated a choice piece of his work to the Marseilles Public Library.
Stepping through the door from the art studio into the home reveals a whole different view of Susan’s creative ability. The wallpaper in the living room she made from paper bags. Each paper bag panel is hand painted by her with a lot of her family’s handprints and momentoes.
“It’s just paint,” she said. “I never did seal it because I never got done. My niece put a footprint on one panel. I would take a piece of paper and have everyone do something, so there’s a lot of memories on this wall of friends and family and things.”
A striking piece of living room artwork is a mosaic testament to the trip the couple took to Washington, D.C., with their son and daughter to witness the first inauguration of President George W. Bush. Susan spent three months completing the mosaic. Every piece is a souvenir from that day.
“There’s my son and daughter,” she says, pointing to their pictures. “We went to the Illinois Inaugural Ball, and this is the dessert we had,” she added, pointing to another photo. “The twins are up there. These are pictures of the whole process, and of everywhere we went and what happened.”
A black-and-white panda bear represents the Washington Zoo, which is famous for its pandas. The Washington Monuments stands out against the sunset in another view. The Capitol Building is just to the left of center.
“This is the day of the inauguration, looking back from the Capitol Building,” she said. “We wanted our kids to see (the inauguration), and I think it really impacted them.”
Susan joined the Ottawa Art League about 18 months ago. She is certified to perform reikissage - a form of reiki plus massage - and also teaches mendala. This is a meditative spiritual process of going within and asking for a symbol through meditation, then drawing the symbol on paper.
“Now I’m doing a course in Oakbrook on sacred contracts,” she said. “It’s fascinating. I’m interested in a lot of esoteric kind of things. Eventually I’ll be teaching mosaic classes, but I decided to take the summer off for myself to focus on my artwork.”
Susan wants to start using more precious gems and minerals in her work, and she has “a ton” of things she wants to start using in mosaics.
“It’s a spiritual process, doing my art,” Susan sums up. “I’m 56 years old and at the point where I don’t care what people think about me. I’m the crazy lady who is doing the moon statue in her driveway.”