Monthly Archives: November 2015

Moar Mixed Media!

My recent embroidery works involve pipe cleaner and plastic wrap, plus a return to French wired ribbon.

(In the early 90s I was obsessed with French wired ribbon techniques, making Victorian roses and shirred cockades. I love its sculptural quality and moiré grosgrain texture.)mixed media embroidered insects Suzanne Forbesmixed media embroidered insects Suzanne Forbes

I wanted something that would give the wings of the fly a really unpleasant, transparent quality.

(and wow, as I typed that I had another idea- embroidering latex. Now, latex is not archival, and normally I would never use a material that is not archival. It’s part of my training to maintain a covenant with the buyer of a work that the work will endure to the very best of my knowledge. But the decay of latex, the way it dries and melts and chips and shrinks, is aesthetically fascinating and intrinsically beautiful. Artists have done a lot of work with the way latex changes over time; it can be part of the value proposition for a work. It’s a natural material, like skin. If I embroider a portrait of a face on latex !??!? It could be like Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. She said, “But Pablo, I don’t look like that”. “You will.”)

Anyway, watch this space for embroidered latex.

So I decided to embroider plastic wrap!

embroidered mixed media fly Suzanne Forbes 2015I was concerned that making hundreds of tiny holes in the plastic wrap would make it essentially perforated, since plastic lacks the warp and weft of fabric. And I wanted more texture, so I added an overlay of lacy stuff.

The lace overlay holds the plastic wrap in place, provides additional structure for the thread to catch onto, and provided a raised surface for the final touch- a little gold paint!

I rubbed gold paint on my fingertips, then brushed them over the surface of the wings.


I’m quite pleased with the results.

This little guy got a gold-leafed frame, even though I usually only gold leaf the frames for works that have more than forty hours of labor, because he is so creepy. The fly was a popular Victorian naturalist motif and apparently a symbol for humility. Also, creepy.

He is for sale for $250 to Bay Area collectors- I can bring him on my trip next week!

Learning to sculpt.

Sculpture Suzanne Forbes 2015I had sculpting classes in art school; I submitted to them ungraciously.

I considered sculpting an unnecessary detour, an obstacle to my mission of learning to draw as well as possible, as fast as possible, as soon as possible. I wasn’t comfortable with the visceral, touchy-feely quality of sculpting either; as a young artist I was rigid and frightened of anything where my success or failure couldn’t be quickly quantified.

I was especially frightened by anything abstract. In one class we used blocks of soapstone and chiseling tools, and I watched in awe as a classmate confidently set into her piece. “How do you know where to carve?” I asked her. “I just look at the natural rock, and let it tell me what forms want to emerge.” I found that terrifying. I did not want to hear about anything “emerging”. I wanted to draw the X-Men.

I wasted those opportunities, but luckily, sometimes both ars and vita are longa.

I got interested in sculpting in 2000 or so, after making a lot of fancy cakes with gold-leafed marzipan dragons and fondant-and-royal icing Fabergé eggs. I was “retired” as an artist at the time, not drawing or painting, just compulsively making things.

I was reading about customizing action figures on these clunky yahoo forums, and I heard about epoxy clay. Epoxy clay sounded great: a strong self-hardening clay that would adhere to nearly anything and hold fine detail with no shrinkage, and you could buy it at TAP in El Cerrito. I bought some, but then I got so consumed with my dollhouse build I left it in the craft cabinet for a long time.

At some point I started making things (link NSFW) for my dollhouse in polymer clay.

Polymer clay has a slightly, faintly greasy feel in the hand which I can tolerate, but don’t love, and it has other flaws. You have to bake it, and if you want to incorporate things that would melt in the oven in your sculpt, you’re screwed. The cured clay isn’t a neutral surface- you can paint it with acrylics, but only some varnishes, adhesives and primers adhere to it.

So eventually I did try the epoxy clay. It’s a two-part putty that you knead together- equal size balls of resin and hardener- which firms up gradually over an hour or so. It’s hard to the touch in a day and fully cured in a week or two. It comes in various basic colors; I started with the “natural” or grey. I found it okay to the touch, and I loved the self-hardening property, but there was a granular quality to the handling and finish I disliked. I gave my stash of it to the sculptor Aimee Baldwin, who uses it on the beaks and feet of her incredible “vegan taxidermy” birds, and moved on to other projects.

Art, like life, is made of second chances, even when it doesn’t feel that way.*

There’s always another opportunity to fall in love. And since I am a materials geek as an artist much more than a tools or techniques geek, I kept reading about resins, adhesives and clays. When I started my really just fully insane Narnia Jadis-and-her-sleigh aka Snow Queen project in 2013, I realized epoxy clay was the perfect thing to join together disparate materials. (below, first preview ever published of the reindeer and sledge!)Snow Queen miniature reindeer and sledge Suzanne Forbes 2014

The sledge is made of 3 plastic Christmas ornament sleighs, pvc ornament sleigh pieces, polystyrene sheets and strips, clear polythene sheet, crazy glue and balsa wood, all stuck together with epoxy clay, polished and sanded smooth. (And painted with Tamiya pearl and flake model car paints, another rabbit hole of materials I went down!) It’s decorated with hundreds of the very, very tiniest Swarovski crystals, some smaller than the head of a pin, and tiny, tiny flocked and glittered snowflake decals meant for nail art.

The reindeer is made of a cellulose acetate reindeer from the ’50s, legs sawed off and replaced with new sculpts, and head, body and neck heavily re-sculpted. This kind of Frankensteining is a classic action figure customizing technique; the materials and techniques for creating the miniature harness come from the model horse customizing community, and the handling of the mohair mane from the dollmaking world. I used a Japanese product called Sakura 3D Crystal Lacquer, which is used by Lolis and Harajuki girls to adhere bling to their phones, aka “decoden”, to get a clear dome over its eyes and a gloss of mucus in its nostrils. The flocking on its ears is nail artist’s flock- much cheaper than the art store!

During this process I learned the secret of working with epoxy clay: water.

Epoxy clay is exactly like natural clay in the sense that it’s water soluble; water instantly smooths and softens it. As long as you keep a cup of water (clearly labelled DO NOT DRINK) next to your work surface, all those issues with the granularity of the material disappear. The clay smoothes and holds detail exquisitely. It sticks to itself and to pretty much anything else.

Suddenly, I was in love with sculpting. It’s all about the right material.

Original bust of DIana WIP Suzanne Forbes 2015So this summer I decided to make some freehand original epoxy clay sculpts. The goat-foot candlestick is something I’m making not because I wanted to make it, but because I want to have it. It’s built on an armature of tinfoil and a glass caper jar, plus some wood rings.

The figure of Diana will be a horned, armored bust, holding a bow, attached to an iron candlestick (which I got at TK Maxx); she is built on an armature of wire and tinfoil. The idea is her horns will cast shadows as the candle flame flickers.

Original bust of DIana WIP Suzanne Forbes 2015I was wrong, in college. Sculpting is priceless to the draughtsman.

Just working on the Diana figure for a few months I’ve learned so, so much about representing the figure. So much about planes and mass and the way the figure occupies space.

Speaking of mass, the self-adhesion properties of epoxy clay come in handy as I just keep packing muscle mass onto her shoulders. Because that’s what I love to see in women. (With the [still unfinished, beautiful and evil] Snow Queen, I used a tiny fairy figure as her base, and I kept adding booty to her booty.) Seriously, I wrote a paper in college about the differences between the classically sculpted face and modern beauty standards, and yet making this piece has given me far more understanding.

The other thing about sculpting that’s wonderful for me is that it’s SLOW. For a person who draws and paints as fast as I do, making work that takes deep patience is wonderfully relaxing. There’s something heavenly about just taking my time.

Epoxy clay, though delicious to work with, also has drawbacks.

Original bust of DIana WIP Suzanne Forbes 2015It’s very, very expensive to get over here, so I use tinfoil to create as much of the bulk of the sculpt as possible. You can also sub in polymer clay for some parts of your sculpt- people on the internet say it’s perfectly safe to bake cured epoxy clay, so of course I did. But I didn’t like the contrast of the materials.

When the plumbers came to fix our sink they used epoxy clay to seal the tiles back in; I should have asked them where they get it, but they don’t speak a word of English and insist on asking their Siri to tell me everything, which drives me nuts.

And it has potential as an allergen, possibly one with a lifetime body burden tipping point.

I had that experience with black hair dye- happily gothing it for years, then one day I left it on too long, and then every time I tried from then it got worse. I gave up on black hair the day I had to pull my car over because lymph fluid was dripping from my broken scalp into my eyes. Oy, what an idiot. Not doing that again. If I start to have a reaction to epoxy clay I’ll give it up.

Meanwhile, I find doing the mixing together of the two elements with gloves on seems to reduce its adhesion to my hands while actually sculpting. Some people use barrier creams to protect their hands. I use silicon sculpting tools, because if you use metal they just become lumps of epoxy clay! During the process of these two pieces I switched from “natural” clay to “White”, which is actually still grey.

I found the white clay to be much finer textured, better for holding fine detail and not faintly translucent the way the natural clay is. You can see traces of the natural clay around Diana’s nose. With the Snow Queen, I periodically sprayed her with Krylon Fusion to get an allover finish; this let me check the symmetry and shape of the sculpt more easily, and the clay just stuck right on over it. But this is the Land of No Krylon. I may paint her with white artist’s acrylic instead, before I do more work on her. I want to get some Rio Rondo teeny tiny carbide files, too, to drill out her nostrils.

I like Apoxie Sculpt white better than Magic-Sculpt, which was the first epoxy clay I tried, although I like the Magic-Sculpt better than the natural Apoxie. Magic-Sculpt has no greasy feel at all, which I appreciate; the white Apoxie has much less than the natural. They have metallic epoxy clay now too, which I crave but can’t get on YMMV; there’s miles of debate on these materials out there. I love materials research, so I read a LOT of it, but ultimately the magic of epoxy clay, like natural clay, is that to know it you have to use it.

Sculpting with a material that hardens involves time, and handling, and learning the sweet spots in the hardening process for each technique.

Like baking bread, you just have to practise sculpting- so that’s what I’m doing. It may be a year before these pieces are done; I have time.

“Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.”

*quote from a beloved friend/muse/patron


Lover’s Eye

Lover's Eye Embroidery by Suzanne Forbes Nov. 2015Since I’m not set up for painting yet here, I have to do my painting with thread.

This work is an homage to the Georgian tradition of “lover’s eyes“, miniature paintings of the eye of the beloved that could be carried as a secret token.

Embroidering eyes takes ridic amounts of time. Both the eyes I’ve done have layers and layers of thread, many hidden from view. Since I’m an extremely process-oriented artist, I don’t mind the “wasted” labor. I think of it as a palimpsest; the secret, hidden previous versions add mystery!

The fibromyalgiac pixie dream housewife, or how art, disability and tech marry.

This is a post I’ve owed some of my readers for a long time, on a subject I’ve been mulling over for years.

How about a cold open?

“I- I’m running out of energy. I’m sorry…” my husband said.

We were in the electronics store in the mall near our Berlin apartment, trying to figure out what kind of landline phone would plug into our DSL. The staff were not so helpful. My husband was the one who knew about the weird German dsl-sockets-right-in-your-wall support phone lines, but he was too exhausted to think about it. “I don’t want to start projecting anger on you that’s really about being tired”, he said. (My husband’s pretty great, right?)

I knew he had gotten less than four hours of sleep, because of his circadian rhythm disorder, his sleep apnea and the pain of his Perthes.

And as an on-the-spectrum person, as we call it these days, being in a mall is an overwhelming burst of overstimulation for him. I said, “Of course, sweetheart. You go home and rest. I’ll find a phone on Amazon. I’ll just run some errands here and bring you dinner when I get home.” (I’m pretty great, right? Only took three marriages.)

He headed for the subway and I went off down the shopping plaza, hoping I could get a few of the ever-present dozens of things we need for a new home.

My feet hurt, my legs hurt, and my back hurt. After I had stopped at four stores, following my complex, constantly updating internal map of where which things can be had cheapest, everything else hurt too. But I was thrilled, because I’d found a heated pad for his sore hip, and the kind of laundry bins we needed for the bedroom and bathroom, way cheaper than Amazon. And a really small screwdriver to take apart this one table I got on eBay, and a great price on superglue, and a flashlight, and work gloves for one euro.

My last stop was the art supply store, where they know me now.

I took the elevator up to the first (second) floor, because my aching knee and asthma mean that stairs are a nightmare. Then after I got my supplies I took the escalator down into the U-Bahn and made my last stop. There is a noodle shop in most Berlin subway stops, but they vary widely in quality. The one by our house is not so good; the one at the mall is excellent. So I ordered ein grosse hahnchen noodlebox, which my husband has been craving lately, and asked the lady to top it with the sauce just the way he likes it.

I thought, I do a hundred little things to care for my third husband every day, and he does one enormous thing to care for me.

I do all the work of our lives, and he earns the money to support us.

It wasn’t always this way. When I left art school I was making 40k a year as a courtroom artist, and when I lived with my first husband back then I was the breadwinner; he was still in school. In St. Paul in 1993, 40k was like 175k in Oakland in 2014. But during the two years I lived with him, while I worked for DC, my depression finally began to change my body in ways it hadn’t before.

I gained weight and started to develop all the kind of inflammatory pains and problems that have plagued me ever since- drastic worsening of my asthma, back pain, chronic headaches, stomach trouble from pounding Advil. Worst of all, my lifelong sleep problems spiralled out of control. When I took my friend Victoria to the airport after our wedding, I almost jumped off the upper balcony at MSP onto the marble-floored concourse.

In the twenty years of recurrent severe depression that followed, my health gradually got fucked up. I hurt my back at a food service job, became hypothyroid, my weight yoyo-ed;  I went through endless doctors and physical therapy and tests and medications and support groups. I called the suicide hotlines night after night. One thing you can always say about me, I don’t like being sick, and I have always tried so goddam hard not to be.

But the thing is, I am sick, no matter how much I try to fight it. Just like I am an artist, no matter how much I try to fight it.

I’ve tried not being an artist; I’ve tried having a job. Twice I stayed at a single job for two entire years. The first time I only made it because the last six months, I kept a calendar in my purse. Halfway through each day, I’d draw one diagonal; at 5pm I’d complete the X.

One job made me so sick that my second husband had to drive into SF to get me because I’d collapsed outside the endocrinologist’s, too hysterical and despairing to drive home. Another mercifully laid me off when outpatient treatment was insufficient to keep me off the suicide hotlines and I’d finally gotten a circadian rhythm disorder diagnosis from the Stanford Sleep Clinic.

In the 18 years I lived in the Bay Area, I had 17 jobs- 8 food service, 7 technology and 2 admin.

I was fired four times and left in a haze of health problems and frustration on everyone’s part half a dozen times. I was on unemployment for six months twice and for a year once, and on disability for three months. This isn’t the picture of a solid earning history. I’ve never earned as much in my life again as I did at 26. Most years I was lucky to clear 20k. I fucking tried though!

Much of the time I was married to my second husband, a highly-paid tech worker, and his income supported us. He worked a mind-blowing, horrific 80 hours a week, and I ran the business of our lives. I dealt with health insurance, car repairs, groceries, buying a house, trips to the vet. My under-employment was actually the weft running through the warp of his income, creating a space in our lives where someone had time to be home for the plumber, organize the receipts for the tax preparer, pick up the prescriptions.

The crazy thing is, I began to realize there were lots of marriages like my second. Sick artist wives and highly-paid men who worked too much.

I knew more and more creative women, as the Bay Area became more and more unsustainably expensive, who just couldn’t make enough money to even make a dent in their household costs. Women who had attracted their tech worker husbands when they were vital and healthy, creative and exuberant. Who had gradually been beaten down by their inability to earn any money at the work they were good at, been stressed by endless low-paying odd jobs, and eventually become crippled with health problems. Beautiful, gifted women who basically retired and became housewives, because someone has to do the work of managing life for two people.

The Devil’s bargain of high-paying tech work meant that the husbands (and I say husbands because I first saw this in digital effects, where there were just really practically no women) worked inhuman hours to provide income for two people. Plus, they were providing health insurance for two people- with my pre-existing conditions, I was uninsurable and dependant on my husband keeping a job with group coverage.

One person had time, both people had just enough money, and neither got to enjoy each other’s company.

As the wives got sicker, they spent more and more time and energy dealing with the healthcare system. Many of us seemed to have invisible illnesses- depression, chronic fatigue, fibro. Luxury, middle-class illnesses that didn’t require surgery and didn’t earn any sympathy. Our unemployability grew by leaps and bounds.

So how do people stay married, in a situation where a partner who has powerful creative drive spends most of her time administering a lifestyle that ameliorates the stresses of the spouse who has to work impossible hours? I didn’t; I was a miserable fucking bitch and my husband swallowed it until he became a crazy person with resentment and then left me.

I’d invested seven years of my thirties mostly doing whatever work would bring in a bit of money to help the household, and in the process had become more and more ill.

I was left flat-footed when I was hit by the divorce truck, and literally the only reason I did not die was my mom and my friends, who sustained me and protected me and cared for me. I came out of the divorce so badly- community property isn’t so great when your house is underwater- my therapist cried and my lawyer waived half her fees.

The really crazy thing is, I married another tech worker.

Why would I do such a thing? Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. I did it because I met someone, when I was working at a cafe for $10 an hour and living in a friend’s basement in West Oakland, who I could negotiate and build a partnership with.

I met a fellow traveller, a white cis man who had experienced huge divots in the lawn of privilege, thanks to a lifelong sleep disorder, crippling health issues and the same struggles with employability and functionality I had. I met an awkward Aspie guy who wanted to have a transparent relationship where we would be ourselves, craziness, devastating weakness and all. It helped that I spent the last year of my second marriage reading every book on marriage ever written and beginning to practise a sacred vow of trying not to be a fucking bitch.

It helps that my third husband is as sick as I am, and as invisibly sick.

He understands looking ok and not being ok. He understands weakness, and he doesn’t judge me for getting up at three in the afternoon.

I finally found a medication that put my depression into long-term remission three years ago, and my health pretty much immediately collapsed. Dumb stuff, like Benign Positional Vertigo, anemia and bloodspouts from fibroids, hypothyroid issues. Painless, luxury illnesses; I felt like a Victorian lady, faint and needing to rest. And chronic fatigue, compared to being depressed- well, it’s like you were being dragged behind a truck on a gravel road, and now you’re just being dragged on the regular paved road, and it seems not bad at all. I worked 20 hours a week for two years of it; I only gave up and went on disability when I couldn’t drive to work because of the BPD.

But my husband completely supported my choice to work part-time rather than full-time, and our transparent, transactional clarity around the value each of us brings to the household made all the difference.

Long before we got married I felt married. I felt married the night I called him crying hysterically from my startup job because my sleep problems were making me insane. He said, “We’ll get through it.” And I understood that my problems were his problems, and his problems were mine. I married his health challenges, and the future of health challenges we’re partners in managing. He married my work, and my sense of purpose as an artist, because he believes in the value of giving me time to make my work.

Although he came to the marriage with a much higher earning capacity than mine, I didn’t want a lifetime of bearing that responsibility ahead of him.

So early on we began to talk about a future where we could do things differently, a strategy for creating a safety net that would hold our health problems and possible earning challenges. It was clear, based on many marriages I’d seen, that the tech worker/sick artist marriage could work in SF. When the sick creative partner wanted kids and had them, for example, nobody seemed to judge them for “not working”. But it wasn’t going to work for us, with a sick tech worker and a sick artist.

We needed a social welfare state, and we settled on Berlin. Here the universal health care cost is tied to your income, and includes long-term care.

We made a plan to get here, a year-long process, and part of it was agreeing that I wouldn’t work at all that year after my disability ended. I managed the insane boatload of logistics while he worked. We nearly foundered at the end, because he got so sick from work stress he had to go on disability too, but I managed the hell out of that, getting state disability payments arranged, driving him to the doctor, getting him to DBT class every week.

Our loved ones saw what we were doing, trying to get ourselves to a place where we could live sustainably. And they made it happen for us.

In the terrible, crazy weeks before our wedding, when my guy was so sick I despaired, our friends and family made sure we had the resources to keep working on our escape plan. We were sustained by the care and support they gave us, and somehow we kept it together and got on the plane. It’s taken seven months, incalculable amounts of paperwork, and two companies, but Monday my husband got an employee visa. Tuesday I filled out the applications for health insurance, and yesterday he got the welcome letter from the insurance company.

It’ll take a little longer for my coverage (which is free!! as a dependant); they want proof of my low earning capacity! But we’re on the way. Ultimately I hope to get on the KSK anyway, an amazing program whereby if you are an artist, the government pays the half of your health insurance that an employer would normally pay. We are looking forward to getting our Darth Vader apnea masks with a weird, delighted glee, and I simply can’t wait to get rolling on his hip replacement, which could improve his quality of life enormously.

Recently, I read a couple of articles that said one key to marriage longevity is really simple. It’s saying “thank you”.

We are in good shape, because we thank each other constantly. He thanks me for rubbing his sore legs, for bringing him dinner, for doing this and that and the other little thing. I thank him for the enormous thing, for getting up and going to work so we can have health insurance, and giving me a life where I can make art. It’s the best we could do for each other with the tools each of us has, and it works because we agreed to it. It seems pretty damn good these days.