Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
Last Fall, a Patron gifted me a collection of vintage embroidery hoops, including some that were very old. One had a type of closure I’d never seen before. Instead of the usual screw to ratchet the outer hoop looser, you press down on the brass bar. This opens the hoop at the dovetailed joint. Fascinating, right?
It reminded me of the kind of old brass bar taps you see in an ancient Berlin gay bar, when you’re sitting at the bar drawing.
My plan is to gift it to a Berlin bear bar!
The boots are made of gold leather salvaged from a pair of gold booty shorts left behind by Miss Natasha Enquist when she left Berlin.
Always be makin’! Here’s me and Suzanne Wegh sitting in the air-conditioned library before we began our day of embroidering, sewing and drawing. It was 101 degrees in Berlin today!
A friend recently said we should refer to ourselves as “TwoZanne” when working like this. Awesome, right???
In 2001 I used to sit at my desk at ESC, the visual effects company where I worked on the Matrix sequels, and read about “orange peel” and paint rub.
Painting plastic has evolved over the years, but it’s still unpredictable. And moving from the US to Germany meant everything I’d learned about Krylon and Rustoleum had to be thrown out the window and relearned with Dupli-Color. Dupli-Color, founded in the US but now the ubiquitous hardware store spraypaint of Europe, has several different formulations for priming and painting plastic.
For the last four years I’ve been trying to learn all their tricks; I talk a lot about techniques I used for my last bas-relief insect project here. So when I wanted to make a seat for our hallway, I felt pretty confident.
Because we don’t have cell phones, but we do have a landline, we needed a little seat for the telephone in the hall.
We’re always dragging a chair in from the library when we need to call a doctor or something. I had the idea of buying a simple boudoir stool on Amazon and decorating it to fit the hall, which is perhaps the creepiest part of our whole creepy house. I ordered it and it arrived. I removed the seat, which I planned to re-cover, and wiped the whole stool down with cleaning wipes, then damp paper towels. I used the glue gun to adhere a bunch of plastic bugs and resin flowers around the existing bas-relief floral decorative elements. I had previously washed the bugs and primed them with Dupli-Color clear primer for plastic.
Then I used epoxy clay to really blend the new elements onto the base. Thinking I could expedite things (epoxy clay is a beautiful material for conjoining disparate materials, but expensive and slow) I also used some regular tube spackle for some of the big gaps. To smooth and unify all the surfaces, I painted many areas with Mr Surfacer500, a Japanese gap filler/primer product for model builders. Its grey surface is supposed to function as a primer, so I wasn’t worried about it not adhering or not accepting paint. Then I sprayed the areas with the bugs again, with the Dupli-Color primer. Here’s the original stool out on the balcony at that stage, last July.
Then I spraypainted the whole thing. WOOOOOO what a mess.
Yeah that did not work. There was some kind of reaction between the painted cast resin decorative elements of the stool and the plastic primer, or between the Mr Surfacer500 and the spackle. Tiny bubbles appeared all over the work I’d done, the areas where I’d filled crevices around the bugs to make them look carved from the surface.
Plus, the paint on the original resin elements had become tacky, which means disaster for a mixed-media work. It means there is a reaction preventing the curing of the paint, and that area will never harden and will attract dust for all time. Possibly a reaction between overspray of the Dupli-Color clear plastic primer, which is a chemical scuff, and the paint used on the resin elements.
My project was fucked. I took the picture above to show the chunky, unevenly cured surface, but you can’t see all the damn bubbles!
So I decided I’d remove the paint and re-prime the entire thing.
Guess what, I had primed the bugs and new flowers so effectively that the paint was virtually inseparable from them. And the original curliques and flowers just got gunkier with every solvent I tried. In the end I was trying orange oil and baking powder, which will take off damn near anything, and scraping sections with a dental probe, because I just hated the idea that this was a thing that had to be thrown away.
I could not get a clean surface. I could not get the paint off. I did salvage and scour one centipede, because plastic centipedes with a flat underside are hard to find. Here it is soaking in olive oil to remove the last of the paint.
Luckily, I got a new dollhouse which took my mind off the maddening primer/solvent/paint mess, and eventually I brought myself to throw the bug stool base out. Because it had so many different materials on it, it couldn’t go in any of our German recycling bins. It bothered me.
But it bothered me even more that we were still dragging a chair into the hall to use the phone!
So I decided to try again. I ordered the same stool, and set to work. But this time I tried a new approach, from a new action figure customizing blog. A bunch of incredible tutorials had gone up in December on a site called Action Figure Art. One of them suggesting sealing acrylic paint with Mod Podge! I was ready to try this new approach.
I had used Mod Podge as a primer for a plastic toy exactly once, back in about 2002, to prime a little cat figure for the top of a wedding cake I was making. But I’ve used it for various other projects over the years, mostly for decoupage. It is popular for furniture as a glue, primer, sealer and finish, and comes in different formulas. I ordered the matte finish for the bug seat, because I wanted to paint on top of it with acrylic paints.
Of course I did the usual prep of washing the bugs with hot water and soap, and I used the glue gun to attach them again. I took my time filling in around and under the bugs with Apoxie Sculpt.
This second attempt was during my Make-Cation, so I had plenty of time.
Here you can see the stool in progress along with some other projects, including the Baroque Bug Frame, which I used the same technique for. Pictures of the frame finished here!
Mod Podge is a like a rubbery plastic coat you are sealing everything under, a form of isolation coat. That’s why it prevents chemical reactions between plastics and paints. Because it’s thick, it also does some gap filling and overall smoothing. I used about five coats over the panels with the bugs. Then I spraypainted the whole thing, with Dupli-Color Next in Berlin Berry.
Dupli-Color Next is a “universal” spraypaint, one of the new class of acrylic lacquer spray formulas that’s supposed to go on almost anything without primer.
A similar product is Krylon ColorMaxx. I have found Next to be inconsistent in finish – some areas dry shiny, some matte – but it’s easy to use, with flexible recoating time and low-odor/toxicity. Since I was planning to put a gloss acrylic sealer coat over everything, I didn’t care about the problems with inconsistent finish. It took about two cans total to really cover the whole stool, which is a good example of how spraypaint is actually an inefficient and expensive way to paint things! However, the paint adhered to the Mod Podge finish really nicely.
Then I started painting on the details.
Because Next spray is acrylic lacquer, not enamel, I could paint on top of it with regular artists’ tube acrylics. I did layers of black wash, then dry-brushing highlights, then lowlight passes. In between the accent paint layers, I added additional layers of Mod Podge. This ensured each batch of highlights was sealed under a protective coat. If I went too heavy with a highlight, I could wipe it off without disturbing the black wash underneath. I can’t even tell you how many layers of this I did – gotta be at least ten. Each Mod Podge layer helped the bas-relief, carved-on effect.
I also did some sponge-painting effects and scumbling on the panels themselves, to give a nice Impressionist quality. You know how those Impressionists loved cockroaches.
At the very end I used an acrylic-based (rather than solvent-based) gold marker to add a few more highlights. Cause I’m so subtle. Then I let it all cure for a couple days. I had also spraypainted the legs of the stool, with the Berlin Berry, and let them cure too.
Then it was time to spray the fuck out of it with Gloss Acrylic Sealer Coat!
The outrageously comprehensive Mod Podge craft site Mod Podge Rocksrepeatedly states that to truly get a hard, non-tacky finish on your Mod Podge project, you need to seal it. That seems pretty shady, since Mod Podge itself is supposed to be a sealer, but I wasn’t taking any chances at this point. Acrylic sealer it was, and four coats!
Finally, I attached the recovered seat with the incredible velvet death’s-head moth fabric.
Wow that fabric was a close call. It’s actually a cut-up dress from a goth clothes company called Killstar.
I ordered the largest size they had praying it would cover the seat without a seam, and it just barely did. Killstar have a lot of custom fabrics made and I knew I would never, ever find this fabric anywhere else. It was a hard call to buy a brand-new dress, for forty euros (of course I used a coupon, you know me!), and immediately cut it up. But I knew that the pleasure of seeing the fabric on the stool, day in and day out, would be far greater than having a dress in the closet.
The velvet-and-gilt purple upholstery braid I ordered from the UK covers the places the fabric doesn’t quite stretch!
It was my beloved Friend-Muse-Patron Monique Motil who came up with the idea of “Make-Cation”.
Monique has always been my inspiration for mixed media and assemblage art, and I learned so much about how to trust my creative impulses around materials watching her work evolve over the years. I did my first Make-Cation in Fall 2017, and for eight days in March I did it again! It was a glorious time of renewal, full of energizing fiddling, fooling, fussing and gluing! Nothing makes me happy like taking a hacksaw to a plastic toyl!
It may surprise some people but drawing and painting isn’t “fun” for me. It’s hard work where I put my whole identity on the line every time and demand the best I can possibly do from myself. Like going to the gym, it feels great in the sense of being healthy, rewarding and good for me.
Plus there is a huge added bonus in that it gives happiness to the people I document and helps to share their stories with the world. So it is deeply meaningful and feels like service, which I love.
However it’s hard work, and I do it pretty much all the time, so I took a week to do the art that feels like play – making stuff!
Touching and handling beautiful materials like velvet leaves, gold wire and garnet beads makes me feel nourished and exhilarated.
I started on Day One with these cheap pot metal crowns and the heaps of metal leaf charms and stampings I’ve had for years.
I used beads and pearls and resin and glass leaves too, and sewed everything in with different weights of gold wire, then secured it with blobs of E6000.
I learned about using wire to secure decorative elements when I did a Halloween party with the help of a guy who had run commercial haunted houses, in 2001. He said anytime you want something to stay put, wire it in.
I figure people can wear the crowns whenever we finally have our Summer Solstice party.
Then I gave some bugs a bath.
One thing I have learned from action figure customizing folks and Burning Man art folks is that assemblage art lives or dies by its adhesives and primer coat.
The plastic bugs got a nice soak in very hot soapy water to remove any traces of mold release so they would accept paint and glue better.
Once they were completely dry I went bug crazy with the glue gun. I had been wanting to make a gothic rococo gilt frame with horrible insects for many years.
I recently found a €3,99 plastic frame at our local Woolworth’s (we still have those here!) to use as a base. I washed the frame in hot soapy water too, to remove any oils or dirt, and then attached the bugs and some resin flowers with the glue gun.
Once the glue was cooled and set I used my precious Apoxie-Sculpt to unite the bugs with the frame, smoothing their edges into the surface so they look more carved or bas-relief. (You can read more about this here.)
Then I coated the whole thing with Mod Podge, which I’ll explain in the next Make-Cation post, and then I spray-painted it gold! Few things are as gratifying as gold spray paint.
I also cut some pieces of cardstock to fit some of the gaps in the frame, because I needed to reduce the visual detail after adding the bugs – I wanted to it read clearly from a distance. To help that, I also sprayed it from below with a light mist of black spray paint.
I am so pleased with how it came out. Look how nicely the plastic spider sits at the top! I made a little decoupage piece to go in it using die-cut butterflies and some Dresden trim moons I got at Castle In the Air like 20 years ago.
I Mod-Podged them right onto the black cardboard that was the backing of the frame, because I am a deeply lazy person.
I also made some Cernunnos crowns, because you never know when you’ll need those.
I used “reindeer horns” I got on eBay and headbands from Woolworth’s for these, plus some velvet flowers and leaves and stuff that I had hoarded, some from like 1995.
I love how they came out, it is just so satisfying to use up these beautiful old materials and make them into actual things.
Of course I barely made a dent in my supply hoard, but there is world enough, and time, for more creepy assemblage art.
I made two other things, a completely insane little seat for our hallway, and a little fascinator hat, and I will post those soon!
So much love to my Patrons, who support my creating and making, and made this precious window of creative play possible <3 You can see more of my multi-disciplinary mixed media projects here.
I made this doll as a sort of summoning spell/eidolon/telepresence device for my friend Eliza Gauger.
Eliza lived in Berlin at one time, and may return someday. The idea is that the doll holds a space for her here, whenever she’s ready to return, and when she does arrive she can have it as a gift. Until then, it will sit on my shelf with my Alien figures from a beloved friend/muse/Patron and cards from friends.
Eliza is, of course, the artist/creator of the Problem Glyphs open source art project and book. Which is a healing spell of love and sacrifice, a work of sustaining power.
Eliza was also one of the people who sent us money when we were desperate, the first couple months in Berlin, cause Dan couldn’t work and we had to pay cash for my meds.
And Eliza had a hard year, this year. You can support her work on Patreon and download open source Problem Glyph art here, buy your own copy of the Problem Glyphs coffee table book here, buy Problem Glyph t-shirts here, request a sigil for your own problem here, buy original art and prints here, and follow her shitposts on twitter here.
I started the doll months ago, when I noticed one of the porcelain fairy heads I bought at a craft store in St. Paul, Minnesota in the early 90s reminded me of Eliza. At the same time, in the doll parts drawer, my gaze fell on a little leather jacket. It was from a Living Dead Doll I bought in the early Oughts, which I had cut up and redressed for some other project. The vision of the Eliza Reserved Parking doll came together in minutes, scrabbling through the drawer.
But – there were no arms in the doll drawer! Just a grubby baggy of taxidermy weasel feet.
Video of this disappointing moment on my IG video here. I found the fairy mint-colored ones, from a Monster High body sold withouten any head, online. The arms have ball joints and pegs, which I inserted into shoulder pieces of epoxy clay, thus meaning the doll has some posability.
Their body (the doll is definitely non-binary) is made with the traditional batting-stuffed cotton body, and their legs are porcelain ballerina legs that I made stockings for and gave boots from a totally different Monster High doll. I used grey nail flocking, just like the flock I used on the White Witch’s reindeer’s ears, to give the doll’s head some pale, glinting texture.
During the time I was making the doll, Eliza got a dog.
A gallumphing nightmare beast of a lolloping moor-rambler, with glowing eyes and black fur. Luckily, while searching through a box of action figure bases for Sentinel parts for my upcoming Danger Room project (which will go under the School for Gifted Youngsters), I found a nice black wolf. Maybe he came with a Wolverine figure? Idk.
Anyway I had exactly enough left of the deep purple glove leather trim I got from an LA handbag manufacturer on etsy back in 2005 to make the terror goggie a harness. And while I used silver Sharpie and a bit of drybrushed gray acrylic to reduce the albedo of the micro-rhinestuds on the doll’s jacket, I left the ones I glued on the dog’s eyes alone. Hence, the glittering.
So here it is, “Parking Space Reserved for 3Liza”, a work which will hold a space of love and protection here until such time as Eliza collects it.
This project took an entire year! About 200 hours of work! Dang!
I started this beaded corset project last fall when I got a great price on a used lilac 426 Standard mesh corset by Orchard Corset. It was always my intention to have it finished for the Motzstr. Festival, a special Pride event in Berlin in July.
Last summer, while writing this post, I realized I’d developed a lot of internal biphobia over the last thirty years.
As a person who has been married to three men and who has almost only dated men in sobriety, I felt like a “retired” queer person. I stopped thinking of myself as bisexual.
And as a “retired” queer person, I felt so much safer.
It’s terrible to know that, to realize I took some comfort in the reduction of my vulnerability that living a straight life meant. Because I never for a minute stopped being aware of the consequences and dangers of living an out gay life.
I knew I couldn’t blame my cowardice on my upbringing. When I was fifteen and my mom opened the door to my bedroom to see me and my friend Jenny in bed naked, she asked if we wanted to go out for brunch. She accepted my girlfriend Pam into our home for years without question.
And I am no fan of my father, but he took me to Stonewall and told me what happened there before I was ten.
So my change in identity wasn’t about shame, it was about fear.
I felt guilty about living in the Bay Area as what appeared to be a straight person. I felt guilty about the privilege that accorded me. But it seemed like compared to the people around me, I was functionally straight. When you regularly attend sex parties where you draw a trans man fucking a trans woman while she gives oral sex to a nonbinary person, being a married cis-femme seems really conventional.
Plus, as a portrait painter who often asks women I’ve just met to come to my home and pose for me, I felt less creepy identifying as cis-straight-married!
Then I moved to Berlin.
Living in Berlin has connected me to my youth and my New York identity in so many profound ways.
There was a jump-cut that happened when I left New York at 22, in 1989, to go to treatment.
I moved to St. Paul, where the halfway house was, for six years, and then to Hartford, then to DC, then to the Bay Area.
In all those places I drove a car everywhere, lived in wooden houses, people were polite in the stores… It was like a different world.
I had all these adventures in this different world, and then in 2015, I got on the subway and went home.
Or so it feels. To live in a big apartment building, take the subway everywhere, walk the city streets at 3 am, eat a slice of pizza in a doorway just out of the rain, be yelled at by a shopkeeper – this reconnects me to my fundamental self.
And of course, even though married and cis, my fundamental self is queer as fuck.
So over this year, over 200 hours, I made this corset, beading and sewing and hotfixing crystals. I will wear it with Pride at Folsom Europe next month, and I’ll get some pictures of me in it!
I looove pink. I decided to try something new, framing the piece under glass in a shadowbox. I got the shadowbox a while back and silver-leafed it at the same time as I was leafing the hoop for the last insect embroidery piece. Efficiency!
This God-Empress of West Berlin is sewn on a crushed panné velvet sock cut open. I get them on eBay for a euro, it’s so much cheaper than buying velvet yardage.
I used some vintage metallic pink trim for her layers of torso fur, and fine ombre silk embroidery thread and regular sewing thread for her ruff. I wanted to suggest its fluff without actually using a fluffy substance.
I did as much beading as the hoop allowed, then glazed the back with my favorite glue for fabrics so it wouldn’t buckle when I took it out of the hoop.
I glued the whole piece down onto the shadowbox backing. The velvet sock didn’t quite cover the backing – it had contracted from the heavy stitching, or I was sloppy when I checked the fit.
So I added some machine-embroidered floral applique bits I had around, already partly cut up. I’m actually delighted with the way the piece looks in the frame and may start framing them on the regular. The only other bug embroidery under glass so far is this one.
Sometimes I just have to lean into my femme-ness and go full pink!
Some new decorative art projects for this month. I finally made a bug box with labels!
Rather than look for a vintage typewriter font I dabbed the inkjet printed paper in patches with water to smear some letters and rubbed it with a bit of pastel for quick aging. For the curious, I use tinfoil molded into squarish shapes around the pinbacks of the jewelled bug brooches.
This allows me to glue them onto the backing securely and keep them straight. Then I just paint the glue and foil a matching color.
I buy the brooches on eBay with the simple rule: no more than 2 euros including shipping. It means I bid on a lot of auctions, but it’s not like there’s a rush!
These machine-embroidered bugs are from EmbroideryMoks, a wonderful, ingenious etsy/eBay seller in Ukraine.
The artisan who runs it, Julia Yevzhenko, is brilliant. She has come up with some really clever ways to use her embroidery machine. I tacked these bugs down to the felt with flexible glue, then put the felt in an embroidery hoop and used black, gold and metallic threads to add details and make the edges crisp. Of course I also had to add some beading!
I’m kind of like a drag queen in that my first question is always, “How would this look with MORE?”
I made these beaded insect shoe clips with two bug brooches wired to triangles of soft aluminium sculpture mesh lined with felt.
I probably over-engineered the fucking hell out of them, since it’s not like I’m a burlesque performer and I don’t plan to go jogging in these shoes. But entropy makes me furious and I like construction to be robust.
Once again I demonstrate my commitment to the creative protocol of buying cheap stuff and making it weird.
I was pretty limited in what I could do creatively after my drawing hand was injured in a bus accident this June.
Because I grip the pencil tightly and draw very fast and with a lot of force, I have been cautious about beginning to use my hand again. One thing I could start to do after the first two weeks was embroidery.
Embroidery puts very little pressure on my injured hand.
I had some new thread I wanted to try, too. I got this set of multiple metallic threads at Tiger for like two euros!
I love cheap art supplies.These are not precisely metallic embroidery thread (which is a known shitshow) but more like a superthin metallic polymer strand lined with a nylon thread.
It is very fine and fairly subtle in effect, but it doesn’t snag on every draw-through like traditional metallic threads.
I ran it over the finished satin stitch to add iridescence. I always think of the new Bay Bridge when I do that!
As I often do on textured fabric like velvet, I ran a single embroidery stitch in doubled plain black sewing thread around it to help it look cleaner.
And of course I added some beading! My hand control was somewhat impaired for most of this piece, and I wasn’t able to stitch with normal precision. It was humbling, and yet satisfying to be able to do something, make something. I am happy with the result, and so grateful my hand wasn’t more seriously injured.
Textile art is SLOW ART. I love that about it, because I draw and paint so fast. However, I have been so busy the last few months I haven’t had the deep time it takes to finish new embroidered pieces.
So I did the mystic eye piece you see above just to keep my hand in, using a rhinestone applique and surrounding it with a variegated fine rayon thread aura and some swarovski crystal beading.
Then at the beginning of this month I dug in and made sixteen hours’ time for this Lunar Moth in sparkly blues.
I cut up a digital galaxy print shirt for the backing and added a layer of my favorite galaxy print sparkle tulle. Tulle over stretch fabrics is such a great way to create a stable,precise surface.
I often, as I did here, embroider the outline of the design on the bottom fabric first. This creates a little extra depth between the base and the tulle.
I added crystal and pearl beading at the end, and some swarovski crystals and dark blue sequins.
Grey mohair for the fur was very last thing, as I am allergic to it and it makes me sneeze like crazy!
The eyes of this moth are antique mother-of-pearl buttons from the incredible vintage button lady’s booth at the Markt am Winterfeldplatz. I love embroidery so much, and hope to make some more time for it this summer.
Textile art, and embroidery in particular, is the most soothing kind of creative work for me.
The Lunar Moth was the largest piece I’ve done in ages, I’ve only used a hoop this big once or twice before. Here you can see it hanging with some similarly colored pieces from before we left the States, made in 2014.