Lifestyle Sue Rioux, kaleidscope maker: ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else’

Sue Rioux, kaleidscope maker: ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else’

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Sue Rioux, 58, lives with her dog and cat above her studio in Kennebunk’s Lower Village. A native of Bangor, Rioux is a self-taught artist who has worked in all media. After high school she moved to San Diego, but came back to Maine in 1984 and opened the studio where she now creates kaleidoscopes.

While she doesn’t do commission work, she will customize what goes into the cylinder for customers. Her clients have included one of the owners of the Dallas Cowboys – she placed Cowboys items in the kaleidoscope – Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, George H.W. Bush, Stephen King, Jordan’s Queen Noir and Pierce Brosnan. Her work can also be found in museums and galleries across the country and in Japan. Rioux’s work runs from $50 to $3,000.

Q How did you get started in kaleidoscopes?

A Maine was not the place for me at the time so I moved to California. I was working with an art co-op and there was a stained glass studio there. I have never soldered or cut glass, so I decided to take a class. The teacher saw that I liked to draw and work with my hands. He hired me to start designing for him. I worked in his studio for eight years. We had commissioned work throughout Southern California and Mexico and sold pieces in galleries. I saw a kaleidoscope in one of those galleries and started playing around with making them. I moved back to Maine in 1984 and continued to work in stained glass until 1993. Since then I’ve done kaleidoscopes. My work is all over the world and I have a gallery here in my studio space in Lower Village.

Q What types of materials do you use?

A I use art glass, mostly opaque and dichroic glass. It’s a high-tech glass that was developed for NASA in the late sixties. Metal powders are put on the glass and put in a vacuum. The process makes glass that changes color with light and angles. I use a lot of it because of the effect. The dichroic glass is a couple of hundred dollars a square foot. You have to get over the fact it breaks and cracks. I can’t take pieces apart easily so if it cracks it is pretty well done. I solder, use brazing rod, wood for the bases. I have a kiln so I can form glass and create new colors by layering it.

I use front surface mirror inside the kaleidoscope. It’s purer than regular mirror. The pieces and objects I use and the lenses are on the exterior. Where I place the objects is called the cell or chamber. I use glycerin inside the chamber for objects to float in. I do use shells, marbles, crystal and other things, but I make a lot of the pieces myself.

Q How do you design and make the kaleidoscopes?

A I come up with something in my head. I don’t draw the design. I just think about it and then figure out the color and what I want to do and how I want to make it. I get my inspiration from outside. It’s often a nature theme. I was a watercolor artist before and I know how light comes through and I know how color passing over another color works. From there I figure out the colors and theme and then start to make it. I’ve been working on a frozen theme this year, the outside and cold. I am using a clear glass textured body and holographic paper inside – it sparkles – focusing on the blues of snow and the purples and pinks of the shadows I see in the snow.

I figure out the measurement, cut the glass, smooth the edges. Next it gets wrapped in copper foil, which is the metal the solder sticks to. I figure out the mirror system and the image – the angle of the mirror angle makes a difference. The mirror has to be perfectly straight, each piece the same size. Then I make the ends and put it all together. The scopes are done in stages and I don’t do just one from start to finish usually.

Q Why do you do what you do?

A I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have to be making something all the time. It’s not work for me – the only time it’s work is when I’m sitting at the computer dealing with the business side. I dream about things I make. It’s who I am. If it wasn’t kaleidoscopes it would be something else. I’ve done watercolor and sculpture. I’ve done three life-size people with kaleidoscopes in them. Two are in Japan, the other is in a private collection in New York.

Q What would you like to try next?

A I’ve done a little bit of torch work with glass – it’s called lamp working. I would love to do more. I’d also love to do blown glass. And I love clay. I’d also like to have more time to volunteer. I enjoy doing obedience training at the local animal shelter.

Faith Gillman is a staff writer with Current Publishing.

A kaleidoscope by Sue Rioux titled “Egret” was part on an exhibit in the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Courtesy photoThe turtle themed “Tortuga” kaleidoscope features brightly colored glass and sea shells. Courtesy photoSue Rioux in her gallery in Lower Village, Kennebunk. Rioux has been creating kaleidoscopes in her Maine studio for more than 20 years. Courtesy photos“Maude” is one of three life-size kaleidoscope sculptures Sue Rioux has made. Made from aluminum foil, duct tape, plaster, wire, wood and paper clay, and painted with acrylics, the piece is in a private collection in New York.

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