City Creatives: Original Torpedo Factory artist, Susan Sanders, still creating custom jewelry

City Creatives: Original Torpedo Factory artist, Susan Sanders, still creating custom jewelry
Susan Sanders with her geometric shape-inspired jewelry. (Photo/Kaitlin Murphy)

By Kaitlin Murphy

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a must-visit landmark in Old Town and has been for 50 years. Located in a former munitions factory on the waterfront just north of King Street, a community of artists work there in open studio spaces where the public can visit with the artists, watch them at work and purchase their creations.

Artist Susan Sanders established her studio, Susan Sanders Design, at the Torpedo Factory at its inception in 1974, and since then has designed and created there.

Sanders is a jewelry maker in studio 206. Her work space is open and bright, inviting visitors to watch her process in action. Her finished pieces are displayed in cases and her works in progress are on the counter. While she has had another studio space in the building, Sanders has been welcoming visitors to this same studio space since 1994.

With neighboring artists and visitors constantly in and around the studios, plenty of new ideas are exchanged, which helps boost creativity.

Colorful painted pieces on display n Susan Sanders’ studio. (Photo/Kaitlin Murphy)

“I like to be attentive, and interacting with visitors is very enjoyable,” Sanders said. “We can discuss my work and techniques and through others’ questions, I sometimes learn new things from them. This exchange of information leads to very interesting ideas.”

Sanders said there’s no set pattern to her creative process.

“My design process starts when inspiration hits and can be at any time. I try to keep ideas as original as they can be while trying not to be influenced too heavily by other works,” Sanders said. “I like certain types of art and through a bit of osmosis I can gain indirect inspiration. For example, I am a big fan of Russian 20th-century constructivist art.”

This style of art includes overlapping geometric shapes which can be seen in most collections of Sanders’ jewelry, especially her earrings.

“Since art is such an iterative process, one idea leads to another which ultimately leads to a series. Especially when creating earrings with all different shapes, each arrangement demands specific colors and variety. Creating this range of choices reaches a larger audience and different tastes,” she said.

Much of Sanders’ design studio houses a large selection of jewelry from brightly painted earrings to a more muted palette of natural materials found in cut stone pieces. Her ongoing exploration of different materials and combinations of shapes and colors is rooted in her childhood.

“My father was an artist himself – a graphic designer – so I grew up with art. I have designed and created things ever since I was a little kid,” Sanders recalled. “Fortunately, I was encouraged to be an artist and never considered doing anything else.”

Knowing that she wanted to further her studies to prepare her for an art career, Sanders attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I started my studies in architecture working with small models. I realized through the model-making process that I wanted to work in a medium with the scale of objects that you can hold in your hands,” Sanders said. “Industrial design studies allowed for this exploration and I graduated with a solid foundation and training in product design.”

After graduation, Susan returned to the area and took a job in Washington, D.C. It was a bit after that her mother encouraged her to consider going to the new studio spaces for artists in Old Town at the Torpedo Factory.

“My mother read an article in the newspaper about the Torpedo Factory and the new studio spaces and suggested I check it out,” Susan recalled. “Ever since starting here, I have been in business for myself.”

Jewelry was the foundation for her business and the art exhibited in her studio highlights the many versions of her work over her Torpedo Factory tenure.

“Having started in silver and gold jewelry such as wedding bands, I was curious about new materials and was interested in stone cutting. I went to Colorado for training, and learned lots of techniques including metal anodizing and fiber work,” Sanders said.

She continued creating original pieces and, evolving with the times, has applied new technologies and techniques to her work. Over the years, she has added specialized machines to the studio for polishing jewelry and cutting stone. Inspired by 3D printed works she saw at a craft show, Sanders also added these new tools to her process.

“The use of technology of the computer and 3D printers opens up so many new possibilities. The idea to make a rapid prototype allows for a more precise design. From high technology to tiny paint brushes, I can see my design through completion,” Sanders said.

The process she is using today melds both past and present techniques.

“I am currently producing jewelry using computer-aided design and commercial 3D printers. Making changes in materials and applications periodically over the years helps realize fresh ideas. Especially with 3D printing, I can make bolder statement pieces and I like working in color,” Sanders said. “I used to do all of my jewelry as custom work, and now the painting is the customized part of the process.”

During the final production phase, Sanders does the painting work in the studio. This part of the process takes a while as the paint is applied carefully in layers. The paint defines the shapes of the jewelry and analog tools such as tiny paint brushes get into very small areas for a crisp and colorful final product.

Sanders said visitors enjoy the variety of the jewelry she makes, and she’s willing to work with customers to create custom pieces.

“Some of my repeat customers will visit me in the studio, go on my website or call me up to see what is new. One of my best customers lives in California. We met only one time in person but she has been a repeat customer for years. Now she calls me and we figure out together what she wants and I can design for her.”

Sanders used to travel and do art shows, but she is leveraging her website and her studio more to reach and interact with a broader audience.

“Visitors online and in person come to the Torpedo Factory from all over and I can deliver pieces to them,” she said.

Another foundational element important to her continued success is being located in the Torpedo Factory.

“There are a lot of interesting artists and studios here that command such a big draw of locals and tourists alike,” Sanders said. “The Torpedo Factory is an open space where artists can show their work and bounce ideas off others, which is the nicest part of being in this community.”