Susan Forbes found her calling in a mirror, a vintage hand-held looking glass studded with sparkling jewelry, transformed from trash to treasure. After that chance encounter four years ago in an antique store, Forbes said, she told herself, “I have to have one.”
And her hunt began.
She wanted to create her own, so for months she scoured antique stores near her South Shore home in Brightwaters for old vanity mirrors. “I did every antique store, every garage sale,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it — I could not find one.”
Discouraged but persistent, she had no luck for six months, she said, then, “An antique dealer in town told me, ‘I have a whole box full.’ ” It took six more months before they materialized. “I got 23 mirrors for $500,” Forbes recalled. To jump-start her project, she also bargained for a box of dated jewelry from the dealer.
She wanted to make something enchanting, but her first few attempts — in her opinion — were flops. Three years later, after shelling out more than $10,000 for materials and immersing herself for hundreds of hours crafting designs, Forbes has resurrected more than 100 mirrors — some older than her 88 years — into one-of-a-kind pieces that fill her home.
Last month, this long-ago telephone operator supervisor, who never considered herself an artist, had her first exhibition at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Library.
Jewelry is her paint. The mirrors, her canvas.
Betty McGovern, 62, Forbes’ friend from North Babylon who helped install the library display, said the mirrors drew admirers before the exhibit was finished. “People stopped and looked and said, ‘Are these for sale?’ Even younger people were looking at it,” McGovern said.
Dale Bliex, the library’s senior clerk in charge of community services, determines what to exhibit. “They’re quite unique,” she said of the 75 bejeweled mirrors from Forbes’ collection that were in the show. “A lot of people have come in and each have their favorites,” she said. “The design she uses incorporates antique and costume jewelry to create a beautiful visual effect . . . . We’ve gotten many, many wonderful comments . . . and a few inquire as to whether they’re for sale.”
They are not.
Based on what she’s been told by others who have tried to sell the same genre of mirrors, buyers aren’t willing to pay what her pieces are worth, Forbes said, which could be hundreds of dollars. “It would hurt my pride to sell them for less than I paid for them. I’m not on Poverty Row yet,” she said.
Moderation not her style
Forbes has been a widow for 10 years, but she believes her late husband, George, a retired middle school principal, would have approved of her dogged explorations for jewelry, classic mirrors, and all of the hours it takes to turn them into art. “I do have a tendency to not use the word ‘moderation’ too much,” Forbes said.
For five years, she ran tag sales, she said, so she knows merchandise and is particular about finding the brooch, earring, necklace or bracelet that will complete a project. “One mirror can take months until I find the perfect jewelry to put on it,” she explained. “I just get a kick out of it and I keep getting better at it, and now, I’m doing it all by myself.”
By that she means she no longer needs a handyman to remove and replace the tarnished mirrors in the frames made of metal, ivory, wood or celluloid. In her garage, she dons safety goggles while grinding dollar-store mirrors to fit, then glues them in place — a primary step in elevating her finds to collectibles.
The progression of her skills have impressed her family. “We are deeply proud of my mother’s work,” said her son, Glen Forbes, 58, of Elmhurst, Illinois. “She has really developed a new art form and her attention to design, detail and presentation is meticulous and, frankly, stunning. What is really amazing is that she has been developing this art for less than five years. It is evident that we are never too old to grow, learn and excel,” he said. “We were touched, but not surprised, at the accolades she received from her library exhibit. It was a stunning display that we had the opportunity to view as she shared the history of each unique piece.”
Forbes is now a master at dismantling jewelry, using small wire cutters, pliers and snips to isolate the parts she needs, and she still keeps an eye out for baubles that will enhance her work. “I go to all the tag sales, all the estate sales and moving sales,” Forbes said. “I pick it all up. It’s pricey — I’ve dropped $100 many times.”
Regardless of their value, Forbes said she has never thought of wearing them. One day, a next-door neighbor dropped in and was dismayed when she saw necklaces and bracelets in fragments. “I wanted jewelry” for the mirrors, Forbes said. “I didn’t care what it cost. My neighbor was going out of her mind and said, ‘I’m not going to let you destroy this. It’s worth a lot of money.’ ” But Forbes said her quest to create “perfect” designs usurped other concerns.
ARRANGING AND REARRANGING
As a novice working with jewelry, she experimented with epoxies, settling on E6000 adhesive. Using long tweezers, she spends hours arranging and rearranging jewelry parts, fitting them like puzzle pieces on the backs of mirror frames before gluing everything in place. “One mirror can take months,” she said, and nothing gets glued until she’s achieved the desired symmetry. She spends much time coordinating components for color and fit, so each part complements the whole, she said, and choosing a whimsical mouse, bird, lion or other accent item takes careful contemplation.
Accumulating what she needs takes patience, Forbes said. Once, for example, she wanted a delicate, sparkling edging for her design, and she kept searching until she found a store on 42nd Street in Manhattan that sold 20 yards of tiny rhinestone trim for $90. She paid it gladly, she said.
Some think decorating is the fun part, but Forbes enjoys the drudge work as well — sanding, cleaning and painting the frames. Gardening in her large yard has always been a passion, but creating ornate mirrors has given her a greater sense of peace. “It’s so mind-absorbing,” Forbes said of the minutiae involved. “And when I’m finished with it, I say, ‘Oh my, it’s gorgeous.’ I have to look at it all the time.”
Sometimes, she’ll awaken before the sun rises and make her way downstairs to admire a creation or to pore over a piece that still needs work. “It’s very satisfying to take something someone would put in the garbage pan and make something beautiful out of it,” Forbes said. “It gives me great satisfaction.”
The calmness it brings prompts Forbes to encourage others who are tempted to start a hobby to jump in, regardless of experience. “You have to take the I’m-not-afraid-pill and say, ‘I’m going to do it, and if I didn’t do it right today, I’ll do it right tomorrow.’ ”
The details in retrofitting each mirror have been a welcome diversion for Forbes, who raised three children and has three grandkids. Like most people, she said, “I have my fair share of life’s challenges.” She doesn’t talk about her misfortunes, she said, not even to her many friends and neighbors who drop by every day to chat, or to share an impromptu dinner served from large pots she keeps warm on the stove. “We all handle our problems in different ways,” Forbes explained.
Her son said he appreciates the impact his mother’s hobby has had. “Her passion, enthusiasm and attention to detail create an energized focus that puts her in ‘the zone,’ as they say. This creative process has been a godsend in dealing with life’s ups and downs.”
On reflection, his mother agrees. She knows that dealing with hardships her way can take its toll. Years ago, before she discovered the Zen of her creative hobby, she was going to doctors, she said. “I was having chest pains and I couldn’t breathe.”
Recently, she returned for a checkup. “You’re not depressed, you don’t need tranquilizers, you’re in great shape,” she said the doctor told her.
Forbes said she quickly replied, “I found the answer. It’s in mirrors.”