Testing the Boundaries of Beauty

Testing the Boundaries of Beauty


Chordata____series, 2007-2008, photo/Katie MacDonald.

Susan Hoge made her name creating beaded jewelry in gemstones and gold. At the height of her success, she went back to school for a “radical change.” Now 46, she has gone in a provocative new direction—beadwork that’s beautiful but not pretty, such as her Chordata ____ series, 2007–2008.

“I wanted to shake myself up, make something different,” she says of her decision to enroll at Cranbrook Academy of Art, not far from her Michigan home. The detour wasn’t really out of character for Hoge, a free spirit at heart. Though she’s a disciplined master of her craft, meticulous about materials, she feels her best designs come when she lets her unconscious guide her hands. “I don’t like to know what I’m going to end up with, because then it’s labor. It keeps me surprised to not know how it’s going to turn out.”

Her life, too, has followed a meandering path. Hoge grew up playing the flute and leaned toward music until, as a student at the University of Michigan, she took ceramics and fell in love with handwork. After graduating she followed the Grateful Dead for a while, stringing beads at concerts. She honed her skills restoring tribal pieces at a beadwork gallery in Michigan, then moved to New Mexico, where she made samples in an “Indian jewelry” factory. Switching course again, she headed to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and her career took off. By the early 2000s Hoge was making sensuous, highly wearable jewelry that turned up in Vogue, including her Fluffy bracelets. She designed for Fred Leighton, did high-end fairs, and was represented by galleries around the country. After a few years of that whirl, she felt burnt out. “I said, is this what I want to do with my life? I had to slow down, stop.”

Cranbrook was the creative tonic Hoge needed. There she experimented with sculpting in chocolate, hair and blown sugar. She then returned to beadwork, making a series of small, sculptures of lustrous seed pearls over a skeleton of “banal objects” (twigs, foam, silicone). Skin and bones, mystery and illusion are themes of these pieces, which are anatomically suggestive and meant to unsettle. Sometimes Hoge ups the squirm factor by displaying them with surgical instruments.

“What she did was really test the boundaries of what beauty was for her,” observes the German-born artist Iris Eichenberg, head of metals at Cranbrook. “Where does beauty and seduction end and repulsion begin? Where is that fine, fine balance? She tested that line by making work that had a strong erotic sense, but that was also very repulsive.” Using the classic language of a string of pearls, Hoge’s objects politely undermine our associations of purity and propriety. “They are organic forms that seem familiar, but are slightly off,” says Eichenberg. “Beauty always has a presence of something which might be nasty or scary, and she succeeded in finding a recipe to combine those things.”

But fans of Hoge’s old-school-beautiful jewelry needn't despair. Content with having pushed the limits, “I still want to continue doing my wearable work,” she says, “to take fine materials and make something interesting out of them.”