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ArtsCape: The Quirky Creations of Sue Beardsley

Written by Laura M. Reckford

FALMOUTH – Consider the piano table: the innards of a piano artfully assembled into an inexact shape. Pieces of glass cover parts of the top, so it can actually be used as a table. But other parts are left exposed so that the piano strings can be played. It comes with a rubber-tipped mallet to do just that. 

There are three legs, which, if you drew lines between them, would form a proper triangle. But the table top shape is more of a parallogram with two parallel sides but the other two sides are not mirror images. One has a more dramatic curve of the white wooden frame that surrounds the table. 

And just in case anyone does not realize they are looking at the inside of a piano, there is a set of black and white keys—12 white, 9 black, in piano formation—in the upper left corner.

This piece, called “Inside Out,” is one of Falmouth artist Sue Beardsley’s distinct works in her current exhibit, called “Trash Nothing!” at Falmouth Art Center.

The exhibit is on display to August 31. The Falmouth Art Center is located at 137 Gifford Street in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

A red dot is on the label of the piano table and on almost half the pieces in the show. The red dot means a piece has sold.

Sue Beardsley’s piece “Inside Out” is a table made out of the insides of a piano.

Beardsley’s work, equal mixes of whimsy, creativity and quirkiness, is popular. She also prices them to sell. For someone who is always creating with glass, metal, fiber, mosaic, plastic, wood and found objects of all types, she needs to move things out to make room for more creations.

The titles of her pieces are part of the fun: “Dumpster Magnificence,” Beardsley said, “is made up of tiny shards of multi-colored glass fused into a circle after being gathered from a mid-winter dumpster dive. The shards are broken Christmas ornaments made by Cape Cod Glass.” 

As an aside, one of Beardsley’s grandchildren once asked to be taken on a “dumpster dive” for her birthday present.

“Icky Bicky” is a creature made out of a violin case for the body, gas mask for the face, door handle for the mid section, tinsel for the hair, shoe lasts for the hands and piano keys for feet.

“Seagull Meets Turkey Meets Goldfinch Meets Peacock” is a table with glass topping a circular design of feathers.

For each piece, Beardsley has written a description meant to guide the viewer into her unique thinking. What they have in common is that Beardsley has turned the discards of life, what some might call trash, into a piece of art.

“Woods Hole Houseboat” is an elaborate piece inspired by the boats that occupy a nearby harbor in the summer.

The piece called “Woods Hole Houseboat” is inspired by the community of houseboats that spend the summer in Great Harbor and spend the winter in Eel Pond in Woods Hole, a village in Falmouth.

Beardsley describes the work as “many types of plant life (locust pods, burl slices, banana stems, worm-eaten driftwood, seed pods) make a most comfortable houseboat. The blue bulb at the peak ensures that our friends will make it back, despite the fogs of Woods Hole. Do you see the tiny propeller on the stern? And look what lies underneath, all kinds of treasures of the sea.”

She said her desire to reuse items comes from her childhood and her father’s philosophy. “He wanted us to use things we already had. How silly! I wanted to buy new and be like all the other kids. I guess I’ve come around.”

She said, “One can make beautiful things while reusing what otherwise would be trashed.” In the current show, that includes plastic, bird feathers, scrap yarn, gourds, broken furniture, fallen trees and shards of glass.

In case anyone was wondering about the show’s title, Trash Nothing, Beardsley clarifies that in her household, they bring the trash out to the curb just like everyone else, but they try to reuse and recycle when possible. 

“Keeping the phrase ‘trash nothing’ in mind makes one think before tossing. Thinking globally, acting locally, we all are trying to do our part to reuse and recycle,” she said.

When faced with the multi-faceted creativity of Beardsley’s art, many people come away wondering how one person could possibly use so many different mediums with such creativity and whimsy.

Beardsley’s journey as an artist has been evolving for decades. She had a career as a therapist and retired early, feeling like she was meant to do something more. “What happens when you work and raise a family is you don’t have much energy. When I retired, I had all this time and energy.”

Sitting in a coffee shop with a good friend one day, the friend suggested Beardsley take a night school class. She saw one she was interested in: Art Welding, taught by a shop teacher at the local high school.

She signed up for the class and she was on her way to becoming an artist. 

I brought things in to class and said, ‘Can I attach this to that?” [Her teacher] said, ‘You don’t ask, ‘Can you.’ You ask, ‘How can you.’ I’ll never forget it,” she said.

Back then, she was walking her dogs a lot and found many things in the woods that people had dumped. “I don’t think I had ever considered found objects. There were interesting looking pieces of metal. My mind went to, ‘Oh, that looks like the head of a crocodile.’ That’s where my mind goes.”

She brought the found metal pieces in to class and began working with found objects.

There are tiny owls in the hair of “My Owl, the Wisenheimer.”

She continued her adult education with a class in welding at Rhode Island School of Design where she was introduced to a device called a MIG welder, which she purchased for her metal crafting. She also has a torch that she uses for her metal work.

“I was into found objects. I brought things in to class and said, ‘Can I attach this to that?” [Her teacher] said, ‘You don’t ask, ‘Can you.’ You ask, ‘How can you.’ I’ll never forget it,” she said. The teacher’s father was a farmer. “That’s what a farmer would do.”

Beardsley said, “That was very helpful. It opened my mind to other ways of doing things.” 

For example, she had copper and steel and wanted to put them together and they don’t weld together. You can attach them but not with a welder. “The way to do it,” she said, “is you can weld a screw or a rod or a something onto the steel and then if you punch a hole in the copper or there might already be a hole, you put the rod into the hole and then you thread a nut onto it. It’s a mechanical attachment, not a weld and that’s actually very strong.”

She began to make art using that principal—not “Can I?” but “How can I?”

“It’s an attitude,” she said. “I’ve used that in all kinds of mediums. Not just metal but fabric, fiber and glass. It just opens your mind to different methods.”

A table decoration uses the feathers of seagulls, turkeys, goldfinches and peacocks.

Her husband, Bob, is a retired physical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). They met on a blind date in college. He was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and she was at Wellesley College. They settled in Falmouth in 1975. She had just graduated from social work school.

Through contacts from her husband’s career at WHOI she continued to learn about welding. She met the guys in the welding shop at WHOI. “They’d help me and give me ideas,” she said.

The Beardsleys have two daughters, both live on Cape Cod. One is an environmental lawyer for a nonprofit. Since the pandemic, that daughter’s office closed and all staff are allowed to work remotely. “She could live anywere and she chose us over Hawaii. Is that love or is she nutty?” Beardsley asked with a smile.

In addition to metal work, Beardsley works a lot with glass. In working with stained glass, she started with the traditional flat glass which she learned how to make from a friend of a friend. Once introductions were made, “I met her within the hour and learned the mechanics. You cut it, You foil it. You solder it. You have to practice a lot with cutting, foiling, soldering and of course the design. That was not complicated.”

The wings of this giant dragonfly are made out of scraps of yarn, thread and ribbon.

But soon Beardsley wanted to move on from working with the traditional flat glass of stained glass. “That became very uninteresting very quickly. Then I figured out how to use sculptural glass,” she said. She obtained a lot of discarded glass from a local glass company, Pairpoint Glass. “It was very interesting glass they could not use. You can saw them flat, then take copper, foil and glue,” she said explaining her method of reusing the discarded glass.

Her work is not just metal and glass. Some of her striking works are enormous fiber creations, like 24-feet of crocheted caterpillar. Beardsley’s explanation: “The movie went on and so did the crocheting.”

The yarn is from leftovers sold at the Woods Hole Library Yarn and Fabric Sale held every year on Super Bowl Sunday. “You can usually hit the sale and watch the game too,” she said.

Beardsley said she started working with thread and other fibers when her daughters were teenagers and she wanted to spend more time with them. ”You can’t just sit and look at a teenager. You want to be there but not looking at them,” she said. So she was there, looking down at her crocheting.

Just as others have helped her learn how to use different mediums, she has passed her skills on to others. “I’ve taught a lot of women how to weld.” She was intimidated by the medium at first, but her desire to create won out. “I was scared of the heat, of burning myself to death and electrocuting mystelf. I grew up in the 50s. The only way to work myself through the fears is I wanted to work with these things,” she said.

Beardsley’s work crafting fantastical animals of metal is well known around Falmouth. Her creations grace front yards around town, the town dump, the bike path and the dog park. Her sense of humor comes through with everything she does.

Sue Beardsley looks over a display of a menagerie of her metal creatures in 2021 at Falmouth Art Center.

Back in the early 2000s, she had a large display of a menagerie of whimsical animals made out of metal at the town dump. There was a controversy in town when a town official from the Department of Public Works decided there were too many animal sculptures. A meeting was called and Beardsley’s fans showed up. There was a negotiation.

She recalled, “The head of the DPW said, You can have 5. I said I wanted 10. We were in the middle of the dump negotiating. We ended up with 7.”

The question from viewers of Beardsley’s shows always comes back to, how can one woman work with so many materials. She said she took that to be a negative for awhile, calling herself a dilettante, defined as “a person who cultivates an area of interest without real commitment or knowledge.” But she worked her way through those feelings.

She said, “It can be negative. It took me awhile. I did some mental work in my head. I realized, ‘So What.’ What difference did it make? That was a very helpful thing in life.”

One thing that stands out in all of Beardsley’s work is a sense of humor. There is whimsy in all her work. That is no coincidence. She said the two things that are most important in her life: to help other people and to have fun.

ArtsCape is a Cape Cod Wave column about arts on Cape Cod written by Laura M. Reckford, co-founder of Cape Cod Wave and executive director of the Falmouth Art Center.

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About the author

Laura M. Reckford

Laura M. Reckford is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. She has been a reporter and editor on Cape Cod for more than 20 years in magazines, newspapers and radio. She has also authored numerous Frommer's Travel Guide editions on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

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