By Alice Meyering, Program Coordinator of Community & Contract Education
Instructor Susan Ryza has pulled on her Peace Corps work with Salvadoran craftspeople to teach a wide variety of jewelry and crafts to students of virtually every age, finding great rewards at many levels.
SMC Community Ed just published a profile of Susan in our monthly newsletter, Sound Bites, but we present here material that we did not include in the article.
Why is craft important to you? To the world?
I’ve discovered that making things with our hands fulfills a deep need that I believe all humans have. When I was running my business, I had to focus a lot on the financial and logistical aspects of selling my products and had to delegate the hands-on making and designing for a number of years. When I finally got back to actually working on products with my own hands, I realized how much I had missed it and how much I needed it for my emotional well being. It’s great to see students get in touch with that part of themselves and find the joy in it that they may never have experienced before.
You’ve traveled and lived extensively abroad, particularly in Latin America. Briefly describe what that was like for you, both as a crafts practitioner and as a person.
I lived and worked in El Salvador for two years in the Peace Corps, as a “crafts advisor.” I worked under the auspices of a Salvadoran government agency that was trying to develop crafts as export products. What I did specifically was live and work in a small town called San Sebastian, which was totally dedicated to weaving blankets and hammocks. My job was to help develop loom-woven products that would be more appealing to an export market than the traditional products made there. I helped create new designs, improve quality and make connections with potential buyers.
I found the work very exciting, both the design aspects as well as the marketing aspects. My mother is an artist and my father was a businessman, so I have both those interests. It was fascinating learning the traditional weaving and marketing techniques used in the town, as well as getting to know the people and the country in such an in-depth way. As a side benefit, I learned to speak Spanish fluently, which has been very helpful in my life back in the U.S. I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of Spanish-as-a-second-language speakers who are as fluent as I am in the vocabulary of hand-weaving.
After I left the Peace Corps, I wanted to continue helping the people I had worked with to sell their products, so I started a Latin American handcrafts import business back in the U.S. I eventually also traveled to and worked with craftspeople from Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. It allowed me to travel frequently to all these countries and study all their various crafts products, which I loved doing.
Tell us a few things that most people don’t know about you.
• I take a comedy improv class every week.
• Before I became a teacher, I owned a very successful, wholesale ladies’ hat business until 1995. My factory sold hats to boutiques, department stores and catalogues. At its peak, I had 49 employees and sold $3 million of hats per year. In 1995, I sold the business to stay home with my children when they were young. When I decided to go back to work in 2001, I became a crafts teacher. The new owners are still running the business in New York.
• I’m the treasurer of a non-profit organization called the International Topical Steroid Awareness Network.
• I learned Adobe Dream Weaver in an SMC Continuing Ed. Class so that I could develop & maintain my own website.
You teach a dizzying array of crafts and jewelry making, including chain maille, kumihimo and Viking knit. Briefly describe chain maille, kumihimo and Viking knit.
All three of these jewelry styles are adaptations of ancient techniques. Chain maille was originally used to make protective armor for fighters. It consists of putting together many small rings in various patterns to create a fabric-like web. In modern day, these patterns have been adapted to make bracelets and necklaces.
Kumihimo is an ancient Japanese art of braid making. It is traditionally worked on a wooden platform to make braids for fabric trims, belts and straps. We now use a kind of spongy disk to make braided cords that, in jewelry making, are used for hanging pendants and to make bracelets. Beads are frequently incorporated into the braiding.
The origin and use of Viking knit is not completely clear or agreed upon by experts, but the name suggests that it was used centuries ago by Vikings. In modern jewelry-making, it is a process of weaving strands of wire together to make a tube that can then be used flattened or 3-dimensionally for a wide range of jewelry applications.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My most contented moments are when I’m working on a piece of jewelry while listening to a TED talk or health-related lecture on YouTube. Besides crafts, my other passion is learning about natural health and healthy living. I also like listening to stand-up comedy while I’m making jewelry. I also love dancing, especially to African- or Caribbean-style conga drumming.