a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The right eye for the job

We at the Observer-Reporter were faced with an interesting challenge for the cover of this issue of Living In Washington County.

Editor Maureen Stead wanted to use a photograph of what a viewer sees when he or she looks into the eyepiece of one of local artist Marcia Clark’s high-end kaleidoscopes. But none of our photographers is experienced in pinhole photography that, Clark said, is the best technique to use to capture the inside of her creations.

So we turned to Scott Manko, a freelance photographer in Washington, Pa., who has used the photography style quite effectively to shoot some of the county’s historic wooden covered bridges.

While we typically use photos of people on this magazine cover, Manko’s shot of what's inside one of these tubes of mirrors gives us something unusual for the January/February 2009 issue.

“It is an eye-catching image that is rarely captured,” Stead said.

The cover story follows:

Marcia Clark happened past a cardboard kaleidoscope kit in a store and thought it would make a great gift for her daughter and granddaughter.

Little did she know at the time during the late 1990s that her quirky purchase would lead her down a new career path.

“Then I said, ‘I’m going to get one of these things for myself,’” said Clark, of Peters Township, Pa., who now designs high-end metal kaleidoscopes that capture images of beautiful symmetrical patterns.

As a single parent, Clark worked in surgical staple sales while earning college degrees.

“I was this little Polish kid without college teaching doctors,” she said. “I loved it.”

Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management and founded the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“This is the 25th anniversary of the first wish. This is still one of the strongest chapters.”

Yet, when she gave the kaleidoscope kit to her daughter, her daughter had “a look of wonder in her eyes, as if to say, ‘What was going on in your head that day?’” Clark said.

Later, she went online to search about kaleidoscopes and found the Laughing Eye Studios, a company in North Carolina that sells scope supplies. She placed a call to R. Scott Cole, the laughing eye himself, who came to the telephone and invited Clark to a class.

“One simple click changed my life,” she said. “I thought I should get out of this rat race.”

Clark said she has had a lifelong fascination with the way kaleidoscopes work by reflecting light against such common objects as beads and then magnifying them against a tube of mirrors.

“I’ve just always loved them. It’s as simple as that.”

The craft has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, but it was a Scottish scientist, Sir David Brewster, who was credited with reinventing the art in 1816. Brewster came up with the name by forming the Greek words for “beautiful form to see.”

Some of Clark’s designs are so intricate that they take on an Asian or Indian style.

She begins by picking such tiny objects as gold watch gears, vintage cloisonné, filigree and beads that relate to a certain color palate.

Then, she seals them in silicon gel in a clear plastic container as large as a hockey puck. The object case fits into the end of a metal scope opposite from the eyepiece. Inside the tube are mirrors running its entire length and set at a precise angle to reflect light off the sealed objects and create the multiple patterns.

“Getting a good mirror system, for me, it’s the most important thing as an artist,” Clark said.

Her mirrors are set to create 12-point stars, and it took her five years to get the angles just right. She since has made and sold nearly 1,000 kaleidoscopes and won an international award for one of her designs in copper named Dance.

There currently are about 60 working kaleidoscope artists in the United States. Hers are considered unusual because most of these artists work with stained glass.

“Most of them were already working in stained glass, so it was an easy transition.”

Now, Clark is working on a series of mixed-media scopes, using trendy metal lunch boxes to disguise the scopes. Some of them have vintage glass drawer pulls for feet.

An interesting thing about kaleidoscopes, she said, is that they are known for their calming effect.

Physicians have prescribed them to the seriously ill for relaxation and meditation.

“Kaleidoscopes are a good metaphor for life. It’s sort of like all the pieces are there, but sometimes we just can’t see all of them.”