A Master of Optical Magic

June 2022, by Diane Sulg

Artist Sue Rioux. Photo courtesy of Cindy Smith 

Sue Rioux was born in Bangor, Maine, and by her own admission was “artistic from birth.” As a child, she was into clay, watercolors, and drawing. When she finished school, Sue decided to see more of the world and moved to San Diego. While there, she took a class in stained glass and ended up going into business with her instructor making stained glass windows for more than seven years.

One day while visiting a gallery, Sue picked up a kaleidoscope and started playing with it. She was enthralled. Her mind, seasoned by cutting all that colorful glass, knew this was a new opportunity to make art with glass and light.

In 1984, Sue returned to Maine and settled in Kennebunk, where she lives today. At first, she resumed making stained glass windows. However, kaleidoscopes were always on her mind. A year later, Cozy Baker of Bethesda, Maryland, who was called the “Kaleidoscope Queen” because of her enormous collection, published the first book about the scopes. Sue read the book and got busy creating her own line of these magical instruments.

As you might know, a kaleidoscope uses mirrors tilted to each other at an angle, so the bits of glass, beads, or other objects on one end of the mirror are shown as a symmetrical pattern when viewed from the other end, due to a repeated reflection. They were invented by Sir David Brewster in Scotland in 1815. 

You might regard kaleidoscopes as a child’s toy, but in fact they are collected around the world and even used by professional pattern designers who emulate their designs. Sue’s scopes are works of art. None of them are made of wood. Instead, Sue uses glass and brass with decorative copper soldering. Often, she decorates the outside of the scope with exquisitely handcrafted glass animals and birds inspired by the Maine landscape.  

A Sue Rioux butterfly kaleidoscope. Photo courtesy of Chris Smith

While most of Sue’s kaleidoscopes are rectangular, a few are round. Some of the cylinders are filled with oil, which allows the objects to move without human intervention. On the inside, her scopes have high tech mirror systems using two, three, or even four mirrors. The objects she puts inside are pieces of glass, crystals, and seed beads. You can see her work at sueriouxdesigns.com. 

Sue is a member of the Brewster Society, an organization whose members are kaleidoscope makers, collectors, and retailers. It was founded by Cozy Baker and named for the inventor, Sir David Brewster. As a member, Sue has traveled with her work all over the world.  In particular, the Japanese have a high regard for kaleidoscopes, and Sue has traveled to Kyoto to teach kaleidoscope making there. 

Remember that scope Sue picked up years ago in California? That was a Chesnik kaleidoscope made by a family of excellent craftsmen. Recently, when the last family member retired, they turned the business over to Sue. She is now making these beautiful brass tube scopes with a wheeled scope on the end, and of course, adding her personal touch to the Chesnik kaleidoscope. 

A turtle kaleidoscope by Sue Rioux. Photo courtesy of David Allen 

Sue will sometimes just catch a glimpse of a glittering piece of glass and know by its beauty that she just has to make it into a kaleidoscope. She decides on the colors, shape, and design in her head, and putting nothing on paper, she begins to create. Looking through a kaleidoscope is entertaining, relaxing, and mystifying. Sue Rioux’s scopes are equally gorgeous on the outside, too. She has combined beauty, glass, and mirrors to make art that is truly magical! 

About the Author

Diane Sulg 
Diane Sulg is executive director of CRAFT and founder and co-chair of American Craft Week (ACW). She is a handmade advocate who provides valuable information in her one-day seminars titled “All About Wholesale” at wholesale shows throughout the United States. Diane is the former owner of Maddi’s Gallery, in Charlotte and Huntersville, North Carolina.