Artist-in-Residence Suzette Gabriel-Schoebitz: Reuse, Repair, and Recycle — One Piece of Jewelry at a Time
The world faces a garbage dilemma. Trash threatens to take over, yet we continue to consume. “I am one of millions producing trash daily,” says jeweler and Pearl River artist-in-residence Suzette Gabriel-Schoebitz. “I do not want to leave my grandchildren such a polluted world.”
Instead of letting trash go to “waste,” Suzette says, much of it can be repaired, reused, or recycled. Such is the philosophy behind her jewelry collection in her exhibition, FROM TRASH TO TREASURE. It began with pieces her clients no longer wanted. Rather than throw them out, she supplemented them with parts she found in flea markets, second-hand stores, and trading posts — turning others’ trash into renewed treasure.
We had the chance to speak with the former professional ballerina about the impact visiting Laos as a child had on her life and art, the challenges of jewelry-making, and how being on top of a mountain can make one’s problems seem very small.
You have such an interesting background. Can you tell me a little bit about it? Where you were born, where you grew up, etc.
I was born in NYC at the then-called Doctors Hospital on the east side between 87th and 88th streets. My mother was Norwegian/ Laotian and my father French. We moved to Tokyo when I was almost seven. My sisters and I grew up speaking first English, then Japanese. We moved back to the New York area for three years during junior high school. Then we moved to Paris where I finished high school.
What sent your family to Tokyo and Paris?
My father’s job at IBM — or “I’ve Been Moved” as some people called it. [Laughs] It was the Apple of the ‘70s.
How did you wind up in Germany?
After high school, I went on to study ballet professionally and graduated from the Academie de Danse Classique de Princesse Grace de Monaco. I was then, at 18, invited to join the world-renowned Stuttgart Ballet and moved to Germany, which has been my home base for 40 years now.
Tell me about going to Laos, your first experiences there, your family there, etc.
There was tragedy in my great-grandparents’ lives in Laos and my grandmother was taken away by her father when she was a young girl in the early 1900s. She moved to Europe and lost contact to Laos. In 1967, my parents retraced to find our relatives and village. I first went to Laos with my family when I was nine years old. It left a deep impression on me. With the war, we saw teams of Doctors Without Borders in the country. I decided I wanted to someday become a doctor and return to Laos to help the people.
How did traveling to Laos influence your outlook on life and art?
With my parents we traveled much of Asia at a time when there were very few foreigners on the road. We saw so much authenticity in unchartered places. I saw diversity and cultures. It definitely made me who I am today.
My father was a good man, always giving. Each trip he had us sort out our room and carry things with us to give to those in need. I remember carrying an old toy tea set to a little girl in the street. I followed her home with the set, which she gave to her mother, who I then realized was going to use it for the family! It certainly opened my eyes.
My art is a complete conglomeration of all of these influences. Trying to help through creating something beautiful.
What’s something about Laos not many people know?
The people are the most gentle, fun-loving, and generous people on this planet. They are happy with the little they have. With them, I am learning to live in the now. They do not think of yesterday, nor of tomorrow, but only of “now.” They wake in the morning laughing and go to bed happy to be alive.
Were you always interested in designing jewelry? How did that interest come about?
I always liked jewelry and working with my hands. Even while dancing I often created the jewelry to adorn the other performers. During my first pregnancy, unable to go onstage, I started to learn jewelry-making and continued taking courses on the side until the time came and I decided to end my stage career. I could then turn to creating jewelry full time.
What made you explore opportunities in Laos in regards to jewelry-making?
When my sons left home for college, I knew I was still meant to do more. I had always wanted to help and was already working in India with my jewelry work. Then I realized I was meant to be in Laos. I didn’t become that doctor and I couldn’t really see how I could help through teaching dance at that time, but I thought I could give work and help to uphold an important culture, the craft of traditional jewelry-making.
What do you like best about jewelry designing? What aspect is the most challenging?
I love to create. I can go for hours without stopping (which has sometimes been totally stupid because I've overworked my hands or become famished or dehydrated), even without water, glued to my workbench. It is almost like meditating. It was the same performing certain pieces on stage. I would often go off after dancing and not know what I did.
When I create, I have an image of someone in mind. It has often been the case that someone resembling this image ends up purchasing the very piece.
The most challenging aspect is pleasing the customer. Many clients come to me with a certain idea. We discuss this, I draw up a design, and finally I create what we agreed upon. In the 25 years of my business and many pieces of jewelry, I have had only three difficult clients. For each of them, I remade the piece until they were pleased.
As an artist it is hard for me to stay on the planned track. I am terrible at baking a cake. I do not follow a recipe. This is why I like best to create for an exhibition such as this one.
What’s your relationship with Pearl River Mart? Do you have any favorite memories or items?
I’ve known Pearl River Mart since I was a young woman. I actually lived for a short time — between time working in Germany — some three blocks away from the store before SoHo became what we know it is today. I used to purchase many things for my home. It brought me back to my childhood in Japan.
What do you do to get inspired or re-energize?
Nature is so inspiring. Look around — it is full of the best designs! I like to climb up into the mountains. Everything is so small below those peaks. Problems are no longer as important. But to be honest, as my family of men have gotten stronger at this sport, I am doing less of it. But, I am very disciplined. I have done yoga since I was 16 years old. I try to keep this up.
What’s something you’re obsessed with now? That you tell people, “You have to read/watch/listen/eat this?”
My son is working on an eco-friendly app that has just been launched on the App store. Eevie Eco Habits. With all that I am trying to do to help save our planet in my own way, I am obsessed with this app. I am always checking my C02 footprint. Check it out!
FROM TRASH TO TREASURE will be on view in our TriBeCa gallery from Sept. 6 through Sept. 21. Join us for a reception and special performance by CocoonDance on Thursday, Sept. 12, from 5 to 7 p.m.