PHOTOS by Rebecca D’Angelo
by Charles McGuigan
This past fall, Will Armstrong contacted Jesse Narens, a Portland-based an artist whose work he and his fiancé, Susan Frerichs, are both crazy about. On Instagram he found one particular mixed-media painting, “The Last Loon Will Follow Only Echoes,” that he and his betrothed absolutely adore. It was still for sale, but Will was at a lean time of the year, waiting on a couple of commission checks. Just before Christmas, with money now in the bank, he contacted the artist again, but the loon piece had already been sold. He cursed under his breath, but then Will bought another piece entitled “Tangled in Spiderwebs/Trying to Touch a Ghost” by the same artist. On Christmas morning, after the couple had opened their gifts, Will found out who had bought the piece he had originally wanted to buy for Susan. “Susan’s the one who bought it,” says Will. “It was for me. It’s our ‘Gift of the Magi’ story.”
Susan Frerich and her husband-to-be live in an Arts and Crafts cottage on a tree-lined street in the Northside. The walls in every room are covered with artwork like a gallery. We sit in their living room and are joined by their small black and white dog named Gidget. She forms a curl in Susan’s lap.
“I’m from west central Minnesota, a pretty small town with something like twelve thousand people,” Susan says. She studied art at Carlton College, a liberal arts school in southern Minnesota. “I did more 2-D work then,” she says. “Drawing and printmaking.”
Toward the end of her time at Carlton, Susan took a class in metalsmithing to fulfill a 3-D requirement. “And metalsmithing’s what I really fell in love with,” she says.
She moved up to Minneapolis, and worked sales in fine jewelry and designer watches at Dayton’s, Marshall Fields and then Macy’s. Susan then took a job in customer service with a well-known jewelry designer named George Sawyer, who is known worldwide for an ancient Japanese metal working technique known as mokume gane. It’s a labor-intensive forging method that uses multi-colored gold, so the finished product looks layered, almost like Damascus steel.
“So I was working in his office, answering phones, going to trade shows with him, and he knew that I wanted to do some more hands on work,” Susan says. “Remember, I’d only taken one basic metalsmithing class so I didn’t have the skills to work at the bench. But he tried to get me involved in some projects, and so I started to get kind of a feel for it.”
Realizing Susan’s potential, George Sawyer recommend she enter the Revere Academy (now-defunct) in San Francisco. “So I did an intensive metalworking program there for three months,” she says. “It’s a hybrid trade school and art school. I learned really practical skills like how you resize a ring, and how you set gemstones, and then they slam you through a bunch of different techniques.”
While still on the West Coast, Susan heard about a jeweler in Minneapolis who was looking for an assistant jeweler. “So I was hired as a goldsmith right out of school,” she says.
This is where she learned to shape gold, to mold it, to encourage it with fire, to love it, and to revere it for the odd reality is.
“It’s complicated,” Susan tells me, smiling. “But it’s very empowering to work with a material that feels as solid as metal, but to be able to manipulate it and control it and change it.”
She has worked other precious metals over the years—silver, platinum, palladium. “But there’s nothing like gold,” says Susan. “There’s some kind of spiritual property to it. It’s hard to articulate.”
Susan looks up to the ceiling as if she might find the right words there. “There’s something almost unearthly about it,“ she says. “Think of its origins. Precious metals rained down on Earth from outer space, like they literally are unearthly.”
“I have heard her talk about gold’s softness, how buttery it is,” Will says.
Susan’s grinning now. “‘I have put it in my mouth,” she says.
“She’ll get a new shipment of it, and just go MMMMMM,” says Will. “It’s kind of how I feel about blank paper.”
There’s also that rare metal’s tie to our cumulative cultures and histories. “The metal that I’m buying now comes from a refinery that uses recycled gold, so all the gold that I’m putting in with my pieces is connected with all that history,” says Susan. “You might have pieces of ancient Egypt mixed up with your neighbor’s gold teeth.”
Susan is wearing little jewelry, a pair of tiny skulls pierce the lobes of her hears, a distinctive diamond engagement ring circles a finger, and she often wear a pendant of a unicorn’s skull from a chain around her neck.
“What I love about jewelry is the personal connection, the pieces that become part of your story, or reflect something about your experience in the world,” she says. “So I try to make a piece that is going to be somebody’s very special piece.”
Her jewelry is unlike any other jewelry I’ve ever seen. There’s a bracelet that looks like a gated paddock, one pendant in the shape of a buffalo skull, another that describes the skeleton of a bat, and a stacked tower of skull rings.
“I do a lot of memento mori pieces so people sometimes commission me to make a piece in memory of a lost loved one,” she says. “So they can wear it every day to keep that person close to them. So instead of making jewelry that people take on and off, or put in a drawer and forget, I want to make something special.”
Susan tells me about a piece she made two years ago for a woman whose daughter had died. “I designed a ring that included some things that were special to her daughter, some things that reminded her of her daughter,” says Susan. “It had a lot of symbolism, and it was a difficult piece to make because I’m pretty empathetic. But it was really meaningful, and that woman and I have become friends.”
Will was born in Richmond, attended St. Christopher’s, and, after a brief stint at UNC, Greensboro, went to VCU. “I didn’t really get into art until college,” he says. “I found my solace in the theater when I was in high school, that’s where I found the weird kids, or my kind of crew.”
While still in the Art Foundation program at VCU, Will wanted to be an animator, and he would ultimately earn his bachelor of fine arts degree in communication arts and design with a concentration in illustration.
“I heard early on that it’s a lot easier to get hired as a graphic designer if you have skills as a graphic designer and you can illustrate,” Will says. “That way the agency has an in-house illustrator. Basically, you learn the skills so they can take advantage of you.”
He waited tables, bartended, and after college took a job with Suitable for Framing, where he worked for several years. Shortly after graduation from VCU, Will decided to show his portfolio to his best friend’s older brother, a Richmonder who had made it big in New York as an art director for a slick, and well-respected, magazine.
As Will opened the portfolio, the man who faced him asked one question.
“Do you want me to be honest?”
“Okay,” said Will.
And the man tore into him and his work. “He was ruthless,” Will tells me. “He just ripped it up. I was all of twenty-one. He was probably thirty-two. He could have picked out certain things that he like, but he didn’t.”
Will was devastated and continued working at the frame shop, but soon realized he could fall into a permanent slump. He took classes in Photo Shop, Quark, Illustrator, things that had not been taught at VCU when Will attended art school there. He ended up getting a job as assistant art director with Inside Business, a position he held until that publication folded.
After that he spent a fair amount of time at home, and decided to join his former wife at an art show. “She was an art show artist,” Will says. “I laid out a piece of my work at her booth, and it sold that weekend. I laid out another piece, and it sold, too.”
He began working with his former wife who was doing metal work at the time. “It took off to the point where we were very successful,” he says. “We were doing the art show circuit, doing a line of metal work and mirrors. At our height we had three assistants; one full-time, two part-time.”
During those years when that business thrived, Will put his illustration work aside. “I put it on ice,” he says. “I was just doing those metal mirrors and wall hangings.”
In time, people lost interest in that work, and his marriage was going rapidly south. “Everything kind of fell apart,” Will says. After the business tanked, he immersed himself in illustration again, and began showing his work at art shows, and selling them. “It took off like I was never dead,” he says.
Initially, his work was literal representationalism. “When I first started out, I was just learning my technique, and doing rock ‘n roll portraits and blues portraits and things like that,” he says. He then began producing cityscapes, and all his work was selling well along the art show circuit.
And then his work took on a highly narrative style. “I’ve got my technique down to the point where I can say whatever I want to,” says Will. “And I’m telling music stories about songs and different artists telling them. I’ll take a fragment of a song, and retell the story.”
He mentions the one he did on Stagger Lee. “So the story is two guys were gambling in an alley, one guy wins the other guy’s money. They keep complaining about it and arguing about it and back in the bar somebody touches somebody’s hat and Stagger Lee shoots Billy Lyons. So that’s the true story.”
Will’s eyes widen. “But then there’re different versions,” he says. “From Nick Cave saying Billy wanted to have sex with Stagger Lee. To Furry Lewis saying Billy Lyons was a whiny little bitch and deserved to be shot.”
But Will’s own tale takes a different tack. “In my version,” he says. “Stagger Lee is deaf, and it’s this big illustration of that song, which is not in any of the lyrical versions of it. So I like to do that.”
Consider his interpretation of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues”.
“I’ll change the Devil to a train and have 666 on the train,” Will says. “I might put Keith Richard’s ring on the blues player’s finger just to say where the music comes from, and where it goes.”
These days, Susan and Will exhibit and sell at about fifteen juried art shows each year. “We just got back from two and a half weeks on the road,” Will says. “I’m in the middle of a four-show in five-week run, which is pretty grueling, but then I’ll have two weeks off, then another show, three weeks off, then another.” By Christmas the shows will come to an end for about three months, which is when the pair revs up for production mode
“A lot of times, at these shows, we take commissions,” Susan says. “In a few minutes, I have to go back to the studio and make an engagement ring that’s due next week.”
“We’re lucky to be in the top shows in the country,” says Will. “And we’re luck to be getting married in July.”
Susan Frerichs and Will Armstrong are entwined now, sitting on the couch, joined at the shoulders, if not the hips.