How Quirky is Berkeley? Susan Brooks and her objects of desire and mirth

Susan Brooks in her studio. Photo: John Storey

Susan Brooks grew up in the Bronx. Her father was Bert Brooks.

Burt Brooks. Photo: Courtesy Susan Brooks

In the photo above he is holding Lord Rumsey.

Plastic toy designed by Burt Brooks. Photo: John Storey

Brooks was a designer and molder of plastic toys. This is an example of his work.  Susan grew up in her father’s shop, carving plaster, chasing on copper, and getting comfortable with his tools.

After some time at the Parsons School of Design in New York, Brooks followed her dream  and a boyfriend to Berkeley, arriving on July 31, 1971. The boyfriend didn’t last. Berkeley lasted and art lasted.


Her studio/gallery is in the Kawneer Building, which I know as the Sawtooth Building, at 2547 Eight St., Studio 24a. She has been there for 15 years. The building is a Berkeley Landmark. Daniella Thompson wrote a thorough and brilliant history of the building. Studios in the building house glass-blowers, woodworkers, sculptors, potters, jewelers, designers, musicians, painters in oil, acrylic, and watercolors, restorers, furniture makers, dancers and moving artists.

Many Women. Photo: Susan Brooks

Her first medium was painting. In 1985 she developed her skills as a metal smith and branched out into jewelry.

Burt’s chasing tools. Photo: John Storey

She uses her father’s chasing tools for her metal work. Chasing is surface decoration.

Susan Brooks jewelry. Photo: John Storey
Susan Brooks jewelry. Photo: Susan Brooks

She does both chasing and repoussé. Repoussé is a metal-working technique in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. It is a form of toreutics, which is the art of making designs in relief or intaglio.

Objects of Desire and Mirth. Photo: Susan Brooks

And then came the Objects of Desire and Mirth, which were conceived and born in profound loss and grief.

Kathe and Susan Brooks. Photo courtesy of Susan Brooks.

Susan’s sister, Kathe Kaufmann, died in September 2016.

In February 2017, Brooks channeled her grief into a project — making small figurines as part of an undertaking she calls “Objects of Desire & Mirth.” She writes: “I wasn’t sure where I was going with this project. I didn’t even know it was a project, but soon it became clear. I would make 1,000 figures in batches, and see where it took me. I could tune out the news cycle and just play with clay to put my mind at ease. I began to delight in the magic little world that I was starting to create.”

Objects of Desire and Mirth. Photo: Susan Brooks
Objects of Desire and Mirth. Photo: John Storey
Objects of Desire and Mirth. Photo: John Storey

Brooks uses her father’s chasing tools working with clay. At first, they were not two-sided, but the project evolved into that. Now: “I tend to anthropomorphize. Many of these figures are two-sided, with an animal or insect on the back as an alter ego.” She carves them without sketches. What they are supposed to be reveals itself. They are  fired twice to vitrify the clay. She paints them. The magnifying visor she is wearing in the photo above comes in handy.

Odd Stance, Strange Glance, High Pants. Photo: John Storey

For 45 years, Brooks has been collecting figures characterized by an Odd Stance and a Strange Glance. Many but not all wear high-waisted pants

True love. Photo: Susan Brooks

Shortly before visiting Brooks I came across the carved man on the left. He has the stance and the glance and the high-waisted pants. I gave him to Brooks and almost immediately he hit off with a lady, his other half. Brooks finds that the figures she collects often find love with a kindred spirit in the collection.

Billikens. Photo: John Storey

She also collects Billikens, a charm doll that is known as “The God of Things As They Ought to Be.”

Billiken and human who bears no resemblance to Billiken. Photo: Susan Brooks.

As I worked on this post, Brooks sent me a photo. Scary! She used the term doppelgänger to describe the figure on the left. Could this be my evil twin, or my stranger twin. Scary!

Susan Brooks — daughter of toy-maker, sister, maker herself of objects of desire and mirth. To visit her studio is to step into a world of whim and quirk.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means.  Longer and more idiosyncratic versions of this post may be seen at Quirky Berkeley.