From A Social Worker To A Glass Artist With Her Own Boutique. Meet Suzanne Oleary!
If we hadn’t seen a little sign at the corner of Gardner Street and North Road saying “Little Beach Boutique” with an arrow indicating the direction, we probably would have never noticed the small light-blue colored entrance although it has been there for almost three years. That’s when Suzanne Oleary, shop owner and glass making artist decided to give up her little shop in one of the old fisherman’s arches down at the seafront and settle in the North Laine.
Having a look around in the shop, we start talking to Suzanne who tells us how she got into glass making and being a shop owner, an occupation that could hardly be more different from her initial career and studies.
Originally from Kingston on Thames, Suzanne always wanted to move to Brighton, a place she often came to when she was a child.
“From the age of ten and throughout my teens, I came down here to buy beads at a little shop down at the beach because I was really into making jewelry. Me and my next door neighbor, we used to make these cute little earrings and beady necklaces and sell them in our front garden to people passing by and then give the money to charity”, remembers Suzanne.
As soon as it was time to choose a university, Suzanne didn’t have to think about where to apply. Having signed up for three courses at Sussex and Brighton University, she got into a sociology course at Sussex where she did a masters in gender studies later on. We ask her why she decided to do sociology?
“I have always wanted to work in that kind of sector. I always thought I should do something fairly caregiving, and sociology was just a very interesting subject. It felt like it gave me a real overview of lots of different topics”, is her answer.
A uni degree in her pocket, she started as a social worker and did that for many years. Having a pretty stressful job, she soon discovered the benefits of having a creative hobby after she had gotten into glass making. All it took for her to discover her passion for glass making was a weekend workshop.
“I didn’t really decide to go to that glass workshop, but it was my mom who booked it for me. She knew I had always made jewelry and things and that I had always been crafty. I have always done other little workshops”, Suzanne tells us with a little laugh.
“But glass was the one thing that I got really hooked into because it’s really fascinating. You can use glass that is really hard and brittle and when you fire it all together, it takes on a totally different quality and it’s a lovely thing to work with. Every time you make something, it’s gonna be different. You can always make something unique. Most people who do the workshops find it quite addictive”, explains the former social worker.
Having discovered her passion for glass, Suzanne decided to hire a little space and a kiln and started to teach herself different glassmaking techniques in what she calls a “trial and error” and a “nice way to relax” after a stressful workday.
But how could a “nice way to relax” lead to a total career change?
“I took on a short-term contract for just one year because it was for a charity. As that contract came to an end, I decided to go away and volunteer for about a year in Nepal and when I came back and that little arch down at the seafront was available, my friend and I decided to do it together and to see what happens really.”
So, it was more of a spontaneous decision than a long-planned project and running the business wasn’t easy for her at the beginning.
“For the first year, it was really difficult because you have to really work hard to get people to come in your shop. It isn’t a case of just being there and being open. Nobody knew that we were there and as we were on the beach, I would have to close when it was raining and just write that day off. Some days, I didn’t even make enough money to cover my expenses “, remembers Suzanne.
In these early days, she often felt quite nervous about money and the future of her little shop. The only relief was the fact that she had kept her old job on a part-time basis and that she could, if necessary, just cut her losses and go back to it. But as with all the things in life, it just took some time for her to settle into it.
“I learned that some days were gonna be harder than others and that if I have a quiet day, it doesn’t mean that the business is gonna fail. So all that was a learning process. And I had never been self-employed before, so that was a learning curve as well. Learning how to run a business, being my own boss. It’s very difficult not having anybody showing you how to do things or to kind of guide you or having a team of people”, describes Suzanne her own experience.
Almost five years later, she sees herself in a rather confident position, running her little shop up in the North Laine and making her glass works in the little back room of her “Little Beach Boutique” when the shop isn’t too busy.
She guides us into her little studio where her most recent glass works are waiting to be fired. Suzanne’s specialty is making screen prints on glass. Originally, she wanted to get into making glass jewelry but soon figured out that there already were too many places around that did the same.
So, she came up with the idea of making personalized gifts and fixing images on glass tiles, not an easy thing to do as most materials will disappear from the surface due to the heat in the kiln.
After initially having painted each individual tile, she discovered a way for her to replicate her images in a faster way by using screen prints she fixes on a glass tile before putting another tile on top of it. The heat in the kiln then melts them together and encapsulates them.
And her customers love her screen prints which mostly show Brighton related elements for a very simple reason: “There is so much about Brighton and the Southdowns that is attractive and worth showing off. It’s enough to just walk around the city with all the buildings. It’s such a nice place to live.”
Suzanne also offers monthly glass making workshops. For enquiries, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.