Holiday crafts by Susie Hutchison
Like many people’s, Christmas is a big deal at Susie Hutchison’s.
Hutchison, a resident of Vincennes, spends hours every year around Christmas milling over what the relevant popular culture images were from the past year and turns them into Christmas ornaments. Most famously, among her friends and family, anyway, are her walnut shell decorations. Hutchison likes to pull from her mental Rolodex of pop culture and craft tiny decorations made from walnut shells and which are painted and otherwise crafted with images of characters, both fictional and real.
The breadth of her past catalogue is enormous and includes so many people and characters it would take pages to list them all.
Hundreds of pop culture characters
In fact, Hutchison, along with her husband, Michael, have catalogued which characters have been immortalized and it does span many multiples of pages. Susie Hutchison has created tiny likenesses of hundreds of people and characters, including the casts of the Wizard of Oz, Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, and people from all walks of celebrity, like Dolly Parton, Teddy Roosevelt, Buddy Holly and Alfred Hitchcock.
Those are just to name a very, very few from Hutchison’s massive list. She’s been at it since 1979, so she’s had a little while to create such a large collection. Back then, she started making decorations using a pre-made kit that she ordered out of a craft magazine. They were made of clay and were to be baked into a hardened form. But using a pre-determined shape out of a kit wasn’t something a person with innate crafting abilities would stick with. Being so gifted, Susie Hutchison took the clay kit into another direction and started using walnut shells as the base for her own vision for decorations.
“You take a whole walnut and you have to split it and get a clean slice. Then, I get my clay and mold it in the shell, then, I bake it,” Hutchison said of her process.
She molds the clay into the shape of the character or person being painted, itself an impressive feat, considering how small they are. Once they’re baked, then the really difficult part, as Hutchison says, begins – the painting.
“There’s so much detail, but that’s the fun part, too, the creative process. Hopefully, it turns out to be something (people) can recognize,” Hutchison said.
The walnut shells are done in small batches and can take up to four or five hours each to make. Hutchison said it could take up to three hours just for the painting, depending on how complex the subject is. The most difficult one to date was doing the Grinch, the title character from Dr. Seuss’ classic tale How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It took several tries to get that one right, Hutchison said.
Family and friends take notice
The first people among whom Hutchison’s walnut art gained popularity was her family. She and Michael have two daughters for whom it didn’t take long to start putting in requests to their mom. One of her daughters shares a birthday with Alfred Hitchcock, the film director of suspense fame, and that’s what led to Hutchison crafting a walnut in his likeness. In the course of creating for her family, her friends and coworkers also started to catch on to what Hutchison was doing and soon they were receiving walnut decorations as Christmas gifts, too.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, the trail sort of ends there. Hutchison said she’s never really considered selling her art. It’s always been more something that she’s done to satisfy her own desire to create.
“I don’t see myself mass producing them. It’s a hobby,” she said. “I would love to do a craft show and they’re just unique enough — something you don’t see everywhere.”
Hutchison’s history with creating things goes back to her youth and has roots in her family. Her father, she said, took to wood carving after he retired and when she was in junior high school, she made figures out of kits using clothespins.
“There was one, a golfer. I wasn’t satisfied with where (the kit) was telling me to go, so I painted argyle socks on it,” she said.
In Christmases past, Hutchison has also created other types of ornaments, including repurposing existing Christmas tree balls into other decorations by gluing them together and painting them. She’s also created tiny replicas of some of the historical buildings around Vincennes, like the defunct Palace of Sweets, the Pantheon Theater and the Old Cathedral.
In the many years since middle school, the Hutchisons’ children have grown and have families of their own. Now, their grandchildren are starting to put in requests, usually from movies they watched the past year. And some more requests from their friends are rolling in, too.
Apart from being a snapshot of the interests of those for whom they’re created, Susie Hutchison’s walnut art pieces are also a snapshot of cultural relevance for her husband.
As Susie Hutchison lined up this year’s pieces, which include a likeness of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, on the dining table in their home, Michael mused that he can always look back and remember what was relevant based on what his wife had immortalized as art in years past.
It’s possible, too, that the Hutchisons’ grandchildren will know of cultural events and characters that they might never have, had it not been for her creations. Her likenesses of the characters from the Jetsons and the Looney Tunes cartoons might spur questions about who that silly-looking black duck is.
Susie Hutchison knows that to some, her obsession with immortalizing people from history and characters from popular culture might seem a little unusual, but to her, that’s what makes it worth doing.
“A lot of people probably think I’m a little crazy, but it’s my love,” she said.
By Rama Sobhani