Susan Bryan’s Mysterious Journeys

An artist tells tales of 1940s–1950s Americana with vintage travel cases and artifacts

There are objects we leave behind long after we’re gone that have no apparent meaning to anyone else—mementos from another decade, another place, another life. Out of context, they’re junk to some, mysteries to others, elements of an incomplete story.

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As an antiques dealer specializing in the vintage modern style, artist Susan Bryan took such items, which were distinguishable from more high-end keepsakes, and tucked them within works of art she made by adorning vintage travel cases with beaded souvenir belts and necklaces. A broken violin bow, a tassel, a handwritten note and other ancillary objects became pieces of narratives, complete with maps, fabrics, postcards, books and other sundry items. Objects that might seem the least meaningful became valuable elements of a grander story in the works, currently featured at Patina Decor on Main Street.

“I figured out pretty fast that I was more informed by the vintage and antique items I was coming across,” Bryan says, referring to the business she owns with her husband, Alan Platzer. “We come across these stories all the time. You’re buying someone’s past or how they lived. We often wonder, ‘Who owned this and why did they keep this? Where did he or she go?’”

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Bryan created the case’s exteriors by shucking belts and deconstructing necklaces, creating fields of color and pattern and incorporating rosettes, beaded fringe and Native American-inspired symbols—a chief, a thunderbird, an arrow. Emblazoned across might be the words “Grand Canyon,” “Arizona,” “Montana,” “Big Sur,” “Las Vegas,” “Alaska” or “Aloha.” Each one is a full composition. A squat 1940s train case with a handle is covered in robin’s-egg blue beads bordered with beaded patterns. Leather belt parts with vinyl stitching create horizontal rows and chevron stripes.

The medium is sentimental, kitsch American nostalgia that landed in the hands of Americans venturing out in the 20th century’s new age of auto culture and freeways that took families out west, up north and into a landscape dotted with landmarks and adventures.

There are nearly 20 cases ($1,250-$2,500), each a deviation from Bryan’s work as an abstract painter, and each is a journey of sorts, a fabricated life left for the viewer to interpret through the vintage matchbooks, scarves, lace, writing utensils and books inside. An old note, a military patch, a photograph and mahjong tiles direct the narratives. Bryan tried to keep the interior objects reflective of the time period of each case, most of them from the ’40s and ’50s, while thinking about the kind of person who would have carried it. Within them, she’s made use of checkerboards, leather folios, distressed doll heads, a slide viewer and memorabilia from a José Iturbi piano recital. “I’m collecting this stuff as I’m working on [each] piece,” says Bryan, who received her BFA years ago from Colorado State University. “You have to work within the bounds of the materials.”

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On a larger case, the vertical striping from threaded belts and necklace beads creates a contemporary take on a native blanket design. The words, though symbolic, are more about pattern and color, which is why the lettering for “Aloha Hawaii” can sit with rows of “Montana, Montana, Montana”—the repetition reflects the mass production of Americana, collective memories and the outsourcing of American products, whether intended or not. Some belts were made in Hong Kong or Japan using Native American beading traditions representing tribal identity and values.

One of her favorites, “Prison Made,” includes a Montana license plate marked with the phrase “Prison Made,” and indicates through beads creating an eye and tattooed tear that somebody in this story, male or female, went to prison. The books, marbles and other interior items hint at the story.

As with the others, where its owner began his or her life and where he or she ended are invisible bookends that we’ll never find out. All we know from Bryan’s fictional stories is what that person might have valued through the artist’s poetic vignettes, dripping in engaging sentimental mysteries.

Patina Decor

1300 S. Main St., Suite #140, 702-776-6222,