Charles Karadimos didn’t start out wanting to be an artist.
“I went to the University of Maryland and got a degree in economics,” said Karadimos, a D.C. native who now lives in Damascus. “But I didn’t really want a job, so — I had been doing some stained glass work in the middle 1970s, and in ’76, I took my stained glass business on the road, so to speak. I traveled cross-country.”
Completely self-taught when it came to doing glass work, he began making jewelry and terrariums in college, eventually putting his interest in math and physics to use making kaleidoscopes. Now he’s a sought-after kaleidoscope artist, one of 41 from around the world whose work is on display at the Mansion at Strathmore in a free, family-friendly exhibit called “Kaleidoscopes: Spectrum.” For Karadimos, it’s a great time to reflect on more than 40 years of kaleidoscope making.
“Most things I made were three-dimensional,” he recalled. “Small jewelry boxes, music boxes, terrariums, lamps. I understood the physics of reflection, geometry, radial symmetry — that type of thing — in the kaleidoscope, and my math and science background plus my dabbling in stained glass-making sort of led me there.”
Once Karadimos got started, there was no stopping him. He recalls taking a dozen kaleidoscopes to a Gaithersburg crafts fair in the early 1980s. “They were all sold in the first couple of hours,” he said. “I realized I probably needed to raise the price a little bit!”
Supply and demand notwithstanding, Karadimos found kaleidoscopes were a hit wherever he went, with craft fair and Renaissance fair attendees crowding his booth. To this day, his work remains sought after and highly collectible, and he owes a lot of that to a Bethesda woman named Hazel Cozette Oliver Baker — Cozy to her friends — and an organization known as The Brewster Kaleidoscope Society.
“It’s an international organization of kaleidoscope artists, collectors, retailers and enthusiasts of all kinds,” Karadimos explained, when asked about the Brewster Society, which Cozy Baker founded in 1986. “At first, it was meant to be just a club for us to get together for an exhibition somewhere and introduce the kaleidoscopes. As it continued to grow over the years, we’ve continued to have exhibitions as well as an annual convention.”
Named for the kaleidoscope’s inventor, the Scottish scientist and optics pioneer Sir David Brewster, the Brewster Society has members from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, England, Canada and Russia. Baker, its founder, was a travel writer and public speaker who “got involved with kaleidoscopes while she was dealing with some grief,” Karadimos said. “Her son had been killed by a drunk driver.”
In the wake of her youngest son Randall’s death at 23, Baker picked up a kaleidoscope while traveling on a book tour and found that its beauty helped her cope — so much so that she decided to make the kaleidoscope the subject of her next book. “She went to the Library of Congress and found nothing,” said Karadimos. “So she took it upon herself to research this, and her first book featured 30 of us artists.”
Karadimos, who lived nearby, helped Baker with 1985’s “Through the Kaleidoscope,” the first of her seven books on the subject. “I got to meet many of the other artists that way,” he said. “I worked with her directly when they were organizing the Brewster Society in the early stages. I’ve been involved with the kaleidoscope community since its inception, really. I was actually the display coordinator at Strathmore for the other five or six shows we had there.”
Baker didn’t really understand the physics or the science of kaleidoscopes, Karadimos said. She just loved their beauty, which she felt reflected divine inspiration. After her death in 2010, the Brewster Society continued to flourish — and their shows at the Mansion at Strathmore go on.
“We have one exhibition every three to four years,” noted Gabrielle Tillenburg, Strathmore’s Visual Arts Coordinator. “That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s been sort of organic that way.” As organic as the very first exhibit, in 1985, which Baker curated and organized with help from Karadimos and their colleague Carolyn Bennett. Ten thousand visitors came to the Mansion back then, according to Baker’s writings, and the show generated a flurry of publicity that led her to found the Brewster Society.
The current exhibit, “Spectrum: Kaleidoscopes” showcases a wide variety of ‘scopes that run the spectrum from kitschy and cute to elegant and artsy. In eight rooms, there are 120 kaleidoscopes — all for sale to the public — that range from tiny pendants to room-sized installations, plus kaleidoscope-inspired quilts decorating the gallery walls. Each is a unique, creative work of art.
“Most of the kaleidoscopes have a glass, metal, ceramic or wood exterior,” said Tillenburg. The interiors are different as well: liquid cells, wheel kaleidoscopes, marble kaleidoscopes, dry cells — and even some of the stands on which the kaleidoscopes rest are museum-worthy.
“You can absolutely touch them!” she added. “Everything is meant to be handled; it’s an adjustment of attitude toward an exhibition, coming from the world of ‘Please don’t touch!’ It’s an immersive exhibition and visitors are encouraged to interact with the pieces and experience them.”
So much so that kaleidoscope enthusiasts are invited to special tours: a children’s Talk & Tour and a Curator’s Tour for adults will take place on Saturday, both in English and Spanish. Ultimately, though, enjoying kaleidoscopes is one of the art world’s most personal pleasures.
“I think that’s part of the attraction,” said Karadimos. “When you have a kaleidoscope in your hand, you have a personal connection to an interactive art piece that’s only interacting with you at that time. You have this ability to create your own imagery; you are in control of what the artist has created.
“It’s magic in a tube.”
The Brewster Society’s “Kaleidoscopes: Spectrum” runs through May 26 at the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. On Saturday, April 27, there will be a Children’s Talk & Tour at 10:15 a.m., a Spanish language version of the Children’s Talk & Tour, Recorrido de arte para niños, at 11:30 a.m., a Curator’s Tour at 1 p.m. and a Spanish language version of the tour, Visita del Curador, at 2 p.m. Admission is free. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.