Susan Lebo said she's reluctant to show anyone her back bedroom.
"It's a mess," she said.
The bedroom-turned-workshop is home to all the tools of her trade. Scissors, knives, crochet needles, boxes of pins and assorted implements encircle a sewing machine on a small table. Scattered about are swatches of fabric and glass vials filled with colorful beads. Shelves hold clear bins stacked with spools of thread, balls of yarn and small decorative ornaments.
From this mass of color and texture Lebo works her magic, transforming the bits and pieces into art.
"My art is all-consuming," she said. "I am always at work on something creative."
That creativity takes many forms, much of which is showcased in the living room of the Palm Harbor condo Lebo, 65, shares with her husband, Neil. The forms may vary, but a common theme prevails — all represent some form of Judaic art.
"I love to create and I'm proud of my heritage," she said, "so I combine the two."
Beaded art lures the eye in the couple's home. The centerpieces of the living room are two 16- by 20-inch framed beaded canvases, replicas of paintings by artist Marc Chagall. The pictures, each depicting symbols of a different tribe of Israel, rest on tall decorative easels.
Each canvas is covered with about 60,000 tiny beads and is costly to produce. The materials needed for each work, Lebo said, tally upward of $400.
Not just any beads or canvas will do.
Lebo purchases only Czechoslovakian glass seed beads from local art shops or through private dealers.
"There are other types of seed beads," she said, "but the Czechoslovakian ones have a greater variety of colors and more luster."
Neil Lebo, who shops with his wife, knows the difficulty of finding the right canvas as well.
"She uses only Penelope canvases," he said, referring to a canvas traditionally used in Europe. It is woven with double threads, creating both large and small spaces.
"This is the only kind of canvas that will hold very small beads," said his wife, "because of the horizontal and vertical lines."
Lebo usually begins the time-consuming beading projects in the summer.
"I work two to four hours a day every day," she said. "It takes me months to complete a canvas."
It also takes hours, Lebo said, to stretch a beaded canvas into a frame.
The variety of other artwork on display in the Lebo home is stunning. On the walls hang free-form, abstract designs also fashioned from tiny glass beads. Around the living room are grouped traditional Hanukkah menorahs. The couple collected some from their travels, but Lebo crafted many of them herself from glass, stone, wood and other materials.
Other creations include three-dimensional art, collages fashioned from cut-up greeting cards and original shadowboxes encasing rare and antique Jewish trinkets behind glass.
Neil Lebo pointed to one shadowbox featuring tiny six-pronged Jewish stars and seven-branch traditional candelabras.
"Some of these things are over 100 years old," he said. "We got most of them from the Arab market in Jerusalem."
Family shadowboxes dot the hallway. They hold artifacts that go back generations, including documents of family lost in the Holocaust.
Lebo said her greatest challenge stems from her hands.
"My fingers are filled with arthritis," she said, "and my hands hurt all the time."
She struggles along, she said, because she loves what she is doing and the doctor encouraged her to keep her fingers moving.
Lebo, a native of Wisconsin, said her penchant for creative projects developed after moving to Palm Harbor in 1994 following her husband's retirement.
"I didn't begin with creative art in Wisconsin," she said. "I worked for 25 years out of my home as a seamstress making clothes for hard-to-fit women."
She said she always knitted and crocheted, but it was only in Florida that beading replicas of famous paintings and creating original art blossomed as a full-time hobby.
Lebo said she loves putting her imagination and talents to work, but mostly for herself, friends and family. Occasionally someone asks her to make a particular item and she does. So far she hasn't tried to sell her finished products.
Her latest love is quilting.
"This will be my first quilt," she said, holding up a large piece of blue-patterned fabric.
"I just got the idea to make one and I'm going ahead with it."
Lebo said ideas pop up and she acts on them.
"It's just part of being creative to keep coming up with new things," she said, "and it keeps me out of trouble."
Elaine Markowitz is a freelance writer living in Palm Harbor. She can be reached at [email protected]