BEL AIR — BEL AIR -- You see one, you pick it up. You can't help yourself.
Peer through the eyepiece, and your eye transports your mind to a new universe, a world of ever-changing color and image that becomes whatever you want it to be.
It is kaleido-world, as practitioners of this newly popular art call it, a place where optical magic done with mirrors stirs the imagination and inevitably summons a rush of nostalgia.
The kaleidoscope, invented by a Scotsman 175 years ago and known to most people only as a children's toy, is enjoying an American renaissance as a work of art that uses increasingly sophisticated ways to create illusions.
"It's a young art, and it's magic," said Susanne Candey Bittle of Bel Air, who in three years has emerged as one of the area's best kaleidoscope artists. "Like any art it is limited only by your imagination. There's a bit of me in each one I make.
"To me, everyone is in such a fast-paced mode that it's a pleasant feeling to look into a kaleidoscope and see the changing colors and designs," said Mrs. Bittle, 28. "Everyone knows what they are, and it helps them remember their past, their childhood."
Modern kaleidoscope-makers consider themselves multimedia artists. They search constantly for new ways to create kaleidoscopic illusion and make imaginative casings, frequently using stained glass and special solder in Art Deco style.
The first kaleidoscopes used a two-mirror system. Later three mirrors were used, and some makers are now experimenting with four-and five-mirror systems, said Mrs. Bittle, who is working on a pentagonal version.
Traditional kaleidoscopes used a small container with the objects to be reflected, fragments of colored glass, shells, feathers and other natural objects, that was shaken or turned to provide different images.
New kaleidoscopes have wheels, usually two, of colored glass ++ that are spun to produce constantly moving images. Some of the newest experiments use polarized light and large blown-glass marbles swirled with color.
Another popular -- and inexpensive -- innovation uses mineral oil-filled "space tubes," plastic wands in which float brightly colored sequins, stars and plastic beads. They produce a lazy, flowing image when viewed in a kaleidoscope.
The kaleidoscope -- from the Greek for "beautiful . . . form . . . to see" -- was invented in 1816 by Sir David Brewster, a Scottish scientist and philosopher who was considered one of the most brilliant men of his day.
Instantly popular, the novelty spread through Britain. In the early 1870s, it reached the United States, where improved table models were invented. Interest in kaleidoscopes died in the 20th century, as newer diversions appeared, and eventually they were relegated to the status of cheap children's toys.
Interest reawakened in the 1970s and accelerated during the '80s, according to Cozette "Cozy" Baker, a Bethesda writer who has become the acknowledged "queen of kaleidoscopes."
Since 1985, Ms. Baker has written two books on the subject and founded an international organization of kaleidoscope artists and collectors called the Brewster Society. The Annapolis-based group claims 1,500 members worldwide.
Ms. Bittle, whose husband, Kurt, heads the Bel Air High School art department, began making kaleidoscopes during the boom of the '80s. She discovered she had the knack and soon developed a part-time business making and selling her creations.
Most of her kaleidoscopes have stained-glass cases, some in the shape of airplanes, with artistic soldering that not only holds the instrument together but enhances the overall effect. Others are made of sections of pipe from her family's hardware store. She said she plans to learn woodworking so she can turn out wooden cases on a lathe.
While toy kaleidoscopes use only a piece of polished metal bent in a V-shape as the reflector, professional artists use "front-surface" mirror. The thin glass is silvered on both sides and, when the protective film is lifted, the reflecting surface produces images of crystalline clarity.
The angle at which the mirrors are placed changes the type of image produced for the viewer, and Ms. Bittle is experimenting with that, too.
For soldering the instruments together, she first applies copper foil and then a special alloy of tin and lead called "ultimate solder" that can actually be stretched as it is applied. This allows Ms. Bittle to draw it into designs, such as tiny claws to hold the glass marbles in place.
"That's the part I enjoy the most because I get to create with my soldering iron," she said.
Ms. Bittle, whose husband nicknamed her "Butterfly," uses the insect as her signature. She solders a metal butterfly to some kaleidoscopes, melts one in the plastic or etches one on the viewing glass as part of the design.
"I don't have to put my name, but I always know which are mine," she said.
Ms. Bittle said she sells kaleidoscopes for $25 to $125, depending on the style.
"That's cheap," she said. "I've seen them of the same quality at up to $700."
Some of the country's top artists ask $4,000 to $5,000 for their creations, and an antique kaleidoscope can fetch from $10,000 up to whatever someone will pay.
Ms. Baker, who bought her first kaleidoscope in 1983, has what is thought to be the largest collection anywhere, more than 500 kaleidoscopes including one 12 feet long and 6 feet high that weighs 500 pounds.
"There is magic, fantasy and magic, within the scope." she saidexplaining her fascination with the art. "There is no sordidness, no ugliness, only joy and pleasure. It is a real joyful instrument, of simplistic beauty."
Interested in kaleidoscopes?
Anyone interested in kaleidoscopes may join the Brewster Society by applying to Cozette "Cozy" Baker, president, 100 Severn Ave., Suite 605, Annapolis, Md. 21403. The annual subscription is $25 and includes a quarterly newsletter devoted to kaleidoscopes.