Cozy Baker is, well, kaleidoscopic. Aficionados call her "the grande dame of kaleidoscopes," "the first lady of American kaleidoscopes" and even "the patron saint of kaleidoscopes."
She looks marvelous in a red-plum pantsuit as she shows off the largest collection of kaleidoscopes in the world - more than 1,000 and growing - at her home on a wooded hillside near the Potomac River in Bethesda.
She's a handsome, youthful woman with beautifully coifed silver-white hair. She's of a certain age, which she charmingly declines to disclose. Cozy, she says, comes from her middle name, Cozette.
"Nearly everything you look at is a kaleidoscope," she says.
And only a few antiques look like the cardboard tube from the cut-rate toy store that fascinated us all as children. Kaleidoscopes handmade by artists and craftspeople routinely cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Sought-after antiques bring tens of thousands at auction.
Baker turns to one that radiates a video film of the maker's garden of vermilion flowers while playing a tape of "I Only Have Eyes For You." This kaleidoscope is about 4 feet long with a viewing port about the size of a 21-inch television set. But it's not the world's largest. A farmer in New York has converted his silo into a kaleidoscope. The largest hand-manipulated scope is in a downstairs room.
The craftsman who made the video piece, David Fulkerson, made four larger models for the first kaleidoscope museum, which Baker helped to build in Japan.
"He knows I like that particular music," she says. "You're looking through a three-mirror system, but they're tapered so it seems like a sphere at the end, rather than flat."
Kaleidoscopic images are as hard to describe as melting snowflakes. But Richard Wilbur, the U.S. poet laureate in 1987, made a noble effort a couple years ago that Baker quotes in her copious writings:
In this tube you see
At the far end a strew of
Which, however, grows
Upon reflection to an
Intricate pied rose,
Flushed with sun, that might,
Set in some cathedral's wall,
Paraphrase the light.
Baker sparked a kaleidoscope renaissance in modern America with her 1985 book, Through the Kaleidoscope, the first of eight. She created a whole world of collectors and a universe of kaleidoscope arts and crafts. Niche magazine included her among "20 Who Made a Difference" in the craft world in the 20th century.
She organized the first American exhibition of kaleidoscopes at Strathmore Hall Art Center in Rockville the year her book came out. Strathmore will hold a 20th-anniversary show this fall.
A year after that first exhibition, she founded the Brewster Kaleidoscope Society, which honors Sir David Brewster, the Scotch scientist who invented the kaleidoscope in 1816. The society has about 600 members, and Baker is president-emeritus.
"She was just a catalyst for the whole movement," says Sherry Moser, a Georgia kaleidoscope and stained-glass artist who is one of the society's three co-equal directors. Baker encouraged artists and connected them with galleries and collectors. Baker's collection is certainly the largest in the world, Moser says.
"What makes her collection unique is that she was there at the beginning," Moser says. "Cozy was such an enthusiastic supporter of scopes and the artists who made them. She was sort of our spokesman. [But] the glue that held it all together is that there is something special about kaleidoscopes and the people attracted to kaleidoscopes."
Brewster's patent for the original kaleidoscope runs to long paragraphs of 19th-century prose. But a kaleidoscope is basically a tube with two, three or more mirrors set at angles that reflect fairly miraculous designs of whatever you're looking at, often shards of multicolored glass. Since Brewster, there have been more or less infinite variations.
Baker writes that Brewster's kaleidoscope launched "a universal mania for the instrument [that] seized all classes, from the lowest to the highest, from the most ignorant to the most learned." Hundreds of thousands were made and sold. But Brewster hardly made a farthing.
The kaleidoscope made its first real impact in America when a Prussian immigrant named Charles Bush made some improvements and manufactured thousands beginning in 1873.
Baker has a Bush kaleidoscope mounted on a single stand like a telescope staring into a constantly flickering world of splintered color.
"His are probably the most sought-after antiques," she says. "Brewsters are almost impossible to find."
Baker keeps her antique kaleidoscopes in a made-over fireplace.
"I have an original Brewster, and the one over in Baltimore is mine," she says. "I had three Brewsters."
Curator Sumpter T. Priddy III borrowed one for the current Maryland Historical Society exhibit, American Fancy. He demonstrates how kaleidoscopic images influenced fancy 19th-century quilt makers.
But Baker's not so interested anymore in collecting the historic scopes.
"They're not fun to sit and look at," she says. "They didn't have the good mirrors we have today. They didn't have the wonderful [art glass] we have today. ... [Kaleidoscopes] are pieces of sculpture now, pieces of art."
One of her favorites is the gardenscope on the deck overlooking the wooded hillside. You peer through the kaleidoscope tube at growing plants.
"That bowl in the middle you can keep changing," she says. Pansies in the spring, perhaps, and leaves and gourds in the fall. "But I've found my favorite thing is miniature cactus. They're so colorful and they keep blooming and the whole bowl turns.
"You stand looking down, and you just turn the bowl. I think that sometimes people that come here, groups, that's so many people's favorites."
In summer, her swimming pool down on the hillside has fiber-optic lights around the perimeter.
"You can sit up here and be having dinner and look down there, and the lights change from pink to green to blue," she says. "So that's my kaleidopool."
She has fitted a mirror system to her fish tank to make a "kaleidaquarium." The swimming fish created an image her four grandchildren love. In a bathroom, she's got stained-glass windows designed by a kaleidoscope maker. Another scope is worked into an ostrich egg. And even the screen saver on her computer is a kaleidoscopic image.
Baker has written frequently on the meditative and therapeutic values of kaleidoscopes. She often picks up a scope just to peer into that perfectly regular, but ever shifting, world.
"I used to even more than I do now," she says, "before I got on to my puzzles."
She's doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles lately. She's nearly completed a 1,000-piece puzzle illustrated with a Thomas Kinkade cottage scene, which she works at on a sitting-room table.
"I was feeling guilty about doing something ... so uncreative as a puzzle," she says. "But let me tell you something, there's quite a tie between jigsaw puzzles and kaleidoscopes because you start with everything sort of random chaos and you end up with a gorgeous picture. Perfect. So I don't feel so guilty."