It started with a strand of wooden beads - and the simple techniques a toddler can manage -- string the beads, unstring the beads, and string them again, maybe in a new color pattern. According to my mother, for several years I carried these Playskool beads with me wherever I went. The original set, ca. early 1960s, included 30 beads in 6 colors and 5 shapes, plus two striped shoelaces. That the laces looked like candy canes didn't hurt.
My early drawings reflected my love for this set of beads. In a self-portrait from 1965, I gave myself a giant wooden barrel bead for a torso and a smaller spherical bead for a neck. At about this time I also developed my lifelong love of the color red. I was dressed in red on Halloween day in 1965, a little cowgirl sheriff, living in a bungalow on Oakton Street in Park Ridge, IL. Eventually my mother became concerned; I was a bit too fascinated with the beads. Was it some kind of obsession? Should she seek professional help? In the end she decided to wait, and I moved on to other interests.
But my interest in beads returned. In my early teens I started playing with them again, making ornaments and flowers from the kits of the day. My mother found some of my early efforts in the attic a few years ago. Although they look naive to me now, I keep them on display in my studio to remind me how far I've come..and how far I might be able to go.
After trying other career ideas, on January 1st, 1988, I rented a work-live space in Chicago, IL, where I began to build a body of work. I practiced soldering so that I could finish my pieces with original armatures and clasps. I learned various African bead netting techniques. Being wholly self-taught (except for one metals class) had its advantages; I didn't know which rules not to break. For the first few years I lived as cheaply as possibly, dining mostly on pasta and coffee.
Since then I've designed several other bodies of work, changing many things in the process - my beads, beading techniques, studio location and dietary practices. But my goal is still the same - to design pieces that blend streamlined forms with lush surfaces, balancing simplicity and complexity, ease of wear and long-term durability. I love the days I get to spend in the studio, trying out new ideas. It makes me happy to see people wearing my pieces, bringing them to life in ways I cannot anticipate.
I believe that the potential of my primary medium, beadwork, is infinite, much like the proverbial Indra's Net, an ancient metaphor for the connectedness of all entities in the universe, sometimes depicted as the union of beads and thread, embodying a 3-dimensional structure of infinite reach -- string theory on steroids, one might say.
Maybe the Hindu poet Namdev was envisioning something like Indra's net when in the 13th century he wrote these lines:
"Just as there is one thread, and on it are woven, breadthwise and lengthwise, hundreds of thousands of beads, so is everything woven unto the Lord."*
To connect myself to something larger than the confines of my studio, I research beadwork history, especially that of Asia. My paper "Chinese Bead Curtains, Past and Present" appeared in Volume 25 (2013) of Beads: The Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers.
My book, The Art of Beadwork: Historic Inspiration, Contemporary Design was published in 2005. In it I feature the work of artists from my own culture and beyond, as well as images from museums around the world.
For the last year and more, I've been working with Hwei-F'en Cheah, author of Phoenix Rising: Narratives in Nyonya Beadwork, to document unpublished bead netting and plaiting techniques used by Peranakan and/or other Chinese peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia. In the process, I've had to begin constructing an ad-hoc taxonomy for bead netting and plaiting techniques, along with an ad-hoc terminology. I'll be publishing the results of my research before too long. After that, a larger project awaits, relating to mainland Chinese beadwork.
Inevitably, my research into the past leads me back to the present, wanting to try out the techniques I've been seeing in the beadwork of other times and other cultures, to create new designs with them. More about all of that, later. For now, it's back to the studio for a precious day of making.
Thanks for stopping by.
Updated May 25, 2016
* I first came across Namdev's quote in the final installment of Peter Francis's 6-part article "Beadwork Beads," which was published in the Los Angeles Bead Society Newsletter from 1980 to 1982 in Vols. 6 (3) to 7 (7). For more on Peter Francis, click here.