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 with a nice shiny badge, 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 undergraduate metals class) had its advantages; I didn't know which rules not to break. For the first five years I lived as cheaply as possibly, dining mostly on pasta and coffee. As my work improved, so did my finances.
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, or at shows, where I get 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, not unlike 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 (ca. 1270-1350) had in mind something like Indra's net when 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 and technique. 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.
In the last few years I've been researching mainland Chinese beadwork, about which little has been published. My papers "Chinese Bead Curtains, Past and Present" and "Mainland Chinese Export Beadwork" were published in 2013 and 2017 respectively, in Beads: The Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers.
In 2014 and 2015, at the invitation of Hwei-Fe'n Cheah, I spent time studying the beadwork of the Peranakan Chinese peoples of island (and parts of mainland) Southeast Asia. My paper, "Bead Netting and Plaiting Techniques in the Peranakan World" was published in the 2016 issue of Beads. I discovered that Peranakan beadworkers invented many complex techniques, significantly enlarging the global repertoire.
Links to all three papers may be found on the Publications page of this website, courtesy of Karlis Karklins, Editor of Beads.
At the invitation of Karlis Karklins, I am now preparing a short paper, "Chinese Beaded Shop Signs," for the Spring 2018 issue of Bead Forum.
Inevitably, my research into the past leads me back to the present, wanting to try the techniques I've been seeing in the beadwork of other times and other cultures. My new work features various "lattices" - 3 dimensional elements constructed from the 2-dimensional techniques documented in my 2016 paper.
I am profoundly grateful for this dialectic of past and present, which links me to the creativity of other makers in my field.
There is so much more to explore. A hundred thousand days would not be enough...and that is a great blessing.
Back to the studio for a precious day of making. Thank you for stopping by.
Updated February 15, 2018
* 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.