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.
I was dressed in red on Halloween day in 1965, a little cowgirl sheriff with a nice shiny badge, living in a bungalow in Park Ridge, IL. Of course I carried beads with me in that bag, along with my trick-or-treat candy. Eventually my mother became concerned; her daughter was too fascinated with beads. Was it some kind of disorder, she wondered? Should she seek professional help? In the end she decided to wait, and I moved on to other interests.
But my interest in beads soon 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 testing 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 taught myself 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 economy of form with lushness of surface; balancing simplicity with complexity; pairing ease of wear with long-term durability.
I believe that the potential of my primary medium — beadwork — is infinite, not unlike Indra's Net, an ancient Hindu-Buddhist metaphor for the inter-being of all entities in the universe.
Visually rendered, Indra’s Net looks like a 3-dimensional structure of infinite reach, composed of nodes made of beads or jewels, connected by threads running in multiple directions — string theory on steroids, one might almost say. For examples of these renderings, visit this Google Images page.
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. I’m especially interested in mainland Chinese beadwork, since so little is known about it. I’ve already published some of what I’ve learned, and hope to publish more in the future. I’ve been to China more than once, trying to get at the truth. I keep in mind what Melville once said: “it is not down on any map; true places never are.” I find my true place in seeking-out mode, which is of course full of pitfalls.
Inevitably, my research into the past leads me back to the present, wanting to try forms and techniques I've been seeing in the beadwork of other times and other cultures.
My latest work features "lattices" - 3 dimensional elements derived from various 2-dimensional techniques I’ve documented. Figuring out how to combine these lattices with other structures keeps me challenged.
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 July 20, 2019
* 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.