THE Place for Soutache & Bead Embroidery Freaks (yeah, that's right, I said it... Freaks...)
Remaking my career in my forties was not practical. It was not financially savvy. It was not carefully thought-out.
It was also not avoidable.
Having worked for over two decades in an industry that provided a healthy income but did not feed my sense of creativity had taken an enormous mental and emotional toll. I had a wonderful boss and dedicated and caring co-workers. But I had reached the point at which imagining continuing in the same job until retirement brought a sense of hopelessness and despair. I needed more color, more beauty. My fingers itched to create lovely things. Changing jobs, however, meant continuing with the first while forging the second resulting in an eighty-to-ninety-hour-a-week work schedule at which I have been doggedly churning away for about five years now.
But, oddly, this has not been such a grind. Oh, it’s been hard work. And I’ve been tired. Sometimes very tired. But it has been exhilarating to feel that I am working toward something of my own and discovering that it is truly within my power to affect this change. Cliché as it sounds – when you’re doing something you truly love, it truly does not feel like work.
Swami Vivekananda said, "Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life - think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone.This is the way to success." This truly embodies the sense of purpose and momentum I have experienced over the past few years.
Last May, I had the sheer, overwhelming joy of teaching classes at the Bead & Button Show in Milwaukee, WI. While there, and in preparation for the launch of my book, “Soutache & Bead Embroidery,” I was interviewed by Kalmbach Publishing. The interview (clicking here will take you to the "Exciting Stuff to Share" page of my website - the video is posted there) was beautifully edited and gives a nice, succinct overview of the book as well as some insight as to how and why I wrote it.
It also shows how completely pooped I was at the time.
But I am not unhappy about this. Changing the course of one’s life in any meaningful way should – I think – be exhausting. Not simply because “anything worth having is worth working hard for,” but because working hard at something, throwing yourself at it every day with sweat-wringing, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends, hold-nothing-in-reserve abandon only to wake up early the next day and gleefully do it all again is the clearest indicator I know of that one has stumbled over the thing that is worth working for.
Now, with the book out on the market and a modest-but-steady string of teaching engagements scheduled, I am about to take the final leap. I will leave my full-time job at the end of this year and cliff-dive straight into the choppy waters of self-employment. I do not fool myself into believing that I will suddenly have the “luxury” of a forty-hour work-week. I expect that I will still be beading at four in the morning and writing project instructions at ten at night. The prospect, however, that all of the hours in-between can be “full of that idea” brings an almost-indescribable sense of giddiness.
I will continue to be deliciously tired. I will make friends with my under-eye bags. Perhaps I will decorate them. I will bead and write and create and teach and laugh until I have worn myself down to Technicolor, sparkly, bejeweled nub.
And I will be profoundly grateful.
Last week, I participated in the 80th Annual League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair in Sunapee, NH. After nine days of uncharacteristically fabulous weather during which I enjoyed a steady parade of happy, art-oriented Fair-Goers who paused frequently to oogle, praise and purchase, I left the show with one clear and singular thought; I gotta get out more.
Like many Artists, I am very liable to get sucked into the mire of my own “stuff;” upcoming shows, classes, projects to develop, articles to write, dead-lines to meet. And as an Artist-slash-Small-Business-Owner, I’m even less inclined to come up for air. I love what I do and I become so deeply involved in it that – quite literally – whole seasons can go by without my taking any more notice than is required to install and uninstall my window-unit air-conditioners.
But what happens to the work? Without new experiences, new sensory input, our work as Artists can become stale and repetitive. Most of us seek out – if even on a limited basis – new data for our brains to churn up and re-form into something new. I was, in fact, under the impression that my heretofore minimal efforts in that vein – reading a book, going to see a movie – were the opposite of my day-to-day, eyeballs-deep immersion in the building of my life and career as an Artist; the remedy, so-to-speak for the intense pace at which I regularly work.
I was wrong.
Taking the time to watch an entire episode of “The Big Bang Theory” while I scarf down my freezer-to-microwave dinner does not, in-point-of-fact, constitute significant mental or emotional stimulus. Such a “mini-break” is no more nourishment to my creativity than a Flintstones' Chewable Vitamin is a gourmet meal. Going to the Fair, on the other hand (or any Art-event of similar caliber), equates to happening upon a veritable smorgasbord of inspiration.
Last week, I hobnobbed with fellow artists, some old friends, others brand new. I had a chance to see and actually hug Ann Dillon, the amazing polymer-clay artist with whom I had collaborated on a large competition piece but with whom I had communicated almost entirely through email for the past year. I chatted with Nancy Evans who makes extraordinary, Nuno felted garments and jewelry (and who is also, coincidentally, the mom of my date to the Junior Prom but that requires getting into the Way-Back Machine). I finally was able to buy a print from Catherine Green – a serigraph artist whose gentle demeanor is as soothing to me as the clean, elegant lines of her work. And I made new friends; Dale Rogers – a metal sculptor whose smile is as big as his work and whose “booth” (about half of the Sculpture Garden) became, over the course of the show, a unanimously approved social epicenter. And I finally got to talk with Stephanie Young (she’s incredibly warm and friendly but she emanates this rock-star cool factor that, up until this year, gave me a bad case of the Wayne-and-Garth “I’m-Not-Worthies”). Stephanie makes this stupid-beautiful pottery which – at first glance – appears to be a perfectly preserved collection of Art Nouveau pieces but, when you get in closer, you notice that the patterns are swimming with – well – shrimp… or butterflies… or sometimes jellyfish…
So what was my take away from my nine-day outing? Well, more work with Ann of course. And a solemn promise to myself to take a felting class from Nancy. Some of Dale’s sculptures feature spheres that appear to be floating inside the negative space of larger sculptures… I’m thinking about a necklace that might feature a similar element… and Stephanie had this gorgeous little pot that was glazed in shades of cinnabar, periwinkle and sage… I’ve never worked in that color-combination before but you know I’m gonna…
My batteries are fully re-charged now, my head and heart brimming over with new ideas for new projects. I am back in my studio and delighted to be here. The challenge before me lies in knowing that I can and will always return but – to truly reach my full potential – I must leave it more often.
Almost ten years ago now, I elected to go back to school part-time. Although the degree in Interior Design I earned back in 1989 formed the foundation of a long and rewarding career that that has sustained me since the early 90’s, something was seriously missing. More and more, I felt a compulsion to create smaller projects, colorful flights of fancy, things that were less bound by budgets or restricted by the tastes and temperaments of others. In short, I longed to be an artist. And while I dabbled in various techniques at home in my spare time, I often felt adrift in those efforts. The freedom to do “whatever I chose” spawned directionless projects with unsatisfying results.
The choice to go back to school to pursue a degree in Fine Art meant that my “homework” – studio projects into which I threw myself with gleeful abandon – were, in fact, directed. Although a great deal of creativity was encouraged, there was always a goal, purpose or outline. Here – at last - was the happy medium; clearly outlined tasks I was allowed to pursue without censorship, problems to be solved without further input from anybody until I requested it. I produced work I loved – paintings, drawings and sculptures – of which I am still proud. The discovery of this process which I have come to think of as “Assignment Art” was pivotal in my development as an artist and continues to inform my work.
When I am feeling creatively stale, I give myself assignments; “Make a bracelet using only scraps.” “Create a necklace using only colors from this painting.“ “Design a component that focuses on the use of negative space.” Sometimes, these projects result in wonderful work. Sometimes I’m left with a bead-tray of hideous little half-formed pieces of rubbish. But they always give birth to new inventions and ways of doing things which are then incorporated into later projects. It’s almost a diversionary tactic; by distracting “the Guard” – the critical, analytical portion of my brain – with some not-so-important task, the creative, mad-scientist, six-year-old who lives inside my mind is allowed to scamper off to her lab where she begins a series of oh-so-irresponsible experiments. I believe that she laughs maniacally to some dramatic organ music only she can hear and there may even be lightning and thunder involved but I’m not sure – she’s a bit secretive about her process.
My most recent piece,
“Dangerous Liaisons,” is a necklace born from my Assignment Art technique. This assignment was actually, unwittingly inspired by my friend Steven Weiss at BeadSmith. For over a year now, I’ve been working with BeadSmith to help them develop their line of Soutache and a series of Soutache & Bead Embroidery Kits. We were talking on the phone one day (always a stimulating event because Steven is one of the only people I know who speaks as fast as I do) and – in his signature, rapid-fire, Steven-fashion he rattled off a bunch of ideas that lodged in my brain; “Have you tried incorporating Super-Duos with the Soutache? What about Spikes? And Lunasoft Cabochons? I really think you should do something with those…” and so on an so forth. But I’m a little short on time these days. A project revolving around this kind of bead, that kind of bead, this sort of cabochon? Well, let’s kill three
birds with one stone…
“Dangerous Liaisons” was designed to highlight the way Soutache and Lunasoft Cabochons can complement one another plus incorporate the use of Spike beads plus introduce a technique for integrating SuperDuos. The results are, at first glance, a bit of a Rococo confection. The Spikes, however, unexpected with such a lady-like like colorway, give it a toothy, edginess that positively delights the mischievous little monster in my mind. If the Marquis de Sade were to have design a gift for Marie Antoinette, this just might have been it… Mission accomplished.
Anais Nin wrote,
Last week, I completed the first draft of my book, “The
Art of Soutache & Bead Embroidery.” I put the last stitch in the last
project, formatted the last file for the last process photography image,
printed it, packaged it and – with no small amount of trepidation – threw my newborn
dream “into space like a kite” as I delivered the bundle into the hands of my
friendly neighborhood postal worker who swore on his life that it would make
its way safely to the desk of my publisher. (An email two days later confirmed
And what did it bring back? A new life? In a manner of speaking, yes. After 18 months of an almost-relentless, head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone, every-minute-must-be-maximized mentality, I feel a bit like a some sort of woodland creature that has just come out of its burrow after a long hibernation. I am blinking into the bright, almost blinding sunlight of... wait… what is that?... Could that be… free time?! For over a week now, I have felt positively giddy with the simple luxuries of being able to cook a proper meal and catching up on last season’s episodes of “Downton Abbey.”
New friends? Yes, in abundance. As I have had the privilege of teaching at beautiful shops, I meet store owners, many of whom have thrown off the constraints of other careers to pursue a more artistic life. I meet students who are, of course, on a brief, creative holiday from their day-to-day activities which they discuss as they work and which I find fascinating. I am amazed at the diversity of the people who are drawn to the world of craft. And then there are the other teachers and instructors – as open, embracing and encouraging a crew of gypsy misfits as ever there was – who share their knowledge, invite me to join them at meals and offer tantalizing tidbits of the most valuable advice. I find myself delighting in the idea that I might yet count myself among them.
And there is certainly a new love. While I have long worked in the information-providing world of sales, taught aerobics, performed on stage and spoken at seminars, nothing could have prepared me for the passion I feel in sharing my craft. Watching the “ah-ha” moment when a student truly “gets it” and the materials in her hands magically transform from alien, awkward, tangle-y bits to elegant, swirling, self-supporting curves brings a smile to my face every time.
That leaves “new country.” And that promise too seems to be coming to fruition; as my business expands and the invitations to provide instruction continue to show up in my mailbox, so too do my opportunities to go to new places. Whether I am dining in Manhattan or admiring the sprawling landscape of Pennsylvania, I am rediscovering my own country, seeing it in a new light.
So, now, my dream-kite is flying high above me, surprising me with its dips and turns, its sometimes graceful, often erratic path. I’m holding tightly to the string, grateful for the constant tug, reminding me of the next project, the next idea, pulling me – gently now – forward.
Classical artists often referred to their Muse and depicted her as a sort of Angel of Inspiration – a heavenly beauty that would waft down from on high, whisper a few sweet nothings of miraculous encouragement and then evaporate as mysteriously as she had materialized.
I have a muse.
She’s decidedly un-heavenly.
She’s a whiny, petulant, annoying, relentlessly persistent, grossly overindulged, six-year old. She gets an idea into her fevered little brain and simply refuses to let it go, tugging obstinately at the skirts of my psyche until the grown-up part of me – the part that is most likely trying to write the step-by-step instructions for my next class – sighs in exasperation and gives in to her pig-headed demands for attention.
But here’s the secret… she’s usually on to something.
Like most jewelry artists, I have trained myself to be on the lookout for “faces” in my work and to assiduously avoid them. The human mind is trained to see faces even in things that are not meant to have them (like wallpaper, carpeting, drapery fabric) and – once spotted – it’s almost impossible to un-see them. They become a distraction. So, there’s nothing more infuriating than spending twenty or thirty hours on a necklace only to discover a pair of eyes and a nose peeking at me like “Kilroy was here” from within the otherwise lovely swirls of my work.
Last week, I was working on instructions for a new necklace kit and, going over my photos, I thought I saw.. was it? Is it? Is that a face?! Not really… it’s too wide… no, that’s not a face… And up pops my inner six-year old, unwelcome as Rumpelstiltskin.
“You know what that looks like?!” she’s practically vibrating with the sheer glee she finds in having discovered one of my mistakes.
“Go away,” I grumble.
Undeterred, she leans in and whispers, “It looks like one of those big dragon thingies they have in Chinese New Year parades!”
And “poof,” she’s gone leaving nothing but the faintest whiff of bubble-gum and a new, infuriatingly unshakeable idea that will drive me to distraction until I act upon it…
These are sketches of the elements in the work that has caused my latest inner child-wrangling challenge;
These are the results of my Google search starting with the search phrase “Chinese New Year Dragon Thingy” and through which I learned that there are costumes made for both Dragons and Lions used in these parades;
This is the new sketch incorporating the aforementioned offending element;
And this is my resultant Chinese New Year Dragon. I think there are still some refinements I want to make to the shape and I’m not sure what, ultimately will become of this compulsively-created creature… a necklace? A pin? An evening bag closure? I don’t know. Is it a Dragon or a Lion? I don't know. But I have to admit – however grudgingly – that I really like this little thing pushed on me by my maddening muse. And I want to make more.
God, I hate it when she’s right.
I love all things sparkly. Given the opportunity, I would gild every lily, wear glitter eye shadow to the gym and BeDazzle the grill cover. Jewelry, of course, is usually pretty bling-y all by itself. I mean - it is bling, right? But sometimes the twinkle and shine of beads, crystals, freshwater pearls, silver and gold just isn't quite enough... that's when I take it up a notch with rhinestone chain.
Rhinestone chain comes in a variety of sizes. I generally use the smallest sizes because I like the look of more stones per inch (go figure). Here's my trick to incorporating this element into either Bead Embroidery or Soutache & Bead Embroidery.
1. Start with a small piece of Lacy's Stiff Stuff you've either dyed or colored with a Sharpie Marker.
2. Sew down a flat bead.
3. Surround the flat bead with size 8o beads using Back-stitch Two.
4. Test fit a length of chain around the embroidery. Keep the chain a little longer than you think you'll need.
5. Sew up from the back of the work as close as possible to the bead embroidery and sew over the first link in the chain.
6. Continue sewing over each link in the chain. Here's the Super-Secret-Squirrel-Trick (shhh.....); keep the chain fairly loose. Resist the temptation to stretch the chain so that each link is taught. If you stretch the chain, the rhinestones will begin to tip outward.
7. When you've stitched all the way around, snip off any remaining rhinestone links and stitch down the first link and the last link one more time.
8. I used this bit of embroidery as the point of departure for this uber-glitzy necklace...
Teaching is always a delight for me. The fun of introducing a passion to others, the challenge of finding just the right form of communication for each student and the thrill of sharing that "aha!” moment when a student’s eyes light up as realize that they "get it" – I find these things deeply satisfying. But for sheer ecstasy – I’m talking dog-face-out-the-car-window, living-in-the-moment, wanna-lick-the-cake-batter-bowl rapture – nothing beats instructing Intermediate and Advanced Level students.
The advantages are obvious; the basic skills have been mastered, a common language is already spoken and a certain degree of commitment to the craft has been established. The “teaching” part, therefore, becomes easier. But this is not the source of my euphoria. Rather, it is the privilege of watching true creativity unfurl itself like brilliant butterflies’ wings before my very eyes. For while every class I teach has a certain structure to it, experienced students inevitably have their own vision for the project. I design my Intermediate and Advanced Level classes to foster that originality and, consequently, I find my teaching hours laced with powerful feelings of wonder at the works of art that are being formed under the hands of my students.
Two weeks ago, I taught a two-day, Intermediate Level workshop entitled “Declare Your Creativity with a Statement Necklace” at The Craft Center at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Headquarters in Concord, NH. The following images are student work photographed while in progress. In them, I see seeds of genius sprouting…