Secret Bead-Along!

Just a quick post to say I've signed up for Jean Power's Secret Bead-Along -- not only because the phrase "secret bead-along" is immensely attractive, but also because Jean Power's work with crystals and geometry is something that inspires and challenges me deeply. I think I have all or most of the supplies on hand already, on account of my Egregious Bead Stash. Here is the color inspiration I'll be using for the project:

Pulpy cover of Spicy Mystery Stories from August 1935.

So black and bright gold, accents of green, and touches of white and purple. Maybe a little of that pinup flesh pink, if needed.

I can't wait!

Cathedral Garden Bracelet

Next up in my continuing obsession with peyote shapes à la Diane Fitzgerald: this bracelet inspired by the idea of a lavender garden outside a grey stone Gothic cathedral!

The amethyst emerald-cut Swarovski crystals are a vintage set I bought on clearance and have had waiting around forever: here's a similar set currently available on Etsy.

On the whole I believe this bracelet is a success: it has a delicacy and an antique flavor that are very appealing. I've worn it with a couple of outfits and enjoyed the slide of the metallic hex Delicas against my wrist. However, there are a few points I would try and fix in a second version:

Revision suggestions for Cathedral Garden Bracelet: different connections, different clasp, more precise bezeling.

Definitely a design to revisit and revise in future!

Roads Not Taken:

  • This piece has a lot of room for variation: round rivolis matched with peyote rings, for instance, or pear-shaped stones mixed with peyote teardrops (reversed in orientation, to keep the rhythm regular). 
  • Could also do one larger central stone with empty shapes to either side. Hexagons and honeycomb colors might be splendid here.
  • Also: could build a puzzle bracelet out of only the empty shapes, with varying colors in the center and silver to bridge the shapes together. Could be quietly dazzling.

The Queen of the Night

The movie Amadeus has a lot to say about what it means to be an artist. We are shown two men who work in the same medium -- music -- but whose approaches to their art are dramatically and tragically opposed. Our narrator Salieri is religious, rigid, a trained expert with an almost mathematical approach to composition. Unfortunately for Salieri, he lives in a time and a city contemporary with the legendary Amadeus Mozart, a man of such natural genius that he waves a hand and perfect constellations of notes appear on the page. As depicted in the film, Mozart is childish, lecherous, rebellious, heedless, and completely, ridiculously talented. Salieri descends into an increasingly vicious spiral of bitterness and envy; Mozart's naïveté and blind enthusiasm lead him headlong into danger and misery and one of the saddest screen deaths you'll ever see. The trick, of course, is that a great artist must be both Salieri and Mozart.

Screenshot from Amadeus showing Mozart and Salieri. A box next to Mozart reads: brilliance, boldness, openness, passion. A simliar box beside Salieri reads: discipline, training, determination, form.

You've got to have talent—but you've also got to have the discipline to use that talent as best you can. Imagine what Salieri could have done with Mozart's gift for easy composing. Imagine what Mozart could have done with Salieri's drive and ability to focus (and climb the social ladder in the imperial court). Mozart squanders his potential literally farting around Vienna, and dies with one of his greatest works unfinished. Salieri labors too much over the form of his pieces: they sound difficult and forced and even semi-idiot emperor Franz Joseph can tell something's missing.

Mozart is able to find artistic inspiration in everything. A cruel tirade from his mother-in-law becomes one of history's most well-known coluratura pieces, commonly known as the Queen of the Night aria (though technically she has another aria in the opera as well):

It's a beautiful, impossible set of notes and it gives me chills every time I hear it. Especially because set designers usually pull out all the stops for this one, as in this design for an 1815 production of The Magic Flute:

Blue dome with stars, and tumultuous orange clouds below. A black-robed queen with crown and scepter is enthroned on a crescent moon.

Look at those colors! The celestial dome of stars above and sunset clouds of chaos beneath! The weight of that tiny black figure in the center! I could stare at this painting for hours.

Naturally, I've been dreaming of a Queen of the Night-inspired piece of jewelry for some time now. It'll probably have to be several pieces, because there are too many possibilities of color, shape, and style that I want to explore. (Same goes for Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which I've turned into a bangle, a pendant, and three necklaces so far.)

But I have to start somewhere, and I still have that stash of crystal I mentioned before, so we're going to start with something simple.

Pendant made from a series of Swarovski rivolis in dark and pale blue. Silver and blue beaded bezels mimic the progression of the phases of the moon, and bronze peyote strips connect the rivolis to one another in series.

It is -- not bad! A little imprecise in its execution. I need to pay better attention to my bezel maths and try to either center things more concretely or lean into the zig-zag. But the moon-bezel idea worked out rather well, so that part of the experiment is a success!

Until next time I shall, like Salieri, endeavor to practice.

Roads Not Taken:

  • I could not think of a proper rope to match this pendant. That needs fixing in future iterations.
  • The astronomical color palette is satisfying, but I can't help wondering what the gradients would do in flashy pinks and greens and golds.
  • Turn this pendant sideways and make the center sizes larger, and you'd have a pretty stunning bracelet. That might be the thing I try next, to be honest -- a full silver/white/AB moon in the center, and smaller, darker moons fading away to either side.

Revisions: Peyote Hex Chain.

Once more we play our dangerous game. A game called: Surely This Could Be Better. Today's piece is one I've just finished. It's a Diane Fitzgerald variation -- you're going to see a lot of Diane Fitzgerald variations, because making peyote shapes pleases my fingers in some wordless way.

A string of peyote hexagons in a spectrum from dark green to light green to pale silver to lavender to dark purple.

There are definite pleasures here. The chain has weight to it and all those Delicas really catch the light, especially the hex beads. (Hex beads in hex shapes are just about my favorite thing in the world. You'll be seeing more of these as well.) The spectrum holds together nicely, considering I cobbled it together from the odds and ends of my stash. But if I were to make this piece over again, there would be some changes:

Hex peyote chain with problem points circled.

  • Chain too short: A failure of planning, and probably the most frustrating error. This piece was envisioned as a solid necklace, long enough to do without a clasp. But once I got about halfway through the color spectrum, I found it would really be more like bracelet-length. But it's far too thick and chunky to lay properly as a bracelet -- I cobbled together a necklace extender to make it wearable, but it's a slapdash fix and it shows. Options: to make a rope or chain to support the hexagons, which doesn't appeal, or to make another length of the same chain and fix it together. Somehow this feels kind of ... gimmicky is the word, I think. And it would be a trifle too long. Perhaps the solution is to make a series of smaller hexagons on either end of the chain, which lead to a clasp? Something to consider when I'm in the Sulky Land Between Projects, where nothing feels inspired but my hands still want something to do.
  • Abrupt transitions: I could have benefited from a mid-range purple between the dark purple and the lavender beads on the right. Again, I was using stash beads, but still. It stands out more because the green values modulate so pleasingly.
  • Corners are jarring: An experiment that didn't quite work. I'd hoped that by making the corners borrow colors from the neighboring hexagon, the transition between shades would be smoother. Alas, it unsettles the transitions instead, particularly when the shades progress faster than they should. Next time, solid hexagons.

It's actually quite a hard thing, to look at hours of one's own work and find it wanting. Uncomfortable and breathless, like wearing a life vest that's too tight around the bust. But like the life vest, comfort is secondary to the purpose. So I learn what I can, and I hope to do better in the next draft.

From Cactus to Cathedral

Getting something half right is the worst. All wrong can be scrapped without remorse. All wrong can be hilarious and thought-provoking, as the Ugly Necklace Contest proves. And all right almost never happens, at least not in my experience.

Half right is like beading purgatory.

Half right is what happened to me when I first tried to combine: 1.the Scheherezade Pendant from Sabine Lippert's Beaded Fantasies, and 2. Cynthia Poh's Netted Necklace from the August 2011 Bead & Button. I wanted something that combined extravagance with repetition, and both patterns featured pearls in a way I thought could play nicely with each other. I had a lot of pale lavender pearls that matched the finish on some green fire-polished rounds, and green seed beads to match. The theory was solid, but in practice ...

In practice, what I got was the unholy offspring of a cactus and an octopus, in jewelry form. So I call it the Cactopus Necklace, and I take it down from the wall every now and again to goggle at it and wonder what went wrong.Cactopus Necklace

In retrospect, the most astonishing thing is that I finished the whole piece, when it should have been clear from the start that the colors, so pretty on their own, went completely muddy when placed side-by-side. It is one of the great mysteries of beadwork that two perfectly lovely and well-behaved types of beads can turn on each other in the aesthetic equivalent of a bare-knuckle brawl. Or a bad blind date, where the green fire-polished beads keep checking their phone out of boredom and the lavender pearls offer to split the bill because they already know there's precisely zero chance the two of them will end up in bed together at the end of the night.

Some beads just have no chemistry. Don't let that photo on the left fool you: in the real world this necklace is so dull it dries your eyeballs out just to look at it.

But the construction was satisfyingly tactile and such a joy to make that I've always been tempted to try again. Clearly the essential problem here was color -- I needed something vibrant, a palette with more contrast.

I found an answer in the thought of a rose window.

Confession: I was raised Catholic, so the fall of light through stained glass has a lot of emotional and aesthetic resonance for me. One of my very favorite memories is standing in the pool of sunlight from the rose window in Nôtre Dame de Paris, watching the colors slide and shift across my own skin. This image seemed like an appealingly celestial solution to my desert-ocean hybrid problem: ditch the octopus, shun the cactus, and aim for something higher.

I've got a pretty deep stash of discounted and discontinued Swarovski crystal -- thanks, Fusion Beads sale bins! -- so I grabbed the necessary sizes, some light silvery seed beads, and went to town.

photo (11)-tiltshiftThe initial right-angle ring, pictured at right, positively glowed! And the silvery beads, when placed in the netting, masked just enough of the crystal to add mystery and restraint to that riot of color. I couldn't believe I'd made such a pretty, eye-catching thing. It felt like I'd lucked into it.

Success was not without consequences, however: the mystery would be lost if I tried to add the same netted neckstrap as before, because that particular pattern would leave the Swarovski open to the eyes rather than demurely veiled. What's more, I was concerned that netting wouldn't be a proper support for what was now a rather weighty beaded bead.

So instead of a netted rope, I went with a simple strip of right-angle weave in descending size order of crystals, with the same netting frame from the pendant.

How did it look, you ask?

Rose Window Necklace

Ta-da! Experiment: success. Cactopus Necklace demons: exorcized.

Roads Not Taken:

  • If I were to try this again, I'd be tempted to switch the silvery beads to stone grey and add a lot of cobalt Swarovski. My stash was rather light on the blues, and I feel this design could go deeper.
  • I wonder if this right-angle + netting technique can be used to bezel a rivoli or a cabochon? My rivoli stash is ever-growing and crying out to be played with.
  • Speaking of -- I wonder if the Scheherezade Pendant itself could be made to wrap around a rivoli or fancy stone? THINK OF THE SPARKLIES.
  • The neckstrap definitely has more pattern potential as well. I wonder if I can make something in the shape of a Gothic arch? Bead size would be absolutely crucial here.
  • There's got to be a way to use round flat peyote and netting to build a little rose-window cocktail ring with leftover crystals. So far, no luck, but I'm going to keep trying.
  • The finished necklace has a steely kind of strength to it -- very modern, despite the Gothic inspiration. What would happen if I added a few feminizing pearl embellishments for a more antique look?

Blue Pencil Beading: Introduction

I never thought of myself as an artist. I picked up beading in seventh grade. That year for Christmas I made necklaces as gifts for all my friends. I taught myself new techniques, spent hours picking colors and shapes, and even beaded one long strand that said BEST FRIENDS FOREVER in Morse Code because I am a huge nerd.

I never thought of myself as an artist.

I started beading again in graduate school, lured in by Margie Deeb's book The Beader's Color Palettewhich I discovered in the tiny local bookstore near my apartment. She stunned me with the idea of pulling palettes from real life to use in jewelry, the fun of balancing multiple colors, and the power of a monochrome design. I taught myself new techniques, spent a chunk of my Jeopardy! winnings on Swarovski crystal for a necklace I never finished, and began playing with the original designs that appeared like magic in the darkness behind my eyes.

I never thought of myself as an artist. Zigzag Cellini variation I made just to see if I could. Result is surprisingly beautiful.

Soon I got my degree, got married, and got published as a romance author. It took a little practice to think of myself as a writer, but after four years I'm starting to get the hang of it. It's a label I feel a kinship with. Writers revise; writers overanalyze; writers tweak the little details and write outlines and care about the sound and the nuance of every last little word.

Writers get blocked.

The idea of failure is baked in to the concept of writer. I get frustrated at being stuck on a manuscript, of course, but I also know that it's normal, that it will pass, that it happens to virtually everyone.

But artists? Artists are magical self-expression pixies whose every gesture brings forth rainbows. Artists love Burning Man and shock value and never self-censor. Artists suffer and self-flagellate and are driven by intense and passionate ecstasies that make them one with the larger universe, especially when pharmaceutical assistance is applied. Because I wasn't drawn to the stereotypical artist lifestyle, I thought I could never lay claim to the artist label.

Definitely art: soundsuits by Nick Cave, photographed by Alicia Aho.

This idea of what it means to be a Capital-A-Artist is a reduction -- which is to say it's a lie. Of course artists struggle to create: creation is fiendishly hard, no matter the medium. But the stereotype persists. And that's not even taking into account the cultural division between art and craft, and the sexism that frequently lurks behind those categories. Art is expensive, public, high-status, and masculine; crafts are budget-friendly, domestic, low-status, and feminine. These distinctions are, frankly, bullshit -- but they are insidious and we yield to them without realizing we've done so. It is a bold move for a woman to declare herself an artist, and I still hesitate. I don't have an aesthetic theory to develop or a concept to illustrate or even any training whatsoever -- I've taught myself through books and magazines and the rich chaos of the internet. If I had a motto as a jewelry creator, it was this: I bet this could be better somehow.

There is a murky and mysterious abyss between beading-as-hobby and beading-as-vocation. At this point I can follow just about any pattern you show me, but that skill is no longer interesting enough on its own. Sadly, a large majority of the original designs I try are impossible in some way -- or the colors somehow go wonky -- or they just look vaguely half-assed in a way that's hard for an untrained eye to pinpoint. Luckily, Margie Deeb's latest book The Beader's Guide to Jewelry Design has just come out, and again it has kicked me in the pants in the best way. It brought to bear concepts of balance and movement as well as color, and for the past three weeks it's rarely left my side. I've also been taking some classes at my local Fusion Beads store, which has been wonderful and which has also helped me face the fact that I am definitely have more passion for beading than is contained in the word 'hobby.' But I still shy away from calling it art and I'm not looking to register at Cornish or set up an Etsy store anytime soon. I just want to learn to bead better. And maybe create some unique designs to submit to magazines/put up as an ebooklet. And maybe teach some classes sometime.

But, you know, not like an artist or anything.

You see what I mean about stereotypes being insidious?

Eventually I hit upon a way out of this mental molasses: I needed to give myself permission to revise while beading, the same way I revise while writing. To try a design a second time with new colors or different bead shapes. To let go of ideas that clearly weren't working, or to follow them through if I thought I might learn something from them.

If I couldn't think of myself as a bead artist, I could try to think of myself as a bead editor. Hence the blue pencil -- traditionally used for making corrections on manuscripts. And if I'm going to be an editor, I may as well also be a critic: I've got the vocabulary, the pretension, and the tendency to overthink. And as the saying goes: when push comes to shove, you've got to do what you love -- even if it's not a good idea.

So that's the idea behind Blue Pencil Beading: explorations of my failures and my successes, design analysis of pieces by myself and others, book reviews, aesthetic meditations, and the occasional original pattern. Posts will hopefully appear weekly. This site is a way of exploring the abyss and improving my own beadwork, but I hope it may also speak to the many others out there who are dealing with similar things.

May we all make things better, one bead at a time.