i can see clearly now

Double Helix Zephyr glassOne of the perks of taking a class in an actual beadmaking studio was that I got to do some shopping while I was there! I’d completely run out of clear glass, so I wasn’t hopeful about doing any encased focal beads for the trunk show. But I managed to pick some up over the weekend, so we’re in business.

For many beadmakers, the search for the ‘perfect’ clear glass is frustrating. There are many options out there, some better than others. The problem with clear glass is that if there is a flaw or scratch within the glass rod itself, it shows itself in the beautiful clear casing that you’ve worked so hard on. That sucks. Nasty bubbles, ‘scum’, generally gross looking problems, all can ruin a beautiful bead. If you order plain old Effetre clear, that’s likely what you’ll get. The next step up is Effetre ‘Super Clear’. I’ve recently tried some, and I can’t say that I was all that wowed with it. Compared to the amazing clear I now use exclusively, it’s not that impressive.

We’re lucky that there are many more options in glass now than there were 10 years ago. Now, there is an amazing clear glass made by Double Helix, an American glassmaking company. I swear that their clear glass, Zephyr, will change your life. If you’re – ahem – willing to pay about $44 CDN a pound (compared to $12 for Effetre Super Clear). I’ll admit I was skeptical about this ‘magical’, frighteningly expensive clear glass, but after trying it out, I wouldn’t even consider using any other clear. It’s that good. Aside from the fact that it really is crystal clear without any scum or bubbling (hence no tedious stripping of your molten rod before you can apply a gather to your bead) – it melts like BUTTER, so encasing a bead is much, much faster. It’s just so easy to use. To me, it’s totally worth the steep price tag because it makes things stress-free and efficient, and my encasing always looks beautiful. I can’t say enough good things about it. I’m sure it’s made from Unicorn tears.

If you make the switch to Zephyr but still have a bunch of crummy clear glass you need to use up, there are a bunch of things you can do with it. The easiest might be to use it as the core of a bead that you’re going to cover with an opaque color – which has the added bonus of sparing your more expensive glass. If you’re going to etch a bead made with clear glass, I don’t think the imperfections will matter much. Here’s one other thing you can try: some say that pickling your clear glass does help, and I’m sure that’s true (read a discussion on LampworkEtc. about it here). In the past I’ve soaked mine in vinegar for a good long while, and it seemed to greatly improve things.

So now that I’ve acquired two whole glorious pounds of Zephyr, I’m looking forward to sitting down to make some beautiful galaxy beads, encased prairie beads, triangle beads… uh… flower beads…

I also treated myself to some raku frit that I’m looking forward to playing with. It does really interesting things, turning different colors depending on how you work it in the flame. Something new to experiment with is always fun.

I’m off to the torch today to see what I can do with my newly acquired beadmaking skills. Stay tuned.


on a wing and a prayer

A few weeks ago, I heard about a beadmaking class taking place in Calgary (only 3 hours away) that I really, really, REALLY wanted to take. Unfortunately, I heard about it too late. When I called to ask about it, it was already full. You should have seen my sad face. Between the time I’d heard about it, and finding out it was full, I’d kind of managed to get my heart set on it. Do you ever do that? It’s a bad habit, really, because you only set yourself up for disappointment. But when I get my heart set on something it’s like a focused high-power laser beam of want.

So. Oh well. Moving on.

If I show you a bead made by the instructor, maybe you can better understand my heartbreak:

Amy Waldman-Smith lampwork bead

I know, people. I nearly cried. Amy Waldman-Smith is an extremely talented lady, and a fellow Canadian! She’s from Ontario, so it’s really neat that a local studio managed to book her for a class. Apparently she’s an amazing teacher. Here’s her website, if you want to take a gander: http://amywaldmansmith.com. Seems like each of her beads is more detailed than the last. Her work is all based on dots – raked, layered, masked. Since I’ve been on a dot kick lately, I thought, that would be SO super perfect. But alas, it was not meant to be.

I decided to console myself by bidding on one of her hilariously amazing birdie sculptures. She’d posted it in one of the auction groups I belong to, and I’m kinda embarrassed to say that I got it for a lot LOT less than it is worth. I guess that’s how auctions go sometimes. I told her that I hoped that the crazy bird was going to bring good beadmaking mojo with her, and that I had plans to display her on my work table. A mascot!

Here’s Amy’s bird creation. This is a new series of work that she’s been doing, and they’re all totally unique, with different personalities. I’m in love:

Amy Waldman-Smith lampwork bird sculpture

I have a hard time letting go of things sometimes. Once I have my heart set on them, you understand. At certain times in the past this has turned out to be a beneficial quality – you know, follow your dreams, persevere, stick to it, never give up, all that.

The fact that I was hoping very intensely to still take the class wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. I mean, I was on the wait list. So if someone cancelled, I’d be in. I looked at my bird every day – many times – as I was working, and wished and hoped and wished some more.

You know, it’s weird. I just had this odd feeling that it was all going to work out, and that I’d get to take the class after all. And wouldn’t you know, yesterday I got a call – somebody had cancelled – would I like to take their spot?

Why yes, yes I would.

The last time I took a beadmaking class was in 2003 (I think). So it’s been a while. I’m totally beside myself with anticipation.

Even better, I get to stay with one of my best friends in the whole world, and we haven’t seen each other for a long while.

Happy Weekend to me!

owl and butterfly

owl and butterfly

 This has been the last few days.

An owl and a butterfly.

Wisdom and freedom.

I used graphite pencil, pencil crayon, gouache, and paper collage (the butterfly). I haven’t worked with gouache for years, and I really like it. Also, I’m having a love affair with neon pink.

hello september

Good morning sketch

Sometimes I have these quiet moments of desperation when I realize that in my day-to-day beadmaking life, I’m not making art with a capital ‘A’I do believe that glass beads can be art. I’ve talked about this before – and really enjoyed your thoughtful comments and emails on the subject – but at my current skill level, most of what I make isn’t. You know, triangle beads… dot beads… They do involve some creative muscle, such as choosing pleasing color combinations. But mostly, they’re just skill and technique. That’s not to say they aren’t beautiful. They are. It’s just that according to my personal feeling about it, they’re not art.

Because I am actively engaged in doing ‘creative stuff’ every day – making beads, taking photographs, writing – I hadn’t really realized that there was a hole in the fabric of my creative life. The other day, totally randomly, spur-of-the-moment, I had the urge to start drawing and painting again. Regularly. Habitually. I thought, really, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be drawing at least a little bit every day. When I took out my paintbrushes and filled the page with color, a feeling of immense calm washed over me. It was like some mysterious void had suddenly started to fill.

As a teenager and a young adult, I spent a LOT of time drawing and painting. Art was always my refuge. My safe place. I was happiest when the house was quiet, everyone but me was sleeping, and I was working away on something. Every school assignment turned into an art project, even the ones that were totally NOT creative assignments. Social studies presentations, title pages, book report covers. Just everything. My teachers, surprisingly, were incredibly encouraging and supportive, and they always humored me. Sometimes they even wanted to keep what I’d made to decorate the classroom. In Grade 7 I took my first ‘formal’ art class and I was hooked. A whole new world opened up. Art became my ‘thing’. It was something that people knew about me.

She makes art.

It became a huge part of my identity. When I was 24, I enrolled in art school. It was a revelation. Finally, I really, truly belonged somewhere. I was with my people. I spent a whole year drawing (that is usually what you do in your first year of art school). Figure drawing, still life, self-portraits. So many drawings. Eventually you get sick of drawing but you work through it and you make some good stuff, and then some great stuff, and that keeps you going. I didn’t really have a plan for the future, but I knew that I was really happy doing what I was doing.

During that first year I took an elective in Glassblowing. Wow. The heat, the molten glass, the physicality of it, the smell of the burning newspaper used to shape the glass… I loved everything about it. I took a Jewelry and Metals class too, which I also loved, but found way too tedious for my liking – I’m more of an instant gratification kind of person. It was so much work – heating, soldering, hammering, shaping, sanding, polishing… [this is why I will always admire those of you who have the patience and skill to do metalsmithing]. I liked painting, I liked drawing. There wasn’t much about art that I didn’t like. When it came time to choose a major, somehow I got it in my head that I wanted to be a commercial photographer. Yeah, I don’t know. I loved photography and I thought maybe it was a good way to make a living. That summer, I assisted an actual commercial photographer, and like many things in life that you dream about, once I experienced the reality of it, I realized I hated it. So it was kind of fortuitous when I got the news that I wasn’t accepted into the photography program. You know that thing they say about unanswered prayers? That’s one that I’m still grateful for.

Fortunately, because I’d been bitten by the glass bug, I’d signed up for a glass beadmaking class that summer. I remember really clearly, so vividly, the process of sitting at the torch making my first bead, and thinking, yeah, this is what I’m meant to be doing. So I dropped out of Art School and struck out on my own as a full time glass beadmaker.

It was wonderful. Except when it wasn’t. I had (and still have!) the most amazing, supportive, wonderful customers and bead friends. A really special community that surrounded me with support and encouragement and love. People really seemed to like what I was doing. They bought all my stuff! Yet that wasn’t enough to save me from repeated bouts of crippling depression. Those black times made the creative well run dry, over and over again. It was such a struggle.

I remember the time between then and now as mostly a blur. I taught Biology and Chemistry classes at a University. There was a short-lived stint as a graduate student in Respiratory Neurophysiology. There were three years of medical school.

I know what you’re thinking. Biology? Chemistry? Neurophysiology? Medicine? WHAT?

I forgot to mention that my undergraduate degree is in Biochemistry and Social Studies of Medicine.

I love science. I’ve always loved it. I’m so curious about the inner workings of the universe, the mind, and the body. Learning about all those things was fascinating. I’ve always had this interesting art/science duality in my life, trying to navigate both worlds. I could never really choose one over the other. At certain points I tried, like when I entered medical school, for example. But when I was finally faced with the prospect of choosing an extremely demanding, emotionally exhausting profession that requires you to make many, many sacrifices (I know, I married a doctor!), I began to have that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Every day. That inner voice started whispering, and before I knew it, it was YELLING.




Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.40.29 PM

There was one especially miserable day while I was doing a clinical rotation in Family Medicine. I got home, and I literally just collapsed in bed and pulled the covers over my head. I didn’t want to come out. Ever. I texted my sister, telling her how unhappy I was, how dead I felt inside. At some point I said, “I’d really rather be making beads.” I hadn’t made a bead in about 7 years, but it just came out, and I meant it. As soon as I said the words, something shifted inside.

She’s calm, and wise, and one of the smartest people I know, and she said, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

And here I am.

Where am I going with this story? I don’t know really. Other than to say that there is a transformative, healing power in creativity, and for me, art with a capital ‘A’. It requires you to connect with something really down deep within yourself. Something spiritual. Something primal. To examine how you think and feel about the world. To explore what inspires you, motivates you, excites you, brings you joy, and fuels your passion.

Julie Wong Sontag lampwork heart pendant

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two days after dusting off those paintbrushes, I made what I think is my best bead ever. In my eyes, it’s maybe even an Art bead. To the average viewer, maybe it doesn’t seem that special, but to me, it was an epiphany. It was the realization of a way of melting and moving and shaping the glass – a way of combining colors – that I’d been striving for, for a long time. It’s one of the only beads I’ve made where the finished product was actually so much better than the version I’d imagined. It took me an hour and a half, which is a really long time working on one bead, and it felt like minutes.

The tiger lily is much more than a favorite flower to me. I’ve always seen them as symbols of strength, resilience, and beauty, even in less than ideal conditions. Years ago, I planted a tiger lily in my backyard, and waiting for those beautiful orange blooms to open was the best kind of anticipation. When they finally flashed their brilliant color, it was like some kind of small (but important) celebration.

The fall season always sparks the same feeling of excitement in me. New beginnings. Fresh starts. Exciting changes.

Hello September! I’m glad you’re here.

Though, if you could cut it out with the snow today, that’d be great.