a walk in the wilderness

Something that I find so interesting about making things is the creative evolution that happens as I explore an idea. One idea leads to another idea, that idea leads to a series of work, and suddenly, I’m traveling a new, exciting path. It’s the pattern of footsteps along this path that ties one thing to the next.

If you look closely at the things someone has made, you will see elements that may be slightly – or wildly – different in appearance, but they’re connected by that person’s stories. Their spirit. Their curiosity. And their commitment to what they’re passionate about.

But here’s the thing.

Like me, many creative people share the day-to-day aspects of what they do. What we’re working on. The latest thing we’ve made that we’re proud of. A new tool. A messy workspace. But we rarely tell the story of the evolution of our work – which is more than simply ‘what’s happening in my world today’. It’s the iterative process of interacting with the things we create. Making changes, experimenting, incorporating new ideas, and moving forward. So although you may follow the progression of someone’s work, you rarely hear directly from the maker about how that development is taking place.

Part of it may be that when you’re busy making work, there isn’t a lot of time to sit around reflecting on the journey. New work just happens. How you got from point A (what you were making 6 months ago) to point B (what you’re making now, today) seems obvious – to you. But to those who don’t have access to your sketchbook, the pile of scribbles on post-it-notes building up beside your computer, or those standing-in-the-shower-letting-the-water-flow-over-you flashes of inspiration, the whole thing may seem quite mysterious.

How does inspiration lead to an idea, and how does that idea lead to a series of objects, all tied together with a common thread?

I got thinking about it because I’ve been meaning to share the story of my ‘Vivid Wilderness’ series with you for some time. The ‘Vivid Wilderness’ series took a lot of inspiration from the beauty of our natural surroundings:

Vivid Wilderness Series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

Rocks. Plants. Trees. Earth. Water. Sky.

But before they could be inspired by the earth and the sky and the water and the trees, there were many stages of development in my work that were absolutely necessary in order to reach that moment of inspiration. The Vivid Wilderness series was born out of a major shift in my style of working, and could not have happened otherwise. So if the start of this series of work was point B, there must have been a point A.

And there was.

The first thing that brought these beads to life was a radical decision. I decided I was really tired of doing ‘stringer’ work. So tired. Like, ‘never again’ tired.

For the non-beadmakers in the crowd, stringers are pieces of glass that you pull out very long and thin. You melt them onto the bead, to ‘draw’, or ‘paint’ designs and patterns in the flame.

This is what stringer looks like – both ultra, ultra fine (almost too fine to handle!) and some much thicker, commercially-made white stringer:

black and white stringer

[Beadmaker side note: Yes, you can buy pre-made stringer. If it is a color and a thickness that you use a LOT in your work, it might be worth it for the time-saving factor. Pulling stringer in preparation for making a certain bead design takes a considerable amount of time. Time that you may not enjoy.]

Here are a few examples of beads I have made where stringer was used to create the designs and patterns.

These etched ivory and turquoise beads are stringer work at its most basic: lines and dots:

Ivory and turquoise lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

When you’re getting started in lampwork beadmaking, lines and dots are a good place to begin. It helps to build your technical skill and your control of the glass, and those things are really useful no matter what style of beads you ultimately end up making.

Here’s another set with very precise, fine details. These were created by applying various thicknesses of black and white stringer to a base of black:

Black and white lampwork bead set by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

After I applied the designs, I melted them flat (in stages, so I could layer the colors to create the designs), so these have a nice smooth surface.

[Beadmaker side note: I’ve been asked many times how I managed to get the black stringer work on these beads to stay black. When you pull Effetre black into stringer and melt it in over a light color (especially white!) it often appears purple. This happens because Effetre black actually is a deep transparent purple, not black. I used Reichenbach Deep Black here, and it works perfectly. It is a little more costly, but if you’re only using it for stringer, a little goes a long way. It is worth the investment. The base black on these beads is just plain Effetre.]

You can also leave the designs raised, melting them in just enough to attach them properly to the beads (so they won’t pop off when they’re handled or worn!), but leaving them slightly elevated to add some interesting tactile interest, like in these funky cubes:

Lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

Stringer can be used to create freeform designs with the glass, such as the leaves, and some of the flowers on these beads. I made these in 2004. Of all the beads I’ve made, ever, these are the ones that keep me awake at night, sobbing quietly, wishing I’d never sold them. The only consolation is that they sold for almost $500 on eBay. That, and I know that they made someone very, very, very happy.

Floral squeezed lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

So…. you’re thinking… ok. No stringer. Earth-shattering. Really? But truthfully, it did feel that way. Very fine, precise, controlled patterns and designs made with stringer had really characterized my work up to that point. It was the reason some people loved my work. It was my ‘thing’! So it was a BIG, scary, risky (but thrilling) change.

When you have a no-more-stringer-ever moment, how do you move beyond that style of working?

Step 1: put your stringer away.

If you use stringer a lot and you are a packrat and throwing things away makes you nervous, you end up with jars full of stringer. Leftovers from past projects. When you’re prepping a design, you never know how much you’re going to need, so you always end up with extra. I had little jars sorted by color sitting right in front of me on my worktable, so I could reach for whatever I needed while I worked.

When I had my sudden, dramatic, life-changing no-more-stringer moment, I put my stringers away. I didn’t throw them away – you never know – but out of sight, out of mind.

Banished to the back of the studio shelf, out of reach.

photo 1

Step 2: from now on, apply the glass directly from the rod.

The glass rods, when you buy them, are thicker, like this:

Effetre glass rods for lampwork beadmaking - Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

So when you’re decorating a bead with a rod that’s about 50 times the thickness of the stringers you’re used to, things are bound to change.

From the very first no-stringer bead, I felt so FREE. It was new. It was different. It was exciting! I had that feeling of just being able to ‘splash’ glass onto the surface of the bead in an unpredictable way, layering colors, melting, adding more… until something beautiful emerged. I made a set in bright colors, and I called them the ‘Pollock’ beads – I imagined myself working over a huge canvas, splashing paint everywhere.

When I made these beads I was REALLY excited about them. Like… SO excited. The quality of the lines was completely different from anything I’d ever done before. Happy. Fun. Wild. There’s a looseness in them. Freedom.Pollock Beads by Julie Wong SontagOf course, like a Jackson Pollock painting, there is an art in applying glass to produce something… um…. not ugly. Even if the process feels spontaneous and free.

Once I’d put my stringer away, there was no stopping me. It was a creative leap that led to so much inspiration, and excitement about what to do next…

This was the next no-stringer exploration:

Southwest lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

The way I applied the glass also has a random feel, but with a much more deliberate repetition of certain elements. Small dots. Big dots. Patterns. The way the lines overlap. A raised detail wrapped around each bead. Having worked without stringer for a while, my control when applying the glass from a much thicker rod was improving.

Then came the ‘Spirit of the North’ series. I was asked to create a special gift for someone who had just moved to Northern Canada. I had been thinking about the spirit of Canada’s Northern people… about the land, and the water and the sky. I created a necklace for her, having made some beads with these ideas in mind.

Spirit of the North necklace and earrings with lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

I was really captivated by the colors and the energy of these beads, and I continued to work on this series for about two months, exploring different forms, all with the same unifying color scheme. I began to experiment more with controlling the character of the lines:


And etching the beads became part of the look of the series:



Eventually, I knew I was ‘done’ with the Spirit of the North series, and it was time to move on. But the patterning on the earring pair above, some of the last Spirit of the North beads I made, led directly into my next exploration, the ‘Vivid Wilderness’ series.

Point B.

These were the first beads in the series, from September of last year – about 6 months ago. These was a softly-ringing echo in them… of the very first no-stringer beads, the ‘Pollock’ beads. But the color choices were completely different. It was autumn, my favorite season, and the colors reflected the changing and falling leaves.

Vivid Wilderness series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

There was something really special about this series, right from the start. To me, I had reached a place in my glass journey that looked different from all the places I had been before. These beads symbolized that moment when you’re walking along a path in the forest, and you come to a place with a breathtaking view.

A view toward Saltspring Island from Galiano

It’s so beautiful that you have to stop, maybe sit down… and just be there for a while, taking it all in. That place feels inspiring. You feel connected. At peace. Comfortable with yourself and content with your place in the Universe.

(and yes, that is a real place that I sat in for a very long time, reflecting on how beautiful life can be – Galiano Island, British Columbia, Canada).

And just like that place where the forest cleared, these beads said something important about who I was and where I was going. They spoke to me deeply, and they felt like the root of something big.

Forest, Galiano Island

In the beginning, each of the sets was named after a strong, mighty tree. Oak. Poplar. Birch. Alder. There was something very grounded and natural about them. They had a story… a history. And a future – reaching up into the sky.

forest, Galiano Island

When I knew that these beads would be around for a long time, the series needed a name. I asked for suggestions on my Facebook page, and there were so many good ones. But a fellow beadmaker said that they reminded her of some of the Group of Seven paintings. The Group of Seven was a group (obviously) of famous Canadian painters who focused on wilderness themes.


There was something there.

As I mulled it over, the phrase ‘Vivid Wilderness’ floated through my imagination, and it just said everything.

Since rejoining the beadmaking world, it was the first series that became what you might call a ‘signature’ series for me. We all have things we make that become recognizable because a) we make them a lot and b) other people buy them, create with them, wear them, and honor the unique spirit in which they were made. When someone sees one of your signature beads, or a piece of jewelry that’s uniquely yours, the spirit and energy they see can be connected back to you, the maker. Every one of us knows that experience of seeing a photo of a bead, a piece of jewelry, a work of art, and knowing instantly who made it, without even needing to see the name.

Sometimes when you make something that’s a bit different, you’re also lucky enough to be recognized for that. This series has been published twice, and that is really over-the-top exciting. Just ask my husband. He heard about it for DAYS.

They were chosen for a two-page spread (it was eye-popping!) in the middle of the October 2014 issue of Creative Bead Chat Magazine, and they were also featured here on the Art Bead Scene Blog in January of this year. I was really, really proud.

From a business point of view, they’ve been on my ‘Bestseller List’ since I started making them. Authors have New York Times #1 Bestsellers, and beadmakers do too, no doubt about it. They’ve been used in so many creative ways by so many talented designers, and that inspires me to keep making them. If you’d like to see some AMAZING examples, you will find them here on my ‘Uglibeads Family’ Pinterest page (a collection of the beautiful work of Art Jewelry Designers who use my beads).

There have been many iterations of this series, with subtle variations in each, but when I started making them into tiny earring pairs, that was it. For me, it’s what the design was meant to be.

Vivid Wilderness Series Lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag

Every new color combination is my ‘favorite’. Until the next one. When I make them, I pull out every color of glass that fits the spirit of Vivid Wilderness… whatever ‘speaks’ to me that day. Turquoise, corals, browns, ivories, oranges, ochres, greens, reds, yellows… and always a few surprises here and there, just for fun.

Glass rods for lampworking

I put the specific color combinations together as I go. As I’m working, I see colors in the pile that catch my eye, and I set them aside in groups of three. Three is such a good number. Don’t you like it? Yeah. Me too.

I don’t make notes, and often I can’t remember which color I used on a particular pair of beads. That’s what makes each pair special. One-of-a-kind. Like a moment in time, never to be repeated in exactly the same way.

To begin, I make the base bead, usually in a rich, earthy, neutral color, and then add freeform decoration in two contrasting colors. Finally the organic silvered ivory decoration, in dots or lines. I try to choose combinations that are a bit unusual, but still rooted in that very organic, earthy feeling.

Vivid Wilderness series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

Finally, they’re etched (treated with acid solution to remove the glossy surface of the glass) to a soft, matte finish. Though I’m currently debating that – some of my latest experiments with this series are really lovely when they’re left shiny:

Vivid Wilderness series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag

There have been some absolutely BEAUTIFUL color reactions, because the silvered ivory interacts with many of the colors in unpredictable ways:

Vivid Wilderness Series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

Vivid Wilderness Series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

Vivid Wilderness Series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

When I get in the mood to make these beads, I hunker down, get in the groove, and spend a day or two focused on them. It’s been a while, but I was feeling very Vivid Wilderness a few days ago, and I went for it.

Since the last big batch I made in February, I’ve acquired some new, really yummy glass colors. I had a ton of fun seeing where I could go with a familiar design and some new color combinations. For a beadmaker, there’s nothing more exciting than having new glass to play with.

Making them, I ended up totally lost in the zone, and it was the greatest day. And I needed that.

It’s been kind of a weird week. You know those weeks when something taps you on the shoulder, maybe something kind of ugly, and your emotions spiral out of control?

I needed these beads to lead me back to myself. To find balance. To find my center. As this series developed, they spoke to me about spirit and strength and individuality. They represented the need we all have to find a path through the wilderness, to celebrate the journey we are on, and to find beauty along the way.

forest, Galiano Island

When I sat down at my work table, I literally put my hand on my heart, closed my eyes, and said to the Universe, “Please let me find peace today. I need to feel compassion and respect. For myself and others. And please let me make these beads the most beautiful I have ever made them.”

And then I got to work.

Vivid Wilderness Series lampwork beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

And they are beautiful. The most beautiful? I don’t know. It’s in the eye of the beholder, right? But to me they sure are. And in the end, that’s what matters.

[Bead fan side note: if you’re interested in owning a little piece of this wilderness journey, I will have these for auction in my Facebook group next week].

When I emailed one of the photos for this post to myself, in the subject line, I typed ‘stringer’.

It autocorrected to ‘stronger’.

Ah, Universe. We are speaking the same language.

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

– J.R.R Tolkein, from The Lord of the Rings