the heart of the forest

I’ve been muddling with my daily routine in the interest of having more time to work on things that fall more squarely in the ‘productive’ sphere than things of the more time-wasting variety. There are so many habits that take up a huge amount of time that are so easy to fall into. Some I’ve managed to (mostly) kick to the curb – scrolling through my whole Pinterest feed every day, for example. The latest in a series of triumphs is getting a handle on checking in with Facebook. I used to feel compelled to see what was up every hour at least. I’m free of that now (thanks to a couple of new tactics that are working well) and not to exaggerate, but I feel much more alive, like all that extra time means possibility. More on that later, maybe.

There are only so many hours in a day and it’s important to fill them with things that make our hearts sing. Things that help us to feel connected to the earth and the sky and the people and the wonder of it all. Yes, that feeling can be found on Facebook – some of the time. But not all of the time.

Blogging is still a tough one. It is one of those productive things I aim to do more of. Because, I like it. A chronicle of someone’s artistic journey – their thoughts, perceptions, observations… a backstage pass to what goes into making art and living a creative life. I find that so interesting and valuable. We read, we find something of ourselves in other artists’ realizations and struggles, and we don’t feel so alone. I have a hard time getting there. But I’ll keep trying.

Maybe I just have to let go of that part of myself that is so bleeping WORDY. As if that will ever happen. But a challenge is good sometimes.

Speaking of challenges.

Sitting at the torch one afternoon, I was listening to CBC Radio (Canada’s public radio station) and the program was all about the life of Canadian painter Emily Carr. It was interesting stuff, because I’ve always been so drawn to her work. I had the good fortune to see many of her paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery one afternoon a long time ago, and I remember that day well. Just sitting on a bench surrounded by these deep, dark, woody, damp, moody things was a deeply spiritual experience.

Emily Carr
 ‘Forest, British Columbia’ – Emily Carr (1932)

So I was listening to this show, and they were interviewing people who had known her during her life. People remembered her as odd, uncompromising, kind-hearted, and passionate about the things that inspired her.

Emily Carr

When I look at photographs of this interesting, strange lady, I love her but I am also kind of scared of her and based on what I’ve heard, it sounds like that is not far off the mark. She was ousted from a short-lived teaching position at the ‘Ladies Art Club’ in Vancouver for her rather un-ladylike habits – smoking and swearing at her students. In her day, clearly, she was a real badass.

Most Canadians, reflecting on her legacy, will probably think of her paintings depicting First Nations iconography. Her first visit to an aboriginal village was in 1898 to Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. There were other visits throughout the years to other villages in Canada and Alaska. She documented the sculptural arts she saw in these places – the beautifully carved totem poles, in particular.

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidegate BC, c. 1930.
 Big Eagle, Skidegate BC, Emily Carr (1930)

Her work was beautiful, but it was also meaningful and purposeful. Through her paintings, she educated the public about the incredible, impermanent beauty she saw, and she said in one of her lectures:

“I glory in our wonderful west and I hope to leave behind me some of the relics of its first primitive greatness. These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Briton’s relics are to the English. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past.

She started her most iconic work at the age of 57, the deep dark forest paintings that I mentioned earlier. She had her first solo show at the age of 64. Sometimes I think about the fact that I’m almost 40, and I mourn the ‘lost years’ – creative years – when I was busy pursuing other interests, and not making anything at all. I think of all that could have been made had I not given it up for so long. It is a mournful feeling – I can’t describe it any other way. But then, Emily’s story just serves as a reminder that any time is the right time to create. Wherever you are, whenever it is, just start now. She had a creative dry spell 15 years long (while she busied herself running a boarding house), yet went on to do incredible work and to earn a place among Canada’s great painters when that dry spell ended.

Emily Carr, Self-portrait
 Emily Carr, Self Portrait

Believe it or not, this is really a post about a bead. For those who don’t know Emily Carr’s work, I felt it necessary to share some of her fascinating story. She was a total expression of a singular creative vision – the way she dressed, the way she interacted with people, the way she painted. It’s inspiring – and reassuring – to know about other creative people who were relentless in embracing their eccentricities.


The bead.

As I continued to listen to the radio program, I became totally possessed by the need to make a bead inspired by one of her paintings. I chose one called ‘Heart of the Forest’. The lines, the complexity and layering of the color, the movement, the primitive brushstrokes, the light and the dark… it all said something to me. And maybe… about me.

Emily Carr 'Heart of the Forest'
 Heart of the Forest, Emily Carr, 1935

I propped the image of the painting up on my worktable and frantically plucked glass rods from my jars. When I was done I probably had 25 colors out on my table. I really should have taken a picture of that. It was a sight to behold.

I wanted to make a hollow bead, because for me, those are the most soul-stirring beads I make. Something about the shape, the weightlessness, the large, receptive surface. Of course, once it began, it was a totally in the zone bead, all compulsion and flow. Sometimes your hands and your heart do the work and you just get the hell out of the way.

Julie Wong Sontag hollow bead

After all was said and done, it wasn’t a close representation of the painting – not that it was meant to be. The way I was able to apply the colors was much more crude than I had hoped. Glass doesn’t move the way paint does. But the spirit was there. It was special.

It became a special bead on more than one level after it was made. A few days after I made it I saw that the monthly challenge on the Art Bead Scene blog was an Emily Carr painting. I love those moments when you realize that people you don’t know are on the same creative wavelength, finding inspiration in the same things. Synchronicity is maybe my favorite thing ever.

A little while later, during one of my online sales, I showed a photo of some beads I had yet to list. Just a crummy 3 second shot with my phone.


Do you see it in there, the Emily Carr bead?

In the end, I didn’t have time to list it, and truthfully, I wasn’t sure I was ready to let it go. Or if I would ever be ready to let it go. I just had the feeling that it needed to be appreciated in some special way and that maybe I was the only one who could do that.

The day after the show ended, one of my lovely, lovely customers sent me a note. She had noticed a particular bead in that crummy group shot, and was wondering whether it might be available. It spoke to her, sitting there, barely visible.

I knew right away that there could not be a more perfect person to own this bead. This person has the mind of a dramatist – finding scenes and dialogues in everything – beads and stones carry on an act in her mind as she looks at them. I knew that the story of this bead would be appreciated.

I teared up a little, trying to explain the inspiration behind it all. The whole process of creating the bead was so rare and so moving. And all the happy memories of that day spent wandering the art gallery many years ago – taking in the wonder of Emily Carr’s powerful work – came flooding back looking at it.

And the future owner of the bead said, “I bow before the Spirit Bead (sorry, not quite the right name, but there’s everything in this bead, not only forest, also sky, and insights, and even difficulties, when you fall and get up again, and everything in life has been worth it), and if she’s willing to undertake the journey, I would welcome her with the greatest enjoyment.”

You can see, this bead found its rightful place in the universe, as I believe all my beads do, somehow.


a tour of the weenie factory

Weenie beads!!!!

I know what you’re thinking.

What on god’s green earth is a weenie bead?

They’re my really teeny tiny little lampwork spacer beads. ‘Spacer bead’ just means a plain round bead in a solid color that people use as accents in their jewelry designs. The average size of a weenie bead is about 4 x 7 mm.


Here they are!

weenie spacer beads by Uglibeads

They look ginormous!

Until you see this:

weenie spacer beads by Uglibeads

Or this!

teeny tiny beads by Uglibeads

Those were the original weenie beads, made in February 2014! Yes, 4 of them fit on a dime!

(you can find the weenie beads – and lots of other good stuff too (when I’m not sold out!) – in my Etsy shop! Click here:

Anyway. I had a little contest on my Facebook page, and to enter, you had to guess how many weenie beads I could make in one hour. The guesses were wildly different – from under 20 to over 200! I realized, reading the guesses, that unless you are a beadmaker yourself, it’s very hard to conceptualize the time that goes into making even a simple bead. And even more difficult to figure out is all the time that goes into that bead after it’s made and before it gets to you.

The correct answer, by the way, was 45!

Now, if you’re doing the math, you’re thinking – 45 weenies per hour, times $1.50 per weenie (I sell them in sets of 6 for $9) – that’s $67.50 per hour! WHOA!!!!!!!! Time to quit the day job and start making beads for a living!!!!!!!

There are a lot of people who see lampwork beads selling for a lot of money and think… I could do that too – and it looks like a dead easy way to make a living. Work at home in your jammies, make fun stuff all day, mess around on Facebook… what’s not to love? Thousands of new folks take up lampworking every year and many, MANY of them dream of quitting their jobs and living on their bead money.

There are also many people who look at lampwork beads (even those who buy them regularly!) and don’t quite ‘get’ why they are so freaking expensive. They are expensive. They are. I know.

Here’s why.

Using the weenie beads as an example, I’ll run you through what goes into the making and selling of the SIMPLEST of simple beads.

The last time I made weenies, I made 135 in 3 hours so we’ll use that as a guide. First let me say that of those 135 weenies, there were 30 that I couldn’t sell in pairs, because they didn’t match in size. So we’re talking 105 successful weenies. I don’t usually sell the leftovers. I give them away.

Recipe for a weenie:

Step 1: dip mandrels – 6 minutes = 0.057 minutes/bead

Step 2: make beads – 3 hours = 1.71 minutes/bead

Step 2.5: anneal beads – 5 hours – but we’re not going to count that since I can do other stuff while I’m waiting…

Step 3: clean beads – 47 minutes = 0.45 minutes/bead

Step 4: organize into matched pairs = 10 minutes = 0.095 minutes/bead (if you’re a visual kind of person, you can learn about that adventure in a short video I made – click here to watch)

Step 5: string beads onto cord for display/photos = 15 minutes = 0.143 minutes/bead

Step 6: photograph beads for listing – 10 minutes for 6 beads = 1.67 minutes/bead

Step 7: list beads for sale – 6 minutes for 6 beads (since I have a template I can copy and use again) – 1 minute/bead

Step 8: shipping – 60 minutes for 105 beads = 0.57 minutes/bead

TOTAL time per bead = 5.7 minutes

(If you add etching, which I offer to do for free – for now – add another 45 seconds per bead, but we won’t count that)

So for every minute I spend at the torch, I spend THREE times that doing all the other things that need to be done before I can ship the beads. In the end, the actual hourly rate for the weenies is $15.79/hour. This does not include:

– time spent ordering glass and shipping supplies, refilling propane, etc.
– time spent researching and developing the design
– time spent marketing my work (it is a LOT)
– time spent communicating with customers (also a lot)
– time spent practicing my technical skills (years)
– money spent on classes to improve my skills (an average 1-2 day class is $300-$600)
– market research time (and I’m talking serious time, not surfing Pinterest for 5 hours)
– raw materials including glass
– tool costs
– torch – minimum of $150 for an entry-level oxygen/propane torch
– kiln for annealing – $900
– oxygen concentrator – $400-600
– specialty eyewear – $90
– ventilation – at least $100 – typically $300+
– propane tank, regulator, hoses, flashback arrestors – $275
– etching liquid for complimentary etching – $90/bottle
– electricity
– propane
– computer costs
– camera
– photo editing software
– Etsy fees
– PayPal fees
– advertising costs
– rent
– insurance
– taxes

Lampworking isn’t looking like such a get-rich-quick scheme anymore, is it? 🙂

And you know what? Weenies are my MOST profitable beads. Most of my beads are priced at about $30/hour for torch time. Now you have some idea of how far down that goes after all the extra work that goes into that bead. Often we’re hovering at less than minimum wage ($10.20/hour where I live).

I think the moral of the story is that artists don’t do the work they do for the money. They do it because they love it. They do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s possible that they’re not wearing the fanciest clothes, driving the fanciest cars, or living in the fanciest houses. But for people who choose to live their lives creatively, making beautiful objects for others to enjoy, the reward goes far beyond material wealth.

Ok. So we will not get started on people charging very little for their beads because it’s a hobby and they just want to buy more glass with the money they make. If that is you, please don’t sell yourself short. If you don’t value your art, who will? It’s a bit of a sore spot with full-time beadmakers. When our customers see those low, low, low prices, sitting beside our much higher, fair-wage prices, it’s confusing, and it does not reflect the true cost of what we do.

On the other hand, if you’re looking at beads made by a full-time lampworker, considering the investment you’re about to make, take a moment to appreciate all the time that went into those beautiful objects. They were made not just with minutes or hours, but years (and maybe even decades) of love, dedication, and skill. Whether they become part of your creative process or part of your personal collection, you’ll get great enjoyment out of them and so will future generations. Beautiful art glass objects will remain on this earth for a lot longer than any of us will. Cool, isn’t it?

So whatever it is you’re paying for those beads you love so much…

It’s worth it. And so are you.

xo — julie

*this is an old post, but since it’s making the rounds again, I thought I’d mention, for the sake of the beadmakers in the crowd:

since I wrote this article (over a year ago) I:

a) raised the price of my weenie beads from $1.50/bead to $2/bead

b) implemented a surcharge for etching (after all, it takes time!) – $0.50 per bead

c) now sell the single (unmatched) beads in mixed sets

Take the time to re-evaluate every once in a while. You deserve to be well compensated for the good work you do, and the best customers out there want that for you too.

a sign or two

Obviously I’m the worst blogger of all time. It’s ok. There were a lot of things I added to the ‘must try harder’ list in the new year, but you know, blogging wasn’t one of them. It could have been, it probably should have been, but… it wasn’t. I do often think of it, but I’ve had so many other things on the go… and… you know… choices.

But recently there have been a few signs from the universe that I really should pick it up again. First off, there were a couple of challenges going around on Facebook – there was an art jewelry/art bead challenge, and then the #artchain challenge. The idea was to post an image of your original artwork once a day for 5 days and then to nominate another artist to continue the chain. I’m a bit foggy now on what all I posted for the bead and jewelry challenge, but these are the beads I posted on the final day:

hollow series by Uglibeads

Definitely my proudest beads in recent history. They are hollow! Empty! Nothing inside! Whenever I’d attempted hollow beads in the past, they were an epic fail. Tricky, but now that I’ve got the hang of it I just. can’t. stop. Maybe I won’t! They’ve been selling pretty well too, so I’m thrilled about that – a little piece of my soul is in every single one of these beads. Hey, maybe they’re empty so all the love can fit inside. Alright, I’m weird! But you guys already knew that.

Anyway, back to the story about the challenge. On Day 3, I nominated the very lovely, very talented Claire Fabian, an artist from Germany. She makes beautiful artisan jewelry and a lot of her own components -with polymer clay, especially – and she writes a great blog – saraccino. She got me thinking about blogging again because instead of nominating other artists, she chose to share a few of the blogs she follows. One one of the days, she mentioned that she reads my blog, and uhhh…. there’s nothing new to see here. Sign #1.

I straight-up copied Claire when I started the second challenge (which I still haven’t finished, but c’est la vie!). On Day 4, I shared the amazing blog of another dear friend I met through beads and jewelry, Sharon Borsavage. Of course her jewelry is a constant source of inspiration. Check out all the wonderful work in her Etsy shop. But besides the jewelry, I’ve been so inspired by her absolutely mind-blowing mixed media and collage art… She’s one of those multitalented people who will make you absolutely green with envy. There’s jewelry, there’s art… but it doesn’t end there. She’s a great blogger too: Livewire Jewelry Blog. I’m really inspired by that. Inspired enough to feel like blogging again. Sign #2.

Did I tell you my creepy blog secret before? The one where I find a blog I really love and read it from start to finish like a novel? I’ve been working my way through Sharon’s blog for about 4 days now, whenever I have a few spare minutes. There are certain obsessive aspects to my personality that probably make me a better artist and craftsperson… but they also make me a creepy creeper. Surely somebody else out there does this too? Don’t tell me I’m the only one!

Seeing her beautiful art has really pushed me to spend some time doing non-glass creating too. Here’s a fun thing I was working on the other night – totally mindless, color, repeated motion, meditative, simple, fun… I have an irrational love for art supplies that are really meant for children. I used every single color in my coveted set of Crayola markers and some nice thick graph paper. It’s going to be the background for something. Eventually.

marker art by Julie Wong Sontag

So here I am, back in the saddle again. We’ll see how long this wildly successful blogging streak lasts 😉

tapping the force

There are good days, and there are GREAT days, and some days are SO good, SO great, they really give you moment to pause and reflect. Today was one of those days.

It’s been a pretty steady run lately of things going right creatively, and that always helps immensely in terms of boosting the happiness quotient. I think part of it is that I’ve been forcing (or, really, allowing) myself to spend some time each day to do something new, different, experimental, untested. Since I’ve started doing this my feelings of achievement and satisfaction, really, have gone through the roof. As a creative person, time to play is a gift you MUST give yourself, and yet, so often it’s so easy to forget. So anyway, that’s my ‘me’ time, and we all know that me time is happy time.

I woke up today looking forward to my morning coffee, to catching up on stuff online, to turning the Christmas lights on and getting some tunes going. All that good morning stuff that in truth, I look forward to every morning. When I checked in on Facebook, I was greeted with three different jewelry artists’ posts having to do with my work. Two totally beautiful creations made with my beads, and an excited post about the arrival of some of my beads overseas. I say often that my greatest pleasure as an artist is making things that become part of someone else’s creative journey – in whatever way. It’s very special and I never take it for granted.

Maybe that’s what got me going this morning. In any case, by 10:30 AM, I was worked up into a positively incandescent state of bliss.

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.46.24 PM

The day had established itself as a freakishly fabulous day, and it wasn’t even noon. How often does that even happen? Some days I’m not even up by noon! As the day wore on, I kept thinking about how lucky it was that I was having such a great day, and how thankful I am to be doing what I do every day.

And then it got deep.

I realized that a year ago today, more than likely, I was lying in bed in the dark, wishing and hoping that I could fall asleep again so I wouldn’t have to think or feel anything. I was firmly in the grip of a very serious, deep depression that had been going on for a while. Quite a while. For months and months and months on end I’d been trying to sleep my life away – it was the only thing that brought me any relief. When I was awake, I was wrapped up in blankets reading a book when I could concentrate, or watching my 16th hour of TV that day. I was alive, but I felt dead. My greatest fear, and something that I thought about over and over and over again during that time, was that my creativity would never come back. That I would never paint, or draw, or write, or make beads again.

But I did. And I am. And as I type this, tears are welling up when I think about how much things can change in a year. How much we can survive before we begin to thrive again. It is in us, that ability to withstand. Strength and resilience have been my constant companions throughout life, mostly out of necessity. I know a thing or two about it. And I know, with every fiber of my being, that just when something looks like it will never EVER be good again, it will.

It really will.

The other day I was thinking about what I was like as a person, as an artist, back in the early 2000’s – a decade or so ago. Before a lot of life happened. Before a lot of sadness, a lot of suffering, a lot of loss. I was different then. I know I was. It makes me a little sad to think of it, because when I do, I know that somewhere along the way, I lost some of my magic. Some of that sparkly energy I used to be able to share with the world is gone. Old artist me was a colorful bright happy plant that bloomed without effort, and new artist me has grown gnarled roots and some of my leaves have dropped off. But I still see beauty in everything, and I guess that is a kind of magic in itself.

I will have to think about this more, but I do know that whatever I am now, I am happy. I’m here. I’m creating stuff. And life really is good.

You will love this interview with Caroline Casey, which just resonated in so many ways with all I was thinking and feeling today.

“Handmade things will feed your ancient soul because everything has a story, the story of the maker and then the story of the person who receives the work. By making handmade things, we’re tapping a force that says we’re not destined to accept what fate has assigned us. We want to make things because it’s a way of changing our lives.” – Caroline Casey

imagine immensities

MOO (the company I order my business cards and other printed stuffs from) just published a short interview with designer Debbie Millman. I Love this:

If you could give any budding designers one piece of advice, what would it be?

“Whether they’re just beginning their career or reconfiguring midway through – Imagine immensities. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. In order to drive for a remarkable life, you have to decide you want one. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

In other news, the beloved Bamboleo beads have been featured in another Etsy treasury (their 4th!) full of bright goodies. Click on the pic to visit:

Etsy Treasury featuring Uglibeads

Slews of stuffs coming up on Etsy this week – finished jewelry, beads, and headpins too!


your best is good enough

I swear to god after this I am really going to stop procrastinating. But I was just thinking about something.

I made some headpins the other day… they’re really simple. Sometimes simple is good.

Headpins by Uglibeads

I’ve seen others like them – they’re just one of the ‘standard’ headpin shapes you see out there. But once in a while you see some that are really poorly made. Which always gets me thinking.

I’ve been chatting with a few of my bead friends lately about beads they’ve purchased that were a big disappointment because the quality of the work was bad bad bad. Sloppy dots, really ragged bead holes… Beads with issues. Not my beads, of course. Everything I make is 100% perfect.


If only that were true.

But I really feel that if you’re going to put your stuff out there, it should be the very best work you can do. Something you’re really proud to stand behind. Well constructed. Nicely finished. It’s true that everybody’s ‘best’ is different, and that’s ok – we’re all learning, and we all have different preferences, aesthetically. There’s also that kind of desirable and deliberate imperfect.

When you’re aiming for the best you can do, sometimes it means scrapping things that aren’t quite up to snuff. Like the green headpin on the far right in this pic – it goes in the reject pile because the wire isn’t quite embedded properly. I have a huge jar filled with my rejects and probably every other beadmaker does too. People who make jewelry are always tearing things apart, changing things, reworking until it’s ‘right’. Painters have reams of work that nobody ever sees.

Perfectionism can be sort of a disease that’s toxic to creativity. But I think you can create with process in mind (not perfection) and then select the best of it to represent you in places where you’re building a reputation. The experiments, the epiphanies, the creative leaps… those are for you, and if they’re imperfect, so much the better.

Any thoughts?

the agony and the ecstasy

I think that one of the most challenging things about being an artist is pushing yourself to come up with things that are original… things that feel like they are uniquely ‘yours’… things that no one else is doing in quite the same way. It’s the greatest feeling when you make something that you haven’t seen before. For a few days, you feel like a total genius. Then, you figure out that someone else has already done it, and your happy little bubble bursts.

I did some experimenting with headpins last night, manipulating the part that is embedded into the glass – bending and balling up the copper wire. I’m sure there are people out there who’ve already thought about doing this, but they’re new to me, and they genuinely came from the recesses of my creative brain without any outside influence, so I’m pretty stoked about that.

Headpin experiments

It’s kind of tricky business when you see someone else doing the same thing you’ve really, truly, come up with on your own. There is a lot of synchronicity in the creative world, and people DO come up with the same thing at the same time. You see that a lot in the world of science. But in that case, he (or she) who publishes first gets the credit. He (or she) who gets ‘scooped’ usually abandons years of work because it’s not ‘theirs’ anymore. In art, maybe there is room for all of us. I’d like to think so.

If you know in your heart of hearts that you came up with the idea on your own, don’t you think you should go for it – even if there’s something else like it out there??

Back to the experimental headpins. If you’ve seen this before, don’t tell me.

I’m still feeling like a genius.

Although it feels good to strive for something new, the creative process benefits a lot from finding things in others’ work that inspire you, and incorporating those elements into your own stuff. Here’s a refreshing – and generous – take on that issue, that Fanciful Devices posted in her blog sidebar:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 11.31.07 AM

Nice way to look at it, don’t you think?

focusing on focalling

This is where people apologize profusely for being such ‘bad bloggers’… I haven’t posted in so long… I’m a terrible person… yada yada yada. Yes, it’s been a month. But I must admit that my feathers aren’t all that ruffled about it. There are far too many things in life to beat yourself up over, and I decided long ago that my ability to blog regularly just isn’t one of them.

Something interesting is afoot this week. When I make beads, I feel different. I feel like my hands suddenly just ‘know’ what to do. There’s an ease – a confidence – that hasn’t been there before. When I noticed that easy feeling I silently rejoiced. You know, Hallelujah Chorus and everything. Ode to Joy. Because before this, it’s been anything but easy. I’ve been struggling with my beadmaking for a little while. Feeling frustrated. Feeling stuck. Spending a lot of time sitting in front of the torch, looking at my glass, feeling lost. I know we’ve been over this whole ‘creativity is cyclical’ thing before, and feeling lost comes and goes. But finding my way again this time was different.

When things started to improve, I felt like I’d really stepped up my game. Like I was starting to inch my way, bit by bit, toward some new things that I’ve had my eye on – for a long time.

It’s interesting how progress happens. Or doesn’t. I find that I can think about things a lot. You know, new ideas. Wanting to learn something new, do something new. I can plan, and hope, and dream, but no matter how much mental energy gets thrown at the problem, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Although it’s frustrating waiting for that next step forward to become clear, I try to trust that when I’ve worked hard enough to get there, everything will fall into place. Faith is important when your livelihood depends on creativity.

Something that’s on my wishing-and-hoping-and-dreaming list is to become a better ‘focal bead’ maker. In my previous beadmaking life, I really hadn’t made focal beads in any significant way. One or two here and there. Not a regular thing. But it’s always been a goal of mine to move away from making bead ‘sets’ (groups of coordinating or matching beads), toward making focal beads. I’m just so drawn to the idea of making something that stands on its own… that makes a singular statement. As a set maker, I know how much work and planning goes into making a spectacular set of beads, and I can appreciate that, but I’ve always been enchanted by the ‘art’ of a really amazing focal bead. In the deepest, darkest recesses of my heart, I long to be a focal bead maker.

In the bead world, there tend to be set people and focal people. Of course, there are lots of people who do both. You have to be in a different sort of mindset to make a nice set of beads. It requires a different skill set – precision, good color sense, concentration. Some people say that they don’t have the attention span required to make a bunch of beads that go together. I suppose that different personalities and artistic temperaments are just drawn to different modes of expression. What’s interesting to me, though, is that the ‘big name’ beadmakers, almost without exception, are focal bead makers. Sometimes you’ll see a set now and then, but it’s rare. Somehow, as lampworkers, it seems that we have a certain respect for the almighty focal. And bead buyers do as well. A beautiful, well executed focal bead sells for a lot. Sometimes sets of beads do too… sometimes. But for the most part, it’s hard to charge what they’re really worth.

So back to my problem with focals. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been really actively trying to force myself to work on things I’m not comfortable doing. Top of the list: the elusive focal bead. I can’t really explain what it is that I find so difficult about them. Lots of things, I guess. A bigger surface area to cover, challenging to shape, more pre-planning required, more time lost if it doesn’t turn out… but I think mostly it’s a mental barrier that I’ve unwittingly erected over the years. When I sit down to make a focal bead, I get sweaty and uncomfortable. I have a few moments of panic before I light the torch and pick up the glass. I literally have to take a deep breath. It’s silly. I mean, what’s the big deal? If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I’ve wasted a buck or two worth of glass and some time. But my pride is bruised and it’s disheartening. Nonetheless, when I persevere, it works out. Almost all the time. Practice pays off. Revolutionary, I know.

Yesterday I was making a focal bead. In a style that is really new for me. Totally experimental. As I worked, I literally felt something shift inside. I had an overwhelming feeling that there was a ‘before this moment’ and ‘after this moment’. When I finished torching for the night, I turned to my husband and I said, “I’m a focal bead maker now.” He probably thought, thank you god… maybe now she’ll stop blathering on about how she really, really needs to learn to make focal beads. All. The. Time.

Finally, the scary is gone. From now on, that deep breath will be filled with anticipation rather than fear. I’m all for having faith and trusting in the process, but really. It’s about time.

grey steel amphora



beeauty is in the eye of the beeholder

Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

One day I was doodling, and I came up with a little drawing of a bumblebee. Who doesn’t love bees? I’ve always been drawn to them. When I was little, I went to a honey farm, and the owner explained to us that a bee would rather sting itself than sting a person. He held the bee in his hand, and well, it stung him. Nonetheless, it was the start of a lifelong fascination with these industrious little creatures.

A little while ago, I finally sat down to bring my drawing to life, and the finished product came out just exactly the way I had imagined it. Except cuter, maybe. Of course, I posted a photo of my new creation on my Facebook page and in a jewelry makers’ group I belong to. People went insane for these little guys. There’s something about them that just makes people happy inside.

Sometimes I wonder about making these ‘cute’ things. When I think about my goals as a beadmaker, being the person who makes ‘cute’ things is not on my list. I think, maybe if I stopped making things with eyes on them, people would take me more seriously. I mean, don’t we all want to be taken more seriously?

Everyone who creates things probably strives to make ‘art’. I don’t hesitate to call myself an Artist, because I occasionally work in other media – drawing, painting, photography, etc. Things that are considered ‘real’ art. I went to art school, and that’s totally legit, right?  As much as beadmakers like to insist – up, down and sideways – that we’re artists, the reality is that what we do is really more like fine craft. I see the term ‘artisan’ used a lot, and that seems fitting. Everyone has their own take on the art/craft debate, and I think it’s ok that we all see ourselves at different places on that spectrum. Call yourself whatever resonates for you. It’s your identity – go ahead and claim it.

There may come a day when I decide to stop making ‘cute’ things, but today is not that day. You know what? Little glass bees make people smile.

And that’s worth something.

show up and get to work

The problem with starting something new is that at some point you actually have to start. Even if it’s something you’re really excited about, it can be really hard to find the courage and the motivation to take those first steps. I’m finding it a daily struggle to get back to the torch, even though it’s something I’ve planned for and wanted for a long time. Those emotional blocks can be hard to overcome, particularly in the realm of creativity.

I’m making a conscious effort to outsmart myself and just get to work. I think many artists wait until the mood strikes before sitting down to make things and I’ve generally been guilty of that. But I remember being in art school where the sheer volume of work that you do is unbelievable. Every day, all day, you’re creating. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but creating is no longer a choice. It’s just a fact of life. And you learn that sometimes, something truly amazing happens, and that’s the magic that creates the excitement and the anticipation of finding out what comes next. My goal now is to nudge myself into this kind of routine… getting to the torch most days, with the simple goal of creating new stuff. Some of it will be good, some of it will be bad, but in making a constant stream of new work, progress is inevitable. The more you do, the more you get done. And that’s how you move forward.

Last night was a struggle to turn on the torch. I promised myself I would work for at least one hour, and see how I felt after that. I felt exhausted. But instead of giving up, I took a long break and convinced myself to work a little bit longer. After I was done I felt great. Some good things came out of taking the time to just experiment with the glass, even when it felt like the bead I was working on was not going to a good place… And besides the beads I made, I emerged with a bunch of ideas for what to work on next.

I have to keep reminding myself that making anything at all feels so much better than making nothing. It’s good motivation to take it one step at a time.

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up & get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part & a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you.”

~ Chuck Close