rounding the corner

You know that place where the finish line is finally within sight, and you just need to GET THERE? Your legs have no feeling in them, you’re sucking wind, sweating profusely, you want to throw up, or maybe die, and you start to make these really elaborate bargains with yourself and anyone who will listen…? That place?

That’s me. I’m there. Rounding the corner, nearing the end of the weenie race.

(for the new folks, I offered a made-to-order sale in my Etsy shop not too long ago for my ‘weenie’ beads and sea glass bead pairs, and it was… ehrm… popular. So I’ve been working on that for about a month…)

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here are some weenie beads – teeny tiny spacer beads in all sorts of beautiful, unusual, and sometimes rare colors:

Weenie beads by Julie Wong Sontag

And here are the ‘sea glass’ beads (they’re not genuine sea glass, made by Mother Earth, they’re lampwork beads with the look and feel of sea glass, made by me!)

sea glass beads by Julie Wong Sontag - Uglibeads

4 hour days at the torch, every day.
No weekends off.
Discipline.
Focus.
Total weenievision.

But the last few days, I’ve been entering that euphoric place where you realize you’re going to finish this thing.You’ve been pacing yourself, checking your fancy Garmin robo-watch every 5 seconds, and you’ve timed your glorious final stride across the finish line perfectly. That big goal that you’ve been training so hard for… it’s so close you almost taste that huge post-race bottle of ice cold water.

And then,

weather advisory

Oh AHS, I see your Heat Advisory warning, and I raise you. I’m going to sit down, turn on my 960 degree kiln right here beside me, and light my 5000 degree torch flame, right here in front of me, and turn on my oxygen concentrator, which is like the hottest heater you can imagine blowing hot air on my feet while I work. Because, you see, I’m absolutely hellbent on finishing these beads.

If I just leave all the curtains closed and torch in the dark (yes, I can almost make a weenie bead with my eyes closed…) it will be ok.

Or not.

There are places I didn’t know it was possible to sweat. Like, in your ear for example. I don’t know where that ear sweat actually originated, it may have some from somewhere else, but it’s a thing.

About an hour, 40 weenies and 7 glasses of ice water later, I was feeling maybe done for the day. Or forever.

scary studio selfie

Oh, why yes… I am a master of the scary studio selfie. Thank you for noticing.

That was me shortly before I melted into a puddle on the floor. I look really happy.

So, yeah.

And they say it will be even hotter today.

I read this great line, I can’t quite remember where, but I feel like it was probably Danielle LaPorte (a kind of wild, inspirational-modern-guru type lady, I like her) – and it went something like, ‘No matter what – oh wait, ok I just found the exact quote on a sticky note. I wrote this down a couple of months ago, and I look at it every once in a while to remind myself to chill the frick out. Here it is:

Danielle LaPorte

So – if you don’t finish the race today, don’t worry – you will.

And if you finish two minutes, or two hours, or two days later than you thought you would… Guess what?

You win.

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.

But.

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
Emily-hollow-5

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.

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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.

New beads on Etsy!

I finally got another set of beads listed on Etsy. These are from the beadmaking “vault”. I made them back in 2005-ish and the other day when I was going through some of my old stuff I found them in a box. They’re really nice. I think I made them based on a photo of some fabric I saw in a design magazine… It’s such a classy color combination, I’m sure I didn’t think of that myself.

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I had a hard time pricing them. I know what I used to charge for each type of bead, but that was back when I had a bit of a following, and the demand for my beads was more than I could keep up with. Everything is different now. At that time, there was no Etsy. When I started out selling beads, Ebay was the big thing, and a lot of people did really well selling beads there. A lot of us would start our auctions at $0.99, and because there were so many people buying lampwork, usually they’d sell for much more than you’d hoped. Sometimes a bead/beads would sell for hundreds of dollars. Some of the ‘big name’ beadmakers were even getting bids in the thousands for one set of beads. It was a really fun time. I miss the thrill of posting an Ebay auction and watching the price climb! Etsy just doesn’t have the same excitement factor… Though I suppose from a buyer’s perspective it’s nice to be able to buy a set of beads ‘right now’ without waiting for 7-10 days to see whether you were the high bidder on an auction. Maybe I’ll try posting some beads on Ebay now and then for old times’ sake, just to see what happens!

Click here to see the new beads on Etsy. Have a great weekend! Thanks for stopping by!

bead love

I’m not sure what it is about beads, exactly, but I do know that they’ve held a certain fascination for human beings almost as far back as you can go – according to one source, a pair of beads was made from shells and worn as jewelry 100,000 years ago. Since then beads have been made from almost every material imaginable, and used in many different ways. Beads have been worn for decorative, ceremonial or religious reasons, and as symbols of status or wealth. Beads have been used for prayer and meditation. Aside from their use as decorative or devotional objects, beads have been used as currency and were extremely important in the early economies of North America and other parts of the world.

The making of glass beads is thought to date back at least as far as early Roman civilization. The technique of making “lampwork” beads was perfected by the Venetians, beginning in the late 1200’s. Many of the family-owned glass factories operated on the island of Murano, and the secrets of the industry were very closely guarded. This is likely the reason that the knowledge of working glass to make beads did not spread worldwide until relatively recently. In reading Artist Bios of North American beadmakers who have been making art glass beads for a very long time, the early adopters (in the 1980’s and early 1990’s) tell stories of teaching themselves to make glass beads, and developing their own tools and materials. There were no books on the subject available. There was no online community of beadmakers sharing knowledge with each other. Eventually, things changed when small pockets of glass beadmakers began teaching others what they’d learned. In reality, a very small number of individuals are largely responsible for bringing contemporary glass beadmaking as we now know it into the collective consciousness.

One of the pioneers of the art glass bead movement in the US is Michael Barley, who was based in Port Townsend, Washington until his recent move to Portland, Oregon. Michael began his career in ceramics. In addition to his usual repertoire of ceramic objects, he found himself creating ceramic beads and incorporating them into jewelry. After meeting a group of glass beadmakers, he tried his hand at lampworking, and ultimately, this new passion eclipsed his ceramics practice. He has been making beads for many years, in addition to teaching, and developing new tools and techniques for other beadmakers.

I’ve long admired Michael’s amazing beads, and I always keep my eye on what he has available for sale, waiting for one of his beads to ‘especially’ jump out at me (every one of his beads is so unique and made with such skill and depth they all jump out at me, really). Every once in a while, I do add a new lampwork bead to my own collection. I don’t ‘do’ anything with it, I don’t wear it… I just collect it and enjoy looking at it from time to time. There are a lot of other beadmakers and bead lovers who do the same. I’ve been told many times by people who’ve purchased my beads intending to make jewelry with them that they couldn’t part with them and kept them around just to ‘enjoy’. As you may have guessed, I have finally purchased one of Michael Barley’s incredible beads, and I can’t wait to see it in person. I feel quite lucky, actually, as he doesn’t always have a lot of new work for sale online. Recently he’s posted quite a few new beads in his Etsy shop. There are still a few left to look at (or to purchase!) if you’re also a fan. Luckily I got a bit of extra money as a gift for Christmas (thanks to my husband’s lovely Grandpa) – good timing! Here is my new acquisition (image from the Etsy listing):

Michael Barley bead

I’m glad that because of Michael and others who blazed the trail, there is now a thriving community of glass beadmakers all over the world. It’s a fun world to be a part of. If you’re curious about making your own beads, or you’ve pretty much decided that it’s something you’d like to do, I’d say, 100%, go for it. I have not had a single moment of regret since I took my first beadmaking class in 2001. People are discovering and sharing new ideas and techniques on a daily basis, and the presence of online forums (such as Lampwork Etc.) as a resource for glass beadmakers has made it so easy for this flow of information to happen. Today’s open and accessible learning environment made it relatively easy for me to get my start in glass, so I have great respect and admiration for the people who had to learn things the hard way. Maybe it’s out of necessity that these early beadmakers have all developed such a special, unique, and recognizable style. Their inspiring beads show the rest of us what is possible. It’s a good reminder that in order to become a ‘master’ at anything, you have to be truly dedicated, and you have to have a passion for what you’re doing. And you have to stick with it. I’m sure that the best beadmakers in the world, including Michael Barley, all had moments of frustration and times when they wanted to give it all up. But they didn’t. And that’s what matters.

so… I buy beads… and then what?

You’ll notice that right now I only offer loose beads for sale. I love making beads but these days I fall short when it comes to making anything with them…which is why I leave the jewelry creation to customers with talent in that department. I don’t often see what people end up making with my beads, but I did come across a photo of a wonderful bracelet made with some of my beads by the incredibly talented Rickie Voges.

Rickie Voges bracelet

You can see her blog post about this bracelet here, where you can also read her very kind and generous words about me and my work. Unfortunately this bracelet is already sold but you can peruse her current work for sale on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/rickitic. I do own a bracelet that she created with my lampwork beads, and it is simply divine. Such incredible craftsmanship and design sense. I hope it won’t be the last!

back in business…

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It’s my first ever bead listing on Etsy! You can see them here). I made these back in July and they’ve been hanging around until I could get the hang of selling on Etsy. The Etsy part was surprisingly easy but I have to say I was a little rusty in the photo and photoshop department… Nonetheless I can’t wait to start sending my beads out into the world again. Because these are my first beads in a while they’re… um… primitive? They’re free-spirited. They have “character”. They may not be perfect, but they make me happy and hopefully they make someone out there happy too!

It’s a good day.

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

Merry Penguins!

Santa Penguins

First, in the spirit of Christmas, a bead GIVEAWAY: the first 5 people to leave a comment on this post will win a festive Santa penguin bead, fresh out of the kiln! Obviously it won’t make it to you in time for Christmas this year, but you can tuck it away for future Christmases. Of course, I had to come up with the dorkiest photo of all time in order to display the penguin family. Ice cubes and cotton balls, I thought it was quite winteresque.

I made these cute little guys based on a tutorial found on Pinterest. I can’t for the life of me find the link to the tutorial again (the ‘pin’ function wasn’t working when I came across this one…). Alas. I have the PDF and if you would also like to have the instructions, email me (juliedwong@gmail.com), and I will send them to you. Even though the instructions were in German (?) I was still able to follow the step-by-step photos to come up with penguins that look nothing like the original inspiration. But still adorable, and that’s how it works when you put your own spin on things. In the past I was not a ‘sculptural’ beadmaker, definitely not a ‘critter’ person, but it’s fun to experiment every once in a while by venturing into new territory.

On the subject of Pinterest… words cannot express my love for Pinterest. For an artist (or any visual person, for that matter), it provides an endless and constantly changing source of visual stimulation. I have several boards (you can see them here), and I turn to them frequently for inspiration. I used to keep a collection of photos I loved from the internet on  iPhoto, and this is the same idea, but much, much better. For beadmakers who love to look at other beadmakers’ beads, there are thousands and thousands of photos of beautiful beads on Pinterest. My own board of lampworked beads is filled with beads I come across that strike me as the most amazing, the most inspiring, the most incredible examples of the art. I add new stuff all the time. What’s great is that every person who pins lampwork beads has different taste… If you do a search for ‘lampwork’ and select ‘boards’ instead of individual pins, you can view personally curated collections of beads put together by others who love the same thing you do. The quality of work is usually very, very good, and if you’re looking for inspiration, it’s much more satisfying than searching through pages and pages of mediocre beads on Etsy or Ebay. Check it out, whatever you’re interested in, guaranteed it’s on Pinterest.