Thursday, April 26, 2007


I've spent so many decades around glass, glassblowers, beadmakers and lovers/collectors of artist created glass that it's inevitable I hear, and am asked my thoughts & opinions of issues and advances. Sadly this invariably involves various politics that are 'part and parcel' of these discussions. Humanity can't seem separate discussion from politics. Or perhaps humanity just doesn't want to separate them from each other.

My latest visit to the land of hot but unresoved issues was prompted by two of my students debating over the BEAD PRESS/BEAD MOLD issue as we were chatting after a recent class at my studio.

I don't know if everyone is familiar with this new turn in U.S. (tho old in european) beadmaking. In case you've not heard the issue/discussion centers on the fact there are ever growing number of lampwork beadmakers who are using tools made in machine shops that allow a lampworker to gather glass on the mandrel then insert it in this benchtop brass (or other metal) press and literally 'mold' the glass into the prescribed shape, size, thickness. It's not new as concepts in working glass on all levels goes.

But it DOES raise some interesting questions for U.S. 'art glass' lampworkers and buyers... Certainly, you can create a well shaped bead a good deal faster (particularly if you're a new(er) beadmaker). For the fairly experienced lampworker the outcome is very predictable, reproducable and expedient.

The question, and this is where it becomes sticky, is where does the line fall when determining a 'handmade individual artist created bead' (no two totally alike) VS the 'production bead'? It's a wide wandering line and there are a lot of points to consider on each side of the issue ~ for both the lampworker and the buyer.

The reniassance of small art glass (aka beads) in this country gained much of its momentum based on the unique and individual creation of every single solitary bead offered to designers (or collectors). The artist 'free formed' each bead the buyer/collector purchased. Concurrently the skill required to learn to work the glass to be able to create matching size and shape and infuse your soul into each bead took time and committment and skill of the material and the art. Each bead was created with hand skills passed down by generations of glassworkers to the next.

This hand skill components was what set the U.S. artist beads apart from all others available. Beads ceated by hand were unique in size, shape, design. Each bead created required command of the material to master consistancy. It takes a great deal of committment to the art to learn to create 'by hand and skill' (valuing mastry of skill over speed/voulume of the product).

It's a discussion as old as the industrial revolution. Tools (in this case molds much as in times past) DO increase speed and assure consistancy and ultimately lower price. Those are solid and valid points.

But what can (and should) be pondered is the issue of what we art bead lampworkers and all of the designers who use art glass beads or collect art glass beads are really all about? What our work is all about? (remember I mentioned it gets sticky)?

For me (as I'm sure you've surmised) it's about creating pieces that are heart and soul and skill and carrying on the generational skills of my 'old world apprenticeship'. It's more about the hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds...) of hours learning from my father and the decades of practice that have taught me to 'read the glass' and how to make it move and dance that I bring to my work and ultimately to you, the designers/collectors. The old world way in which I (strive) to bring life a piece of art for a 'one of a kind' design based on all my years of experience with this mysterious material...

Do designers find they're just as happy to work with pieces that are pressed out in voulme at a lesser price? Do they prefer true one of a kind pieces? Is a merging and use of both unique and pressed ideal for a designer? Perhaps....

Will collectors be drawn to a bead, pristine and perfect, that was one of 100 pressed out in a day at a lampworkers bench? Or will collectors of designer jewelry seek the unique? Does the story, the 'soul', the subtle variants in each bead matter less, as much, or more to the jewelry buyer than price....

If U.S. lapworker production beads gain favor, what will be the difference between US lampwork beads (pressed beads) and those imported from Czech, China and India?

It gets sticky AND tricky. The advocates of these tools (both sellers and users) will point out (vehemently I must say) that the SHAPE is only part of the bead - the embellishment is personal and artistic and and..and... and..... True, and yet conversely one must admit each bead is essentially 'produced' to specific size, shape and form by presses and that are all exactly the same on two of three points (shape/size). Thus, some of the handskill and/or individuality is lost, is it not?

Most importantly, does it matter to the designer and the jewelry buyer?

It's going to be a very interesting turn in the beadmaking field to observe as it unfolds.

For me, it's always going to be about the dance of glass - the magic of making a shape evolve by gravity by feel by heat and by heart. I have presses, I use them occasionally and I teach classes in their use. I've no bone to pick with presses or those who use them. Presses as all tools have their strengths both technically and econmically. Concurrent and unavoidable is the the fact presses require less hand working to create a bead. The beads are more likely to be exactly the same size, thickness, each bead completed more quickly. Not a snarky point of view - just a fact....

My work will always primarily be formed by the 'ancient' methods, using hard won skills and experience. Each bead created one at a time, each an individual, each truly 'one of a kind'. Because that's MY calling, the path my art takes.....

When it comes to ART, I believe the core element of it is soul (not speed, not volume, not price). So this kind of issue presents a choice of direction each artist and each jewelry designer in any medium has to make for him/herself.

Without a doubt there are those (in fact many) who'll take exception to my view as the world is fond of 'immediate results and low prices'. Which is equally valid. The ponderable in these discussions isn't really what is 'right or wrong' but listening to your own calling, your muse, your reason for your art...

Like discussions about 'art vs craft' and 'bead-stringers vs jewlery designers' it's sticky, snarky fodder - interesting to ponder for certain - as long as everyone talks/listens/remains kind. There's seldom harm in any 'good discussion'. Ultimately our 'art' is about us, what we choose to create, what tools we use (or not) what price point we set to mention a few. Each artist in the process see our vision, path and outcome. Each artist decides what 'matters' ~ no one else can dictate that (except perhaps for our muse, lol).

Thanks for reading and as always, your thoughts are welcome...

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