Saturday, December 6, 2014

The meaning of family
Beyond a coat of arms: creating new symbols for family
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 2014

In artist Anna Church’s “Insignia” series  she arranges evocative found
 objects to illustrate the badges we create 
to identify ourselves. I
 decided to give her concept
 a try, and created a new badge-
crest for my family 
after scouring the house for just the right items.
My immediate family—all four of us—will be together at Christmas for the first time in three years. More than any other holiday, Christmas has been the catalyst for some of our family’s happiest times together. When my daughters were young, all I could think about was the joy of watching them tear open gifts on Christmas morning, and I shopped like crazy. This year, shopping seems so beside the point. Being together as a family is the sweetest gift of all.

Of course being part of a family is not always easy, and family holidays may, for some, heighten that feeling of not fitting in. A family is made up of distinct individuals, each with their own complex mixture of talents, needs and goals. Family members can sometimes get in the way of who we want to be as individuals. But family can also be a powerful means of support and encouragement simply by making us feel like we belong and matter.

I suppose a family too—as a group bonded by blood and shared experience—has its own distinct character and identity. A few years ago we received an unusual Christmas gift from my brother-in-law: a McBean/McBain clan crest-badge. It’s a small wooden plaque with tartan fabric, and a fierce gray cat holding a red shield surrounded by a belt bearing the family motto: “Touch not a catt bot a targe.” According to the Clan MacBean website, the old Scottish translates to “don’t mess with this cat unless you have a shield to protect yourself!”

According to the Clan MacBean website, the old
 Scottish on our clan crest-badge translates to
 “don’t mess with this cat unless you have a shield to
 protect yourself!”
Through the years, as my husband and I tackled home projects and repairs, we came up with our own family motto: “Nothing’s easy.” It was more a comment on our combined lack of handiness, than it was about life itself.  As my husband recently wrote, “After many years as a homeowner, I'm not any closer to fix-it man competence than I am to first violin at the New York Philharmonic.”

So now the Baine family has two mottos: one that’s fearless and warrior-like, and the other that’s inept and pathetic. Who is our family really?

In 2010 we arranged to have a family photo taken by a professional on Lincoln Beach. The resulting portrait is hanging in our hallway—a lovely Photoshopped version of the four of us with our arms around each other at sunset. Our hair is windblown, our teeth are white, our skin is perfect. Like the two family mottos, it’s kind of us, but it kind of isn’t us.

Anna Church’s “Insignia” series features this image
called "Union."  (
An art magazine published in Canada called “Uppercase,” recently featured artist Anna Church, who photographs artfully arranged found objects, creating images very reminiscent of a family crest or coat of arms. Her homage to marriage called “Union,” for example, features some traditional masculine objects on one side and some traditional feminine objects on the other, but it’s all tied together with vines, mirrored candle sconces and crossed wine goblets—all metaphors for the complex, identity-challenging unification that is coupledom. The nature of the bond that defines “family" is no less complex or challenging to pin down in a symbolic way, and Church’s intriguing concept makes me think I should create a new, more representative family crest-badge.

Way back in the 1999, on the eve of the new millennia, we bought a chiminea to gather the family around at night in our front yard. Our chiminea, strangely enough, looks a bit like the face of that fierce cat on the Baine clan crest-badge, with his mouth wide open, ready to devour our firewood. We built a brick platform to elevate the chiminea to sitting height, and inside the cube-shaped structure we buried a time capsule.

I wish I had a record of what we put in that plastic container (or was it glass?), but I only remember that all four of us contributed something personal. Our hope was that some day in the far distant future, someone else would own our house, demolish the platform, and find our buried treasure. I think we each selected symbolic items that would make us come alive, as individuals and as a family, in the minds of our future counterparts.

Donna Tartt's book "The Goldfinch"
features the famous painting of a
chained bird by Renaissance
artist Carel Fabritius, which I was
fortunate enough to see at the
De Young Museum in 2013.
I’ve always been a slow reader, but I recently finished the 800-page, Pulitzer winning novel, “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt—without a doubt the longest book I’ve ever tackled. Even though Stephen King in his New York Times review, likened Tartt’s storytelling to Dickens’, I still felt like I had missed a grander message when I finally finished the book.

The story is about a 13-year-old boy, Theo, who loses his beloved mother in a terrorist attack in a New York City museum, but survives himself, and rescues (and keeps) a priceless Renaissance painting of a chained pet bird, “The Goldfinch.” He ends up in Las Vegas with his alcoholic, poor-excuse-for-a-father, who also dies an untimely death; but Theo can’t let go of the painting. “It’s his prize” writes King, “his guilt and his burden, ‘this lonely little captive,’ ‘chained to his perch.’ Theo is also chained — not just to the painting, but to the memory of his mother and to the unwavering belief that in the end, come what may, art lifts us above ourselves.”

To keep your signpost lasting a long time, paint the boards
with white primer, use acrylic or latex paints, and an
 after-coat of clear acrylic spray. 
So, upon further consideration, I have finally come to think of “The Goldfinch” as being about the life force of art and family. King says that the book’s “brave theme” is that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.’” In Theo’s case, the painting was a more dependable substitute for a family lost to happenstance and compulsion. Theo needed saving desperately because he no longer belonged anywhere and couldn’t count on anything. He didn’t have that constant safe haven of family.

In 2005, I gave each member of my family three redwood boards and asked them to paint the names of three places they would like to visit, and the distance between each place and us. The signpost we created still stands in our backyard, with all of our inscribed real and fictional destinations: Transylvania – 4714 miles; Temple of Athena – 8179 km; Emerald City – 3271 miles; Cayseeopia – 879,246 light-years. If I meant to encourage travel and exploration, or at least the creation of a symbol of potential and possibility, it was a very successful project, since next month both my daughters will be living on other continents.

But this Christmas, we will all be on the same continent, coming together in the place we four have always known as home.  I’m not sure what this means to my nonprovincial daughters, or if this house even feels like home to them anymore; but to me it means that our family has been restored. And being together as a family is the sweetest gift of all.
Bead Lust
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 15, 2014

Even though he no longer participates in Open Studios or exhibits much, Thom Atkins makes quilts that are absolutely worth seeking out. You can see his work on his website,, but there’s nothing like seeing it in person. His beaded quilts are a visual and textural wonderland.

The beads added to this beaded-quilt sample used for teaching
 compliment the fabric design in perfect harmony—a symphony,
 of dots, some recessed and others rising off the surface.
 This piece also features buttons and tiny mirrors as embellishments.
The textures come from beads of all shapes, sizes and dimensions, from the tiniest little seed beads with microscopic holes, to large polished cabochons, that are also somehow skillfully attached with needle, thread and beads. He also uses sequins, buttons, mirrors and glass—anything that will add dimension, color and sparkle to his weighty pieces. They are quilts in a descriptive sense, but art is the truest sense—never meant for use on a bed.

Examining Thom’s quilts I am reminded of the impressionist painter Claude Monet, for whom the effects of light on a subject became as important as the subject itself. For Thom, I think the effects of beads—and light reflected by beads—has that same over-powering attraction. The shiniest beads catch the light and give his quilts movement and a shimmering quality like sunlight on water or summer leaves fluttering in the breeze.

This beaded bag, made by Thom, features a
 cabochon in the center, attached by a network
 of seed beads embroidered around the edges
 of the stone holding it in place.
They also add saturated colors that capture the startling tones of nature itself: the flashing turquoise scales of tropical fish, the bright rainbow beak of a toucan, the luminous red-orange of flames. Thom is in love with color, and is never reluctant to add more beads if that’s what the quilt needs. As a viewer, you can’t help but also appreciating the time and skill required to sew every last bead securely in place on both his small and larger quilts, and of the vision that gives him the dedication and patience to keep on sewing.

Although there are thousands of books about quilt-making, there is only a handful about adding beads to quilts, and of those, beads are typically treated as an embellishment rather than a major design element. Of course making a quilt is also about fabric choices, but as Thom writes in his own book, “Beading Artistry for Quilts,” “My ultimate goal…has been to find the balance between the fabric and the beads.” And it’s that willingness to seek that balance—even if it means many months of attaching beads—that makes his quilts (and his book) so revolutionary.

Not all Thom Atkins’ quilts are heavily beaded.
Using fabric printed with a photograph of his
 wife feeding pigeons in Piazza San Marcos
 Square in Venice, Thom knows intuitively
 how to add just the right amount of beads
 to complement each image.  “Some pieces
 don’t need that many beads to say what
 they need to say. Some need a lot. The beads
 tell me when to stop,” says Thom.
Technically speaking, making a fairly large, densely beaded quilt, is a daring undertaking because beads make a large quilt very heavy and, if not attached meticulously, might cause the quilt to sag and not hang well. Where the beading is denser, the fabric may shrink unevenly as more and more beads are attached, and the original shape may become distorted. Thom’s book addresses these technical challenges, as well as why and where you might want to use beads.
In defense of beads, Thom writes, “Why use plain stitching when you can use a bead with a color or finish that will add to the surface? Should you become a ‘beadaholic’ like me, you may find yourself using beads for everything…”

As a life-long artist, Thom Atkins has worked in many different two- and three-dimensional media including oil paint, stained glass and bronze casting. When a 2002 traffic accident damaged his wrist and thumbs, he took up bead-embellished quilting. His sister, Robin Atkins, a national known bead artist, author and instructor, initially taught Thom the basis stitches. “I needed a new job. I looked at what quilt people were doing at that time and there was a little dab of beads here and a little dab there. That isn't fair to the beads,” he says.


Diedra Kmetovic has made a series of necklaces inspired
 by the migrating Monarchs which cling to eucalyptus
 branches in groves along the Monterey Bay coastline
 from October through February each year. She knows
 how to take what could be cliché subject, and elevate it
 to a piece of stunning wearable art.
On an outing with a friend, Diedra 
was inspired to make this set of 
lavender-hued pieces after discovering
 an alleyway full of lilacs.
Another artist who has spent many years redefining and intensifying the creative possibilities of beads, is jewelry-maker Diedra Kmetovic. She was first attracted to beads when her grandmother gave her a box of beads when she was eight. Back then, she used macramé cord to make jewelry for her friends. These days, she makes intricately woven necklaces and bracelets using tiny glass beads and thread. Often forgoing the incorporation of traditional metal findings, she cleverly uses beads to make all parts of a necklace, including clasps, bales and bezels.

“I like versatile jewelry,” says Diedra, holding up a necklace that can be easily disconnected to be become three bracelets. Another necklace she has designed has a clasp with a large bead, so that if the clasp/bead combination is worn in front instead of the back, it looks like a pendant—essentially giving you two necklaces for the price of one. “My goal,” she says, “is never having someone say, ‘Oh, your clasp is in the front,’” as if it were a mistake. She makes her clasp designs worthy of being the focal point.

Undoubtedly some of Diedra’s most spectacular pieces of jewelry are her butterfly necklaces, inspired by the Monarchs which cling to branches in the eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, beginning each year in October. Her butterfly wings—made from hundreds of tiny orange, white and black seed beads—are every bit as beautiful as the real thing. Her most ambitious Monarch-inspired necklace is made from thousands of beads. “It took me 15 years to figure out how to do it,” she says, “and then three months to actually do it.”
Diedra’s turquoise bracelet shows how she uses beads
 instead of metal findings, to make the toggle clasp.
 Diedra taught beading until her all her teaching supplies
 were recently stolen from her car. “My summer beading
 classes were instantly full,” she says. Currently she
 teaches metal working at the Mountain Arts Center
 in Ben Lomond and in an after school program at San
 Lorenzo Valley Middle School in Felton.
There are many ways to use beads in jewelry making, including stringing (the most common), bead crochet, loom weaving and macramé. Diedra’s Monarchs are a good example of off-loom beadweaving, a family of beadwork techniques in which tiny glass seed beads are woven together into a flat fabric or a three-dimensional object. Each bead is just an element in the larger pattern and the overall design, and no single bead stands out. There are a number of different stitches used in beadweaving and each stitch produces a piece with a distinct texture, shape and pattern. People all over the world have created these complex woven patterns for centuries using only beads and thread.

Diedra says she is largely self-taught, although she uses magazines and books at times when she can find new techniques she doesn’t yet know. She describes herself as a tactile learner and her inspiration comes from the world around her. “Whenever I go on a trip I have to make something when I come back that captures that trip,” he says. “I have to come back and “sketch” it into beads.”