Saturday, December 6, 2014

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.”

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