Boys Who Bead – Stringing Beads with Artist Andrew Thornton

Stringing beads isn't just the territory of creative women anymore — in the last few years, more and more men have started learning how to string beads and make jewelry. Among some of my favorite boys who bead are the late Peter Sewell, bead artist David Chatt (who used right-angle weave in his bead-weaving sculptures), and of course, bead artist Andrew Thornton.

It's always a treat for me to bump into Andrew at Bead Fest Philadelphia or the Tucson bead shows, With his background in fine art, I'm always fascinated by how he uses his artistic training to influence his beaded jewelry designs. If you look closely at his designs, you'll see that each one is a true work of wearable art, combining many different textures, materials, shapes, and colors so that each one has its own place in the finished piece. Read on to learn more about Andrew's background in art, and how he has so successfully turned bead stringing into an art form all its own!


1. You were originally an art major – did jewelry making ever come into the picture when you were in college?

When I attended college, there was a quiet revolution taking place. The lines were blurring between arts and crafts, and body adornment as a fine art expression was becoming more acceptable in "High Art" circles. In prior years, there were great divisions between different schools of thought. To some of the Old School instructors, words like "precious" or "pretty" were dirty words and if you weren't a "serious artist", you'd be ostracized. Even though there are plenty of artists, like Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, who wore both hats, our lessons glossed over the jewelry-making aspects of their careers. If you made anything that was "commercial" or functional, your peers would whisper behind your back that you were a sellout. Fortunately, I did get some exposure to jewelry in my art history classes. If you added a couple thousand years to the creation date, the playing field leveled out and everything was Art with a capital "A". I remember spending countless hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Brooklyn Museum admiring the jewelry collections. In that way, the City supplemented my arts education.

2. How did you get started making jewelry?

When we were growing up, my family didn't have a lot of money for store-bought entertainments. So, we literally turned trash into treasure. Cardboard boxes became crowns; old bobbins and rocks from the driveway were transformed into beads of power. My grandma, who grew up during the Great Depression, and my mom who grew up on a remote island in the Philippines in abject poverty, were great advocates of transformative powers of crafting and encouraged us. I remember sitting around the coffee table with my sisters rolling magazine paper to make beads and making magic pouches from scrap fabric. I think those early memories and experiences stuck with all of us. Years later, my sisters started a company called Green Girl Studios. It was a mail-order company that specialized in whimsical beads that they created out of pewter and sterling silver. I took a year off from school to work on a painting exhibit and moved to North Carolina to be closer to my niece who had just been born. My sister needed help with a show and the next thing I knew, I was traveling the country selling their beads. I think that the more you know about a product, the better you are able to sell it. So, I immersed myself in learning as much as I could on jewelry-making and stringing.

3. Does anything from your art school training ever come out in your jewelry designs?

The Lotus Eaters by Andrew Thornton

At the School of Visual Arts, we learned about the basics elements of art like line, shape, color, and texture. I studied color theory in painting classes with Ellsworth Ausby, Melissa Meyer, and Stephen Westfall, negative space and spatial relations in drawing classes with Cheryl Donegan, "aqueous" and deconstructing Modernist space with Elena Sisto, texture and form-language with Jeanne Silverthrone and Lynda Benglis, and documenting ideas with Brooke Larsen. I was introduced to so many ideas in art from Nancy Chunn, Suzanne Anker, Monroe Denton, Jerry Saltz, Trudy Kawami, Jack Whitten, Emily Cheng, Lynn Gamwell, Steve DeFrank and Jackie Winsor…to name a few. I really did have a fantastic opportunity to work with and learn from some amazing artists, art historians and art critics. While few of my studies directly addressed jewelry, I definitely take advantage of the lessons I learned when I approach jewelry design.  

4. Why bead stringing for your designs? What first attracted you to the techniques of bead stringing?

The practice of bead stringing goes back to the dawn of civilization. It is the oldest marker of civilization and predates written word. I think what initially attracted me to bead stringing was that it tapped into a powerful tradition of human expression. Even though bead stringing goes back millennia, it is constantly evolving and changing. There is so much room to put your own stamp on it and make it your own. There's also an immediacy that comes with bead stringing that is very satisfying.

5. What tips would you share with someone who struggles with creating jewelry using bead stringing techniques?

If one is stuck with construction problems, there are thousands of books, magazines, and DVDs that provide step-by-step instruction. The internet is another wonderful resource where one can learn techniques in the comfort of their own home. But if you need in-person assistance, do a search for your local bead store. Local bead stores are a wonderful way to connect with others with similar interests and usually host beginner classes that can be a fun way to work through the basics, such as crimping and wire-wrapping. It's important to remember that everyone learns at different paces and some techniques may come easier (or harder) than others. Be patient with yourself and allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. Enjoy the process.

If one's creative mojo simply isn't flowing, there are countless ways to jumpstart creativity. To name just a few, one can start a journal or a design board where you clip and pin interesting textures, colors, and/or images of inspirational objects, look through books and magazines, find challenges hosted by other artists and jewelry-makers and give it a try!

6. You own a small gallery in rural Southwestern Pennsylvania. What made you decide to take the leap and go into business for yourself?

Wedding Bracelet by Andrew Thornton, 2013

I'm a firm believer in building community and encouraging the arts in whatever form or fashion. My life goal is to bring beauty, creativity and inspiration to people's lives. The opportunity to open Allegory Gallery came about rather unexpectedly, but everything was sort of leading up to it and preparing me for the experience of being a small business owner of a brick-and-mortar store. I had always dreamed of having my own shop, but it always seemed like it would happen down the road. But when opportunity came knocking, I answered! Allegory Gallery marries my passion of art and jewelry-making. I have the good fortune of being able to share the things that I love and find interesting and help promote and feature the talents of so many accomplished visual artists, bead-makers, and jewelry creators.


Sylvan Hollow by Andrew Thornton, available in the Best of Stringing: Simply Organic eBook. Part of the Ultimate Jewelry Stringing Project Collection

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Bead Happy,

Jennifer

You can learn more about Andrew and his work on his blog, The Writing and Art of Andrew Thornton. And make sure you take a few minutes to check out the website for his fine art and craft gallery, Allegory Gallery, in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

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