Teresa Sullivan's Freeform Peyote Figures
An Interview with Teresa Sullivan
I met Teresa Sullivan at Bead Expo Portland where she was teaching two classes, including one titled "Monster Mash" which promised to "unleash the secrets of sculptural peyote stitch" by creating fun faces with seed beads. At the show, I was not only impressed by the finished piece Teresa wore, but the way she used her beadwork to tell a specific story. Teresa's work has been exhibitied internationally (most recently in Japan), published in 500 Beaded Objects, and has been seen on the Portland, Oregon television program AM Northwest. Terersa has generously offered to answer your questions about her work and help you make that leap into the world of freestanding beaded figures. Please post your questions and comments for her on the website.
Michelle: On your website, you describe yourself as storyteller. What made you decide to tell stories using beads rather than another medium? How did you begin?
Teresa: When I was a kid, I drew pictures almost constantly. I created cartoons and graphic novels before I knew what a graphic novel was. As a bass player in my 20s, I made posters for my band, using collage and experimenting with lettering styles.
I later began making ceramic beads and stringing jewelry. I also developed a fascination with trade beads, which I still love. Then when a friend loaned me a pair of earrings by Joyce Scott, I flipped. I felt as if I was wearing the coolest cartoons on my ears! Something clicked into place; the use of beads as a graphic medium really grabbed me.
The structural challenges presented by using beads rather than pencil or paint are intriguing to me. I'm a methodical artist anyway, so the slow pace of the work gives me time to think and, I admit, to obsess.
Michelle: What are the special challenges of working with a 3D piece? Any tips or general rules about doing freeform work? What advice would you give the intermediate or advanced beader who wants to try this, but isn't sure how to start?
Teresa: Anyone who has ever made a hollow tube, in any stitch such as peyote, ndbele/herringbone, or even netting, has done 3D work. If you begin with that and introduce techniques like increasing and decreasing, you can direct the work to express specific forms. Increasing means stringing more beads in a spot than you normally would, and decreasing is stringing less (or no) beads in a spot than you normally would.
Figural work involves combining a bowl shape (a belly) with a tube (a leg or torso), and making a tube turn a corner (elbow or knee). Some of the things you have to do are intuitive. I make lots of micro-decisions as I work, evaluating the amount of space I'm about to fill with beads, according to the need to widen or narrow the space or keep it the same.
Figures, of course, can mean animals, aliens, and imaginary creatures. I encourage you to use the "whim of iron", as Garth Johnson puts it, and celebrate your passion, no matter how personal, trivial, or out of step it may seem.
With freeform work, the slow pace of the work is an asset. Start with a plain strip of peyote stitch not more than an inch wide, and let restlessness motivate you to mess with it. Put beads where they "don't belong". Try things even if they look terrible at first—it may start to make visual sense if you keep at it. If you like it, it's a go. If not, try something else. It's a gamble to spend time on something that may not work, but it's essential to developing your own voice as an artist.
The use of color has a big effect on freeform work. If you have a lot of texture in a piece (a repeating motif, using lots of different stitches, or several sizes of beads, for example), watch the use of color carefully. Compare a richly textured piece made with tons of colors (even ones that look great together) with a piece made with one or a few similar colors. There's a seesaw principle at work; experiment with color and texture and decide where they balance out.
Michelle: Do you have favorite stitches or a favorite combination of stitches that you often use in your work? What makes these your favorites?
Teresa: I love peyote stitch best. It has the most versatility in the type of sculptural work I do. Netting, which I think of as a cousin to peyote stitch, is a close second. I use netting as a platform for further beadwork, and it makes great flames because it conveys movement. Ndbele/herringbone and right-angle weave are great too. Ndbele has such a great pattern and it's easy to increase; decreasing with it produces a great nipple-like texture. Right-angle weave is as equally suited to freeform work as to solid structures. It can be as sinuous as fabric or as rigid as wood, depending on how you use it.
Michelle: What are you currently working on?
Teresa: I'm making rings with a back-and-forth curly weave, collaborating with a student of mine who also does great metal work. I've started a big necklace having to do with hunger and food distribution, and I'm about to start working on a commissioned piece, a brooch commemorating a wedding anniversary.
Thanks, Teresa! Be sure to check out more of Teresa's work and her upcoming schedule at www.teresasullivanstudio.com.
Teresa has offered to answer any questions you may have about her work or sculptural beadwork in general. Please post any questions for her on the website. Thanks!
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