Artist revives longtime interest in beads

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Carol Sorgen

Thea Fine is a self-described “recovering health policy wonk who writes.” Now, though, after a long career in the federal government, Fine prefers to describe herself as a beading designer.

The Ellicott City resident first learned how to bead as a child during summer vacations with her maternal grandmother, Rose —  “a Renaissance woman who never met a craft she didn’t love.”

Fine, now 66, turned away from beading when she was in her teens, but picked it up again about 15 years ago. After years trying every other craft she could think of, “I took one refresher class, and I was off and running,” Fine said. “My hands were happy again.”

An ancient art form

Beading is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia. From there, it spread to Egypt, where Egyptian artisans created images of gods, kings and mortals wearing broad collars fashioned from molded tubular and teardrop beads.

Beadwork in Europe has a history dating back thousands of years to a time when shells and animal bones were used as beads in necklaces.

At the end of the 14th century, glass beads began being made in Murano, Italy, and beaded flowers became popular in France around the 16th century.

In the Americas, glass beads have been in use for almost five centuries, with the Cherokee using bead work to tell stories through patterns in the beads, which they made from dried berries, gray Indian corn, teeth, bones, claws or sea shells. Beadwork continues to be a popular Native American art form today, mostly using glass beads imported from Europe and, more recently, Asia.

Exacting, but relaxing

On her website, www.theafine.com, Fine notes that while other people might find beading exacting and methodical, she finds “playing with beads” freeing and artistically satisfying. Each piece of her bead art — which ranges from jewelry to Judaica — is hand-sewn by Fine herself, one tiny glass bead at a time.

“It’s very exacting work, but I find it relaxing,” she said. “It grounds me.”

Fine’s designs are inspired by her travels (Italy and Russia, for example, provided a wealth of ideas), by history and, at times, just by whim. “Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “But then it will start to happen.”

She may pair beads of different colors with crystal, semiprecious stones or found objects. Then she hand-sews the beads and other objects together to create a look that can vary from organized lines and geometric forms, to a freewheeling, freeform manner. A tiny “signature” — a single purple bead — is hidden in each piece.

Many of Fine’s works are one-of-a-kind, others are replicable limited editions, and still others have been commissioned by customers, including some that were remade — revived and restyled from old, tired or broken jewelry.

Fine’s work can be custom-ordered, and she also exhibits in shows such as the American Craft Council show, coming to the Baltimore Convention Center from Feb. 19 to 21. Prices for her work range from $55 to $3,000.

A member of the Baltimore Bead Society, Fine observes that beading as a hobby may not be as popular as it once was. “Crafts go in and out of favor,” she said. She noted that knitting, for example, once in the craft world doldrums, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.

For Fine, however — whose home is filled with boxes of beads and ongoing projects in various states of completion — beading is more than a hobby.

“It’s a continuation of a career I started as a child,” she said. “It’s connecting yesterday to today through my grandmother. For me, it’s a labor of love.”

The American Craft Council Retail Show will feature handmade creations from more than 650 of the country’s top contemporary craft artists, who will be selling jewelry, clothing, furniture and home décor.

The show runs from Feb. 19 to 21. For admission prices and hours, visit www.craftcouncil.org/baltimore.