I’ve always associated beading with crafts – the kind of crafts you do at summer camp when you’re ten, or the beaded purses you see on the example displays at A.C. Moore. Not that this makes beading an elementary activity, rather, on the contrary. Beading requires a meticulous attention to detail, and the fine motor skills of a surgical robot. Excellence in beading is, in fact, a rare and unique fine art.
Just ask Douglas Johnson, Newburyport native and seed-bead artist, who found his niche for beads in the 70s when he weaved a beaded strap for his guitar. From then on, Johnson expounded upon his beading designs, getting a little “wilder” with his ideas, as he says, by making scenes of barns and little villages. Johnson even builds his own weaving looms, his largest one holding up to 100,000 tiny beads.
What does Johnson bead? Well, everything. His work, which is currently displayed in the Laura Coombs Hills Gallery, has pieces ranging from a view of Fenway Park to a stained-glass church cathedral with spirits and angels floating atop the spires. What struck me as soon as I walked into the gallery was how whimsical and lighthearted his pieces felt, despite the laborious amount of hours Johnson must have put into his work. Perhaps it was the childhood nostalgia of the beads themselves, or maybe it was the retro geometric patterns in funky pieces such as “Study in Black and White.”
Or maybe it’s Johnson himself whose humble, smiling exterior would make anybody feel at home in a place as whisperingly quiet and austere as a gallery. When I first met Johnson, I was expecting him to be wearing a beaded jacket of some sort – something that would indicate to me that this man was either insane or superhuman for beading millions upon millions of tiny beads over the course of the last forty years. Instead, Johnson reminded me of my grandfather, just a bit more creative.
On Saturday October 13th, 2012, I had the pleasure of watching Douglas do a seed-beading demonstration on his very own loom. He was working on a landscape piece that featured a glittering tree, an azure stream winding through a meadow, and a gradient blue sky. As I watched his hands delicately string each bead onto the loom with a needle, I wondered where his pattern was. Didn’t he follow some complex, color-coded design to map out his pieces? “Well no, not really,” he replied once I had finally asked, overwhelmed by curiosity. For Douglas, the process is a lot more organic – he can start anywhere, and he can end up anywhere. Because he can sew the beads from the bottom or the top of the loom, he is not limited to a strict order of completion.
There’s a piece called “Color Wars” made out of solely red, blue, and yellow beads. It’s one of my favorites, because it has a bumpy surface that reminds me of the mountain relief texture you see on maps and globes. Curious about the bumps, I asked Johnson what was creating the texture beneath the beads.
“My socks,” he said, completely nonchalant.
“Your socks?” I asked, puzzled, and on the verge of laughter.
“Yes, my socks. Clean ones, of course,” he said, smiling.
And that was that. Beads and socks. Fine art at its finest.
- Allison Lynch
Allison is an NAA gallery associate. She enjoys writing about artists and their work.