"A lot of beadwork is too precious,” says bead jewelry designer Julie Powell. A tall, lithe brunette, wearing a pair of kick-ass cowboy boots, the Boulder, Colorado-based artist is in Santa Fe for a trunk show at the prominent Casa Nova Gallery. People are crowding around, asking about her work. “What I’ve seen in beadwork, for the most part, is an ornate and intricate and somewhat overly fussy design sensibility. That doesn’t feel right to me. That really isn’t where I wanted to go.” Powell, who describes herself as a self-taught bead artist, speaks from decades of experience as a successful textile artist and designer. When she began to focus on beadwork, about 2007, she had already left behind a thriving garment business with half-a-million-dollars in annual sales, and was working as a high-level executive travelling the world for another company. It seems daunting that anyone would want to leave behind a jet-fueled life in mid-career for the solitude and meditative slowness of working with a needle and a fishing line. But she craved working again as an independent artist. Beadwork, while familiar, also beckoned her with other possibilities.
“When I’m interested in something, I research it,” Powell says. “I look online, I look in books and magazines, I go to the library, I go to galleries, I go to stores. In order to do something new, I need to see what else is out there. I process what I see, from ancient beadwork and Native American and African traditions all the way up to the contemporary artists I see in Ornament—all kinds of beadwork, over hundreds of years. One book that was very valuable for me in terms of seeing the history of beadwork and the progressions and the changes and the tweaking was The Art of Beadwork: Historic Inspiration, Contemporary Design, by Valerie Hector.”
Powell schooled herself in beadwork techniques, building what she calls her “muscle memory. My general process is learning about how to use your hands and doing it so you understand it, whether it’s dyeing, weaving, quilting, knitting with multiple colors; whatever it is, learn how to do it, do it again and again, repeat it and learn. Then you have a certain kind of confidence.” She settled on peyote stitch and herringbone stitch for her basic bead language. Herringbone, a weaving technique using two beads at a time, makes a fluid, sinuous tube or rope that drapes well. Peyote stitch she likes better for bracelets because it preserves a firmer, more stable surface that tolerates a lot of stress from moving wrists. Just as often she combines the two stitches; “I’m not really conscious of when I switch from one to the other.”
When she transitioned to jewelry, Powell ransacked her background in textiles, re-interpreting florals from Hungarian folk art or designing with William Morris tapestries in mind. She experimented with merging techniques that she has used in the past with beadwork. A recent example, Mixed Media Cuff, is made of abstract bead embroidery extended on either side with panels of peyote-stitch beadweaving, interspersed with hand embroidery in cotton DNC floss sewn into a felt backing. Powell manipulated tension and spacing to lift the beadwork up off the surface, creating a rising and falling topography in black, red and turquoise. “All of that’s going on in one piece, and for me that was mind-blowing,” she says. “The embroidery comes from a place of just having worked with artisans in Nepal. That’s a completely different context. The Nepalese women were using satin stitch to embroider flowers on woolen mittens, but I’m applying it in a cuff. That’s very exciting for me.”
Colors are her whole world. “Color moves every part of me,” Powell says. “I feel like that’s what makes me tick. I’ve always been that way.” Her mother told her she could name colors before she could walk (“It took me a long time to walk, let’s put it that way.”) Now she runs marathons, and her color sense is well-nigh unassailable. “I don’t have any real formula, except that I like to create a dynamic feeling of the colors playing off of each other,” Powell says. “I love old Czech, French and Venetian beads, and some Japanese, because they have amazing colors and transparencies; there’s no mistaking that they’re glass.” Her only caveat: she refuses to use delica beads. “They’re too perfect and refined. That’s not me.” She explains her aesthetic as a balance of “warm with cool tones. And while I like to combine unexpected hues, I have to consider the ‘wearability’ of my work. I often make sure each piece has some kind of gray/silver, black, bronze or gold in it to harmonize with other jewelry.” Though she avoids primaries, she will select very bright colors for cuffs or bracelets, and prefers softer, more sophisticated colors for necklaces.
Customers invariably comment on Powell’s color compositions, and she has thousands of followers on Pinterest, where she posts color boards. “Certain palettes appeal to me, and I catalogue them on Pinterest. I store inspiration there. I’ll pin everything from a bouquet of flowers to a painting to a landscape photograph. It’s about how the colors work together; I don’t care about individual colors as much as how they’re combined: light and dark, hue, value, tone—all the things that go into mixing colors are what’s interesting to me.”
Lining the white walls of her studio in Boulder are tall shelves stacked with glass baby-food jars of beads, bright with harlequin colors. Storage bins of cut stones—jade, labradorite, turquoise—stand rowed up beneath the shelves. A hanging abstract quilt, hand-dyed and sewn by Powell in blue-violet and rust, is the room’s only decoration. Two work desks stand close to tall sash windows, rising like portals to let the clear mountain light fill the room. The smaller desk is for metalwork. “I’ve developed quite a few pieces with beadwork stretched on sterling silver wire, like a trampoline or a corset. I’m wrapping and pounding the wire to move the beadwork from the flat plane into a three-dimensional frame.” A vintage oak library-card catalogue houses glass tubes of more beads. When she is constructing a new piece, Powell will get tubes out and think about “How do I want this to flow? How can I get it to move through and around? It’s like Asian dancing.
“It’s the idea of moving planes, of what’s traditionally thought of as a flat surface but it’s come to life by moving in unexpected ways,” Powell says. She calls the regimentation of putting down bead after bead “claustrophobic. With beadwork, you’re making decisions about every placement; everything is controlled.” But uniformity goes against her nature. “That’s partly because of my choice to use color and size over consistency. It’s engineering; solving spatial math problems, getting different shapes to lie down next to each other.”
Her surfaces seem to mimic a panorama of hills and valleys, and at the same time evoke the irregular, tactile quality of handwoven fabric. “When you touch my beadwork it’s very granular; it’s textural and organic. If I want it to go down into a gully I’ll use little beads, or I’ll pull it tighter or put in a stone that gives it a bump, to pop it out of being smooth.
“I want to make a mini-Bilbao in a cuff,” Powell says. She points to two people from different worlds as huge influences: renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui and architect Frank Gehry. “Gehry does it with titanium and steel; El Anatsui does it with metal bottle caps and copper wire ties.” She got to know Gehry’s architecture in Chicago; she discovered El Anatsui while on a business trip to Paris, when she walked into the Louvre and saw an enormous, suspended cloth-like assemblage. “Very often he’s present to help, but it’s up to the museum or gallery how they want to hang it, so it’s never the same. Each time it becomes another piece; it’s alive.” Powell’s Flux Panel Cuff, a tribute to El Anatsui, spreads expansively in free-form peyote-stitch panels randomly interspersed with open spaces. Like the gleaming metallics in El Anatsui’s hangings, the corrugated beadwork glitters. Up close, the reflected light suggests an ever-changing visual energy, like water coruscating over rocks in the bottom of a stream.
Capturing a sense of integral movement gives her work a distinctive edge. “In my head I have a sense of a sine curve or a wave. I see a motion in it; I want the piece to have a life of its own. As I’m making it I’m thinking: how do I want the whole piece to be? Not the half-inch I’m working on, but the whole macrocosm. Then I’ll reach for the materials that I’ll know in my technical brain will work.” She became enthralled with adapting the idea of braiding, of ‘ribbons’ that move, into beadwork: it emerged as the Plaited Necklace. “That one made me so happy. First of all I could use color. I had a palette of black, amber, bone, and red that I loved. I have always baked bread, and the beaded ribbons intertwined like braiding challah. But instead of multiple twisted ribbons all the way around the neck, I beaded continuous ribbons in different lengths that could cascade. They are each independent; you can adjust the ribbons so they fall in different combinations.” The geometric, lozenge-like pattern suggests mobility heightened by an indefinable air of whimsy and elegance, all characteristic of Powell’s art.
Sometimes, if she gets a vision for a piece, she draws it out. “Drawing comes naturally to me. I’ll do a few of them, especially for a new design or a version of a previous one. I always have a piece of paper or a sketchbook around, so if something’s brewing in my head and I wake up in the night I can interpret it. It’s like a riff: what if I change that from herringbone to another stitch; what if I did that in shades of gray instead? It’s the overall structure, form and shape. That’s where the techniques that I’ve nailed come in. I’ll look at how I want it to come out, and then decide on the execution.” She likes to share her creative process on Facebook, posting photos of pen-and-watercolor sketches partly for feedback from other artists. She may do a piece a few times before it comes right, or she may throw it all out.
Raised near New York, Powell grew up immersed in the arts. “I was surrounded by gorgeous books on crafts. We made visits to museums dozens of times a year going into the city.” Her mother was an artist and art teacher; her father, a musician and record producer, always had music playing in the house. As an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, in Maine, Powell began making handwoven jackets and handknit sweaters, spinning and dyeing all the yarns herself. For her junior year she studied textiles with Sherri Smith at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1981, while still a student and with the wearable art movement coming into full swing, she founded her company, Periwinkle. Relocated to San Francisco, Periwinkle grew into a company with ten employees. Powell sold wholesale and at shows with other Bay Area designers. She remembers inventing her own mission control, a system of “giant white boards with colored post-its to track hundreds of orders,” and hired a production manager and a sales rep. “It was an amazing time. I learned how to get a bank loan; what you do with a purchase order; how to think about price points.”
She told herself she was a businesswoman, not an artist any more. By then Powell and her husband, an attorney, had bought their first home and had two young sons. But after twenty years, she felt depleted. Her jam-packed life had “taken away my love of creativity. You have to have the constitution to handle the stress of constant juggling, marketing and having to be accountable. Like Homer Price and the doughnut machine, eventually it felt out of control. So I decided to stop.”
She took a break before going to work for Icelandic Designs, a multi-million-dollar knitwear corporation based in Colorado. The family moved to Boulder in 2002. For the next ten years Powell was Icelandic’s director of design and merchandising. She mastered CAD programs and Photoshop, and now freelances as a designer. One of her jobs, for a fair-trade handmade knitwear company, takes her to Nepal every year for three weeks to work with women’s cooperatives around the Kathmandu valley. Powell compares the diversity of her work to cross-training; it recharges her design mojo.
The idea of going in a new direction with her own bead embroidery struck the way inspiration tends to: she was watching her son tie a fishing fly. At first she was “doing little paintings in beads, in the style of Robin Atkins, but not to wear.” As soon as she made her first jewelry she began working fine arts fairs. “I love setting up a tent and seeing what happens; I like the outdoors, and the chance to get together with other artists. I love people trying on a piece so I can see how it looks. But for me, it’s gambling for a living. I can’t count on the shows. You drive twenty hours to get there, then there’s a rainstorm and nobody comes.”
Powell, convinced that the internet increasingly is making everything accessible, launched her beadwork jewelry and simultaneously put up her own website, started posting on social media, and soon was selling on Artful Home to promote name recognition. Artful Home has become the premier online marketplace connecting independent artisans with consumers (they also have a print catalogue). It now accounts for nearly one-third of Powell’s business. “It helps keep me current, as an artist, and it informs me about trends.” She offers special editions of jewelry on Artful Home; and on her own site will take custom orders, say for one of her necklaces made in different colors. In February 2017, for the second year, Powell was an exhibitor at the American Craft Council show in Baltimore, which she says is “my best show ever.” These days, her work is featured in galleries, boutiques and museum shops all over the country.
One lesson she learned as an entrepreneur is the vital necessity to stay ahead. She recalls how, during a recent conversation, a knitter in Nepal pulled out a hat made from a design on Pinterest. “You have to stay innovative,” Powell says. “You have to figure out what you can make that’s going to continue appealing to people, that can meet consumer need for something that’s different.” Powell pauses, then smiles with anticipation. “I’ve got hundreds of ideas.”
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Leslie Clark still quails at the memory of attempting to learn Native American loom beading. Especially she remembers the torments of trying to spear a row of beads with her needle. “Beads like to jump,” she claims, and for months found beads scattered far, far away. Left with great admiration for the prowess of bead artists, Clark was delighted to speak with bead jewelry designer Julie Powell. “Julie has an extraordinary color sense, and is breaking out in a new direction with the craft. Plus she was articulate and stimulating to talk to about her work,” Clark says. “I bet her beads behave, too.” Clark lives and writes in Santa Fe, a city where all kinds of glorious beadwork flourishes.