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Personal Essay | The Presence of the Past

A Lineage of Design and Handwork

By Anna Johnson
November 28, 2008
Ever since I was a child, watching my grandmother, sew clothes, embroider, and string beads, I have liked the idea of art being worn. 
Adele Bloch-Bauer II
Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912 -Gustav Klimt

The lineage of design and handwork, which has pleased the eye and mind for thousands of years, is the presence of the past in the beauty of the moment. Design, as the art of vision, is a continuous series of colors, folds, traditions, and improvisations, which blend into each other so gradually and seamlessly that it is impossible to say where one becomes the other.

Design does not define or explain; it reaches beyond definition to a never-ending weave of textile, bead, lapidary, ceramic, and metal arts, whose contour, line, and visual magic are derived from the natural cycle and the nature of pattern. Design gives us a way to approach the nature within, and release it into its natural form.

Ever since I was a child, watching my grandmother, Anna Mary Hill, sew clothes, embroider, and string beads, I have liked the idea of art being worn. Tradition and art in the expression of handwork becomes the storage vessel of bead and design, which transcends the two-dimensional quality of everyday life and gives us something to hold on to.

The personal way I experience art was encouraged by my grandmother’s passion for painting, ornament, textile art, beads, and music. In 1912, Anna Mary ran away from her home in Kansas, at the age of 14, to join a traveling circus. Later on in California, she danced in silent films, painted Art Nouveau posters, and worked for a millinery shop and a fashion house. In 1930, she designed and tailored costumes, hats, and jewelry for movie studios, out of her Hollywood flat.

It was a time when you had to be frugal and work hard, and she was good at repairing old costumes, and making something out of nothing. In the 1950s Anna Mary had a farm with flower gardens, vineyards, and orchards, and I lived next door. She made her own clothes and jewelry, and taught me to make one-of-a-kind dresses, hats, and belts embellished with lace, ribbons, and beaded trims.

She was not wealthy, but her living room looked like Siegfried Bing’s Salon de L’Art Nouveau, with Turkish rugs, Chinese ceramics, Japanese woodblocks, and curio cabinets with Mikikia dolls and objets d’art. I often went with her on trips to antique shops and flea markets, and learned about wallpapers, textiles, tapestries, costume jewelry, rhinestones, and Bohemian crystals. We visited the Los Angles textile and fabric markets and millinery supply houses, and the San Francisco bead makers and button works.

Anna Mary had a collection of art and poetry books, hand-printed by my great-grandfather, including the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, illustrated with Arts and Crafts floral and mythological motifs. I cherished the Arthurian legends of Lord Alfred Tennyson, and the ballads and poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Browning. As part of our adventures, we visited the Huntington Library art collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Art, and went to concerts and ballets.

For most of my childhood, I was immersed in medieval art and the Renaissance, Persian ornament, illuminated manuscripts, Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Raphael. I studied mythology, and the ancient arts and crafts of Egypt, India, and Byzantium. I remade Anna Mary’s gypsy costumes, so I could wear them, and danced through the rows of grapes and walnut trees, feeling as if I had wings.

After finishing school, I wanted to travel to England, Bohemia, Paris, and, needing a way to finance my travels, started buying and selling antique beads, vintage clothing, gold and silver bracelets, costume jewelry, fripperies, pearls, diamonds, kilims, and tapestries. Over the years, my company supplied hundreds of bead stores, antique shops, collectors, and designers. I exhibited vintage beads at antique shows, trunk shows, bohemian craft shows, and flea markets, from Sausalito to Santa Barbara, attracting buyers from all over the world. I was the first person to exhibit handworked artisanal glass beads at the California Gift Show, the New York Boutique Show, and the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.

Having been in the wholesale trade for twenty-five years, I wanted to produce a show that reflected the way most of us experience art, as a personal and instinctual interpretation of imagery and color.

In 2000, I started Garan-Beadagio, a show management company specializing in marketing strategy and website development, and produced the first show in 2005, called To Bead True Blue. It was in Tucson, Arizona, a six-day show concurrent with the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. I envisioned it as a resurgent Arts and Crafts show, the output of diverse cultures and traditions, and it has grown from 50 to 425 exhibitors in three years, becoming the major show of its kind in the United States.

Pasadena Bead and Design Show is a completely separate show, with its own character. I lived in Southern California for many years, and know its extraordinary history, culture and market. I looked at twenty possible locations, but Pasadena’s sunsets, Cypress trees, and Arts and Crafts architecture, made me feel at home. It is an elegant location, more like a European village on the outskirts of Paris or Vienna than a city in Southern California.

Both To Bead True Blue and Pasadena Bead and Design Show attracts buyers from Southern California, the East coast, Europe, Asia, and the Eastern European emerging markets. The shows are about the lineage of design and handwork, and the renewal of imagination within the reality of tradition. It is not a result of training or conditioning, but the presence of the past in the cycle of renewal, which is how art manifests itself in the love of handwork.

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