Beads of Glass and Metal: Kate Fowle Meleney at 2300°

Kate Fowle Meleney has been making glass beads and jewelry since 1980. She has been the featured artist in Ornament MagazineLapidary JournalBead and Button and Glass Art magazines, and has demonstrated and taught in numerous venues, including the Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC; Penland School, Penland, NC; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, ME; the Jam Factory, Adelaide, Australia; the Kobe Glass Festa, Kobe, Japan, and The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass.

In May, Kate joined the Museum in celebrating the opening of Life on a String during 2300°: GlassFest Bead Extravaganza. I caught up with her after the show to learn more about her work.

Kate, how did you get started in beadmaking?

I was working in metals and using Venetian beads in necklaces that I was making to augment the metal work. I belonged to the Bead Society in Washington D.C. and in 1990 they had a bead conference which I attended and saw somebody making glass beads. I was totally hooked. I took a class and I was all set up and ready to go by 1991.

Has incorporating metal and electroforming always been a part of your beadmaking process?

Well, I became so enamored with glass work and loved it so much that for a long time I was devoting all my time to just glass beads and left most of the metal work behind. I started electroforming, which is a copper plating process, back in the 1980s. I began using it on my glass beads as early as 1991 but it wasn’t really until about 1995 that I started doing vessel shapes that looked good with copper on them. Towards the end of the 1990s and right into around the turn of our century I began doing sculptural pendants that weren’t really representational of anything and I was electroforming on them.

Kate Fowle Meleney at 2300°

Kate Fowle Meleney at 2300°

What are your inspirations for your glass beads?

Now I tend to be doing more organic forms, I’m doing pod shapes and so forth. Although, I’m still making vessels. I’ve always loved an archaic surface, so when I do the vessels I try to make them look like they’ve been dug up from somewhere. And the copper that’s on there is supposed to look like it’s eroding away, not something that has been added.

I’ve heard that you’re interested in the ethnography of beads.

Oh yes, indeed. I think the most wonderful thing about glass beads, since I collect old beads, is that they were not worth melting down. So if they were buried in tombs—gold that was buried in the tomb might be dug up and melted down—but the glass is there. The glass beads wouldn’t be melted and reused, so there are a lot of glass beads out there that can still be collected—wonderful Roman beads and Middle Eastern beads that were folded.

I think about the fact that I can make a bead with a torch and I have all this great equipment and they were working with fires, primarily. Before they ever started working with an oil lamp, they were making their beads on the ends of iron rods over an open fire and some of the things that they did were so elaborate and detailed. Like the Roman face beads with these beautiful mosaics. Glass beads were symbolic—you’d wear a bead and the colors would mean something indicative of whatever that civilization believed in. You know you are holding a little civilization in your hand when you’ve got an old bead.

Have you had a chance to see Life on a String?

Yes, I’ve seen the exhibition and I’ve been through the Museum before and looked at the collection of old beads. They are absolutely wonderful—it’s everything I love. I have a collection of my own but, I lust after the beads I see behind the glass.

Tell me about what you worked on for your demonstration tonight.

This evening I started off with a little easy candy, a peppermint, just to get me going. It’s something I do for children. Then I worked my way into an urn that was made out of a very light aqua glass—a vessel with a handle and a spout. It was aqua transparent rolled in gold leaf with a little bit of enamel to look like sand—like a dug up urn with barnacle canes on it.

I also did a bud shape that is the type of shape that I will electroform later on. And then I demonstrated a sea shell which included mixing some glass colors together and forming a tongue shape prior to my making the core. I heated up that cone and wrapped it around the core so it was a little snail shell, and that was what we had time for in two hours!

And you are also teaching a workshop at The Studio this weekend.

This weekend is a three day class. The title of it is “Is This Glass?” because that is what people ask me when they look at my beads. I tend not to be interested in the paperweight style where you are doing a lot of clear casing over elements. I’m far more inspired actually by ceramic surfaces and so frequently I’m emulating those. I’m going to be teaching how to use enamels and paints. I’ll be demonstrating electroforming. I will also be teaching how to use foils and fuming which is where you vaporize the metal, either gold or silver, on the end of a quartz rod and flame and the bead catches it. It causes a chemical reaction. It’s a cooking class basically. They’re going to be learning my recipes.

Kate Fowle Meleney demonstrates at 2300°

Kate Fowle Meleney demonstrates at 2300°

You’re involved with the International Society of Glass Beadmakers, tell me more about that.

I was out in Prescott, Arizona in 1993; we had a show out there. It was the first show of lampworked glass at the first bead museum back then in Prescott. There were some people that got together and had classes that went along with that show. We all converged and met each other and decided that we really wanted to have a bead society. I was one of the founding members and was the mid-Atlantic director and I did found a group in the Washington D.C. area by 1996 or 97. We have meetings once a year. People come from all over the world to go to the meetings—The Gathering—we call them. This year it will be in Rochester. And there are workshops before and after as well as demonstrations during the actual weekend presentation.

What’s next for you?

Well, I was at Penland last year and we always have a chance to visit the artist-in-residence. I looked at these wonderful young artists who have nothing to do but make their art for however long they’re there and I thought, “I’d rather be an artist-in-residence in my own studio for a little while.” I cut back on my studio classes this year. I’m leaving my messes where they are, my projects. And I need to spend more time developing more of my ideas with electroforming and combining finished pieces. That’s where I’m headed right now is a little more downtime in the studio and experimenting and having some fun.

Is there anything else that you want to share with us?

Yes, it’s been wonderful to be invited here. I just got back from teaching in Turkey at the Glass Furnace there, right outside of Istanbul. It was absolutely wonderful so I’m teaching the same workshop here that I taught there. Turkey is absolutely amazing. The great thing about glass is that everybody speaks the same language when it comes to glass. It’s gotten me around the globe, I have to pinch myself that something I enjoy doing has gotten me to such interesting places—this being one of them—it’s been a wonderful experience.

Visit the Museum this Thursday for 2300°: Red HotWatch Museum artist, glassblower Chris Rochelle transform molten glass into colorful works of art and swing the night away to the sultry musical stylings of Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.

Life on a String is on view through January 5, 2014.

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