Every piece of bead art that Nancy Cain designs is creatively engineered to achieve her vision for a sculptural piece with inherent structure. Math Brain and Art Brain have worked out the perfect dance that allows each a turn in taking the lead. The result is elegant, embellished jewelry and beautiful bug sculptures that she shares with beaders through her exclusive patterns and kits.
Why beads? How did you get started, and how does creating with them satisfy you?
I was married less than a year when my husband and I went to Santa Fe for a weekend get-away. We looked through the beautiful stores and I saw a beaded watch band that I fell in love with. It was over $600 and well beyond my budget. A graphic artist at the time, I thought I could make a similar one from an old watch that I had. I picked up a few beads in Santa Fe and when I got home, I looked up a local bead store and went in. Then I asked about making a beaded watch band and they said they had a class for it the very next weekend. I got hooked right then and there.
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I always had quite a few crafts ongoing at any given time from paper, rocks, découpage, clay and wire. So I like to say that I love to play with stuff. I was an art major and enjoyed line drawing but never quite got the satisfaction that I got from stuff. After I made the watch bands, I was curious about the little beads and signed up for a class in peyote stitch. The beads completely took over and I eventually got rid of everything else. My hobby was beads and seeing how far I could push the designs I created.
Beads have given me everything… designing which is my first love, applying math and structure to make self-supporting shapes, the ability to work from home with children and world travel. I feel so blessed to be able to play with beads all the time!
Did you start beading with patterns, or did you create your own designs from the start?
I took a peyote class in 1989 in which we covered a wooden needle case. The pattern had a couple spiral lines winding around the case. About halfway through the pattern, it occurred to me that the pattern was spiraling because of the bead color choice with regards to the bead you were weaving into. I thought about it and realized you could reverse the spiral which I did. The instructor scolded me for not following the pattern. I said to her, “instead of scolding me, why wouldn’t you be proud that I figured it out?” She just walked away but I continued to reverse the spiral. I was a rebel student and still to this day, encourage students to make my pieces their own.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
When I teach my master class on structural peyote, designing and creativity is at the top of the list to discuss. First, let me say that it is not magic; although once you understand certain things about the process of creating art, it is indeed magical.
The degree of one’s skillset profoundly affects one’s ability to understand and translate the motivation to create art. In other words, if you don’t know how to make it structurally then the desire to make a piece is greatly diminished. In studying design theory in preparation for my Master Class at the Bead & Button Show, I sought to understand the nature of creativity and designing. How do you break creativity and design into a tangible, workable, and understandable concept, one that is teachable and is applicable in a practical setting?
Meditating on what a ‘MUSE’ is gave me insight. Insight is unique to each individual, but some fundamental down-to-earth tangible elements can be taught and understood; then these elements can be used for the practical practice of design and creativity. My workshop motto is a quote by Pablo Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.
I am always asked what is my muse? MUSE for me is an acronym.
Something inside you is inspired. Your own unique life experiences influence a moment of connection with your surroundings.
How to translate your unique motivation to a specific medium is the key to understanding. The degree of fluidity of moving from motivation to expression is based on the experience/skill level you have with the chosen medium and whether the head (over-thinking something) gets in the way of the flow. Over-thinking is what truly gets us into trouble. Fear, self-doubt, and expectations of perfection are part of the over-thinking.
A skillset is the practiced and practical foundation for the artist’s creative expression and design success. Developing true skill is hard work and lots of it. Risk and failure are requisite and lead to success. A beader’s skillset involves, but is not limited to, understanding the application and properties of bead use, shape, size, finish, the use of math to determine a workable bead count for a design, as well as techniques used for thread handling. Building a solid skillset allows for motivation and understanding to grow exponentially. Your skillset allows you to be creative!
musE: Execution and Energy
Acquiring Skills increases the Understanding of the Motivation leading to Energy enabling us to create a successful Execution. In practice, one’s skillset is always evolving and changing and is crucial to design success. Practice makes proficient… NOT perfect.
When it comes to creating, are you more a planner or an improviser?
In the beginning of my pursuit of being a circuit teacher around 2003, I was all planner. Then I worked with NanC Meinhart and she pushed me to be an improviser. It was extremely uncomfortable at first since I was not a freeform artist. I liked structure and it was difficult to develop sufficient structure without planning. My skillset in the last 10 years or so had developed enough that I could work structure and form by improvising. This is where creativity can be developed… building a skillset that allows one to be spontaneously creative since you have options to choose from as you work.
Do you consider yourself a risk taker?
Totally…. If you do not risk failure, you’ll never succeed. Failure is guaranteed in every endeavor. What you learn from failure is what not to repeat.
Which is more difficult? Creating a representational design or designing a more geometric piece?
I think the question should be: Which is more fun to design? It really depends on the individual and where their passion is. I love representational designs. I love seeing all the geometric work, but my heart is in representational. Oh, how I love diving into an entomology book about a bug and recreating it.
You have traveled all over the world to teach. Is there one destination that speaks to you more than others?
Oh gosh! I have loved everywhere I have traveled, and each has given me inspiration – especially the architecture. The people are what make travel incredible and there is no way to compare that, but I do think Japan may have been the one place that was magical for me. Since my 20s I have wanted to go to Japan. I have a black belt in Judo and have read many books on Japanese culture, marital arts, ceremonies, and history. I had an opportunity to go in my late 20s when an injury sidelined me. But I have been twice, once in 2007 and again in 2011. The culture is quite different, and it appeals to me very much. There is a beautiful gentleness and deep caring for others. They make incredible beads too!
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
For a long time, I didn’t think I had a signature look. Rather than following a design esthetic, I follow technique. I am a technique nerd and love to find a new way to approach a piece. I am currently seeing how many ways I can bezel a cab or crystal stone. Certain techniques can look quite different and can create vastly different styles. I tend to the structural aspect of a given piece and many have called me the bead engineer. My style is more minimalist, I think. I like exposed beads without a lot of embellishment. That means the beads, the thread, and how they are structured are especially important.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I rarely use sketches and never a journal. I wish I did, but it seems that I carry my designs in my head. Generally, I have a finished piece in my mind’s eye, and then I work it out bit by bit. I will use a sheet of paper to work out the math numbers, so I do not work myself into a corner. For example, using a math count that allows flexibility in designing. Hint: skillset! A multiple of 12 will give you the options of even or odd choices. Design options of working into quarters, halves, or thirds gives you the flexibility and higher chance of creating a successful design.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I have some ADD, so chaos is my thing. I do know where everything is, but when it gets to be too much, I will go into an organizational fit and sort, file, and clean. Generally, I have at least two or three simultaneous projects at once and am comfortable with it.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I think the space has to be comfortable to be in and the tools simple. Good beads, needles, thread, etc. We added my studio when we renovated 23 years ago. It has a bay window and a vaulted ceiling. My bead wall is an IKEA shelving system that allows me to see the beads. I cannot have them in a drawer. I can stand in front of it and fantasize about designs.
Kid art, posters, fabric from Finland, Japan and Australia cover my studio walls. I have my computer in a roll-top desk and an antique drafting table from my graphic arts days. When my son moved out, I commandeered his bedroom for the workroom. It holds all my kits, raw materials, shipping, etc. I feel like my studio is the key to designing. I love to be in it to work or play as it is my space.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Depending on what I am doing, it varies. While designing I listen to music. Before the pandemic, I listened to much wilder music, but since the world was in chaos, I have been listening to much calmer music. My current favorite is Lyle Lovett, Bruce Cockburn, and bluesy music. When I am writing instructions, I tend to listen to instrumental music, and when making samples I listen to podcasts.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I like to build a palette of four colors in four sizes each in a 10-gram bag, so I am ready for anything. I like to read while I fly and wait since I do not get to read as much as I like. Then I design in the hotel rooms. Sometimes, I just make samples if not designing.
As a working artist, how do you define success?
For me success is being able to communicate what I love to others and make a modest living with it. I am humble about it for sure, but I felt great satisfaction after teaching the three sessions of my Master class at Bead & Button in 2015. The students were incredible and phenomenally successful. I have taught eight sessions with a ninth coming up in August through Creative Castle. ([email protected])
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new piece come about?
As I mentioned before, I am a technique junky, and I follow that. Spy Glass is a recent design that has been a blast to make and share. The original design came about by serendipity. My crystal vendor said he had some large unfoiled stones that nobody wanted or knew what to do with. Was I interested in some? Yes, indeed I was!
When I got them, the first thing I did was put two of them together and look through it. I intuitively knew what to do. As a child I had a teleidoscope which is like a kaleidoscope but without the little bits in it. You look through a teleidoscope to see the world around you in faceted splendor! Following my interest in making unique bezels, this bezel begins with the space between two crystals sandwiched like a cookie. The circular peyote ends with 8/0 and 6/0 beads which make up the side walls. It took me a couple weeks to figure it out, but it was fun.
Tell us about an especially challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
This one is a great lesson I teach in the Master class. I had designed the pendant portion of Sweet Garden, a pea pod necklace before Bead & Button in 2012. After the show, when I returned home, I made the ropes for it. When I was ready to assemble it, I realized I had made the pendant connections in a 3-count and the rope in a 4-count! I had obviously not planned that well. Do I go from 3 to 4 or 4 to 3? I was certainly not remaking the two 24” ropes. I decided on 3 to 4. Three can double to 6 in one round and then reduce by 2 in the next round to arrive at 4. I used the accent gold beads to highlight the connection instead of hiding it. Planning the math numbers makes a difference.
How do you protect your intellectual property? “Sharing” is rampant. Most people do not understand how much goes into creating something, even before you pick up the first bead.
That is a difficult subject for sure. I think ‘sharing’ is a euphemism for stealing. Unfortunately, I don’t think some students appreciate the time and financial investment that this job requires. We design on spec. We follow our hearts designing what we like with no guarantee. A piece can consume 100+ hours from beginning to end, from design, testing, instructions, proofing, material purchases, kit building, to shipping. An artist can invest thousands in multiple colors.
I believe there are many more honest and respectful people in this world, and truly choose to focus my energy on them since I have no control over the others. I have overheard students discussing which each should buy so they could share them. It hurts my feelings when I give all that I have to teach and share, and then pieces are stolen, or patterns are ‘shared’. It’s stealing just like from a brick-and-mortar store.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is a history of my beading career. I haven’t been selling on it, but I have my travel calendar, a media page where I have been published, and a gallery of all my work. I have a few other things on there as well and have been selling on Etsy. My wonderful photographer, Dave Wolverton, is also my webmaster. I think my website legitimized me.
Interview posted May 2021
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