This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with artists in the memorial space. Sign up for our newsletter to get future interviews sent right to your inbox.
Paula from Venbead
HI PAULA, YOU HAVE SOME LOVELY GLASS PENDANTS. HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WITH IT? WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATIONAL MOMENT?
Hello Dave thanks for your kind words. I have been melting glass since 2005 and I have been selling my work on Etsy and my website since 2007. I was making beaded jewelry in the 90’s and buying artisan glass beads to incorporate into my designs and it occurred to me that I could learn how to make glass beads myself. In 2005 I took a wonderful nine week course at the Worcester Center for Crafts Glass School and then I set up my home studio and have been happily melting glass ever since.
In 2012 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. I was not able to torch for a while and soon after I recovered my 20 year marriage ended. It was a devastating time. In the late summer of 2013 I was really struggling to find meaning in my glass and a good customer of mine asked me if I could put her son’s ashes in one of my flower pendants. I reluctantly agreed and the results were so beautiful and meant so much to her I realized I was being offered a real gift. This was a way to bring my profession as a clinical social worker and my own therapy of melting glass together and be able to offer my customers something tangible to help them in their time of grief. These pendants saved me too because on days when I barely wanted to get out of bed, I was compelled to my studio to fill orders for my lovely and appreciative customers.
WHAT WERE SOME EARLY CHALLENGES YOU HAD WITH THE BUSINESS?
Well, even I was squeamish at first dealing with cremains. My kids were even more horrified that this was the turn my business was taking so I guess the early challenge was for me to embrace what I was doing and then convince my family and friends that this was an extremely worthwhile and meaningful venture. I think we are all on the same page now and my kids and I really enjoy reading the stories and seeing the pictures of the people and animals being memorialized in my glass.
WHAT'S YOUR PROCESS, IF YOU CAN SHARE IT?
The type of hot glasswork I am doing is called lampwork. The glass I use is a hard glass like Pyrex called borosilicate. It requires a very hot duel fuel (oxygen and gas) bench burner type torch to melt, good ventilation and very powerful eye protection. I am working with 14mm solid clear glass rods and 5-8 mm colored rods that I melt in the flame of a torch to create solid glass flower pendants. The design within looks like a flower trapped under a dome of clear glass but it is all glass. After creating the flower design I pick up a thin layer of the cremains with the molten pendant and then cover the back with many, many layers of colored glass. The ashes are permanently fused in the piece and can be seen as a sandy white background to the flower. I can then add a hand-stamped sterling tag to be worn with the pendant with a quote or names and dates of the deceased. It makes my jewelry extremely personal to the wearer which is really what I am all about.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE STYLE AND WHY?
I enjoy my Lily design which is a six petal flower because no two are ever exactly the same and opening my kiln in the morning to see the fruits of my labor is like Christmas morning.
WHAT STICKS IN YOUR MIND AS YOUR FAVORITE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE?
Honestly almost all of my customer experiences are my favorite because of the gratitude expressed by my customers when they receive their package. I always include a handwritten note so they know that their stories touched me and that I am truly honored to be able to do this for them. I’ll often include an extra something to express my thanks that out of all the memorial jewelry artists in the world they chose me. I usually will get an email back and sometimes I am just blown away, humbled, honored, proud and moved to tears by their words. I am not sure I can adequately explain it. It’s like a spiritual experience or connection. I recently made a pendant and a key chain for a set of parents who had just lost a stillborn baby girl. The letter the dad wrote me was so incredibly beautiful: “We were very sad to have lost our baby girl Lily and nothing seemed to even dull the pain, but your gifts made us feel happy and more connected to her. I feel like now we can spread her ashes and begin to heal knowing she is at peace, and that a small part of her will always be with us thanks to you. Thank you for making it so special, I hope you keep on making beautiful art and bringing happiness to others for a long long time.”
WHAT ELSE DO YOU SELL?
I still make glass pendants without cremains, and enamel and metalwork jewelry too. I sell my work in my Etsy shop www.venbead.etsy.com
WHAT DO YOU FIND ARE SOME OF THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES OF SELLING INTO THE MEMORIAL ART MARKET?
Getting the word out there that this type of art exists is a challenge, which is why it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to interview with you. For many people this type of memorial is very meaningful but they might not even know how to search for it. Blogs featuring my work and other social media like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest have been very instrumental toward this goal. Etsy also has recently discontinued allowing art with human cremains on the site. This was a difficult blow to many memorial artists. We are still able to offer work with pet cremains on Etsy www.venbead.etsy.com but my human cremation jewelry is now only available on my website www.venbeadcremationjewelry.com.
WHAT DO YOU FORESEE AS SOME OF THE NEXT STEPS FOR VENBEAD CREMATION JEWELRY?
I would like to work with funeral directors and veterinarians in my area to sell my jewelry through local funeral homes and animal hospitals. Recently I have been working on building these relationships.
What's your favorite thing about owning your own business in the memorial space?
I truly enjoy the fact that my art, which is something I started doing for me as my own therapy, has now become a really meaningful way to help people. It marries my profession in mental health and my passion for glass and brings in income to help support my children and I as we rebuild our lives after our own tremendous losses. These pendants have been a Godsend for all parties involved! :)