Mary Harrison

Mary Harrison

Fire Mountain Gems and Beads' Contest 2010 featuring Seed Beads


Meet the Designer-Artist

Where do you live?
In a cottage on twenty mostly-wooded acres on a gravel road in northwest Minnesota, with a dog, three cats and two old horses. (The horses live outdoors.)

Describe your artistic style.
I have pondered this question for days. I grew up on the New England sea coast well over half a century ago and the taste I acquired there informs everything I do. I made a conscious decision when I first started selling my beadwork more than twenty years ago, to make what I like, regardless of what was fashionable at the moment. Occasionally, I've disregarded that, but when I do, the piece lacks soul and nobody likes it, including me. I like making elegant things, and I like making fun things, but in both cases, my work tends to be understated and classic, like a salt box house with finely detailed woodwork and a bread oven in the fireplace.

What inspires you as a designer-artist?
Almost everything! Primarily color. I toss things together and see what zings. Nature is a very strong influence on my life and in my art. Since I also direct plays, act and have designed and built sets, whatever show I am involved in at the moment, can also trigger pictures in my head. Often the beads themselves seem to say what they want to be.

What materials do you most enjoy working with?
I really enjoy sterling silver, semi-precious gemstones and all kinds of glass. Because of cost, I have been working lately with pewter in all kinds of finishes and love the variety available. I wish there were even more copper choices--copper is a new favorite. Luckily for my pocketbook, I have never in my life enjoyed gold. I adore seed beads. The different Japanese seed beads are wonderful to work with, but for most applications, I love the texture of Czechoslovakian seed beads.

What is the name of the piece you submitted with your success story?
After Midnight Christmas Tree

What inspired this design?
My own Christmas tree. My husband used to say that I would put up a Christmas tree if I were stranded on a desert island. Each year, my tree wears a fuchsia swan with the paint worn off one side, which I allowed to hang, very carefully, all by myself, when I was four. It wears a little red teapot that was Auntie Charlotte's when she was a girl, and a snowman my daughter made in kindergarten more that forty years ago, and a blue jay I bought last year and a battered red and gold bottlebrush ornament that was eight years old when Mrs. Bessey gave it to me some fifty years ago to hang on a bottom branch were it could be swatted by cats. There is joy and healing on a Christmas tree.

How did it come together? For example, did you plan it out or did it define itself once you began working?
It just grew. A long time ago, probably fifteen years ago, I bought a book on making French beaded flowers. I fooled with the technique a little and left it. Recently, I saw an oak tree made entirely of plain copper wire displayed on a shop and that made me wonder if I couldn't make a Christmas tree from wire and seed beads. When I finished it, it looked terribly bare without things under it, so the set designer in me went rooting around in my critter beads to make it a toy. Then it seemed to need some presents, so I dragged out the polymer clay and some odd beads and made seed bead ribbons. My daughter pressured me to make more trees to put in my booth. I came up with a total of four trees to put out in my booth. No two are exactly alike, nor are any of them exactly symmetrical, because I never manage to keep an exact count of all those beads. (That's fine, because real trees aren't symmetrical either.) I had people who stopped by my booth vote for their favorite tree. It was great fun. Next, I want to make one with a little red wagon with a monkey and a football in it. I can never make many, because they are far too time consuming, but I would love to put out a limited edition of three or four each year, all variations of the same theme.

Share Your Background

When and how did you begin making jewelry/beading?
I can't remember exactly when--probably in the late eighties. I wanted some seed bead earrings to wear to a horse show, but I couldn't afford them. I was visiting my daughter in Fort Ord in California. She dragged me down to the local hardware store where we bought three packets of beads each and a how-to booklet. It took us two days to figure out the directions. We had some beads leftover, so we got more colors to go with them. Back home three months later, I had a card table covered with earrings for sale at a local summer festival. I've been making things ever since.

Who introduced you to beading?
Nobody, really. Since that initial booklet, I've just worked on my own.

Do you have an artistic background?
Not a formal one. As a child, I was ill a lot and kept busy with drawing and painting and making wooden models and building things with tinker toys and playing with all kinds of puzzles. This was a good foundation for seeing how things fit together, what sort of shapes and colors work together, what is sturdy and what falls apart. I had a wonderful drawing teacher named Miss Sheridan in fifth and sixth grade who made me really look at things, and draw their shapes and shadows accurately. I just yesterday finished painting the set for the children's theater workshop: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A castle rising from the mist, a stone wishing well with a shake roof, the dwarf house and a stage full of trees all owe their existence to the teaching of Miss Sheridan. I worked part-time for the art department at the University of Maine when I was a student there, and I work part time in a picture framing shop now. Everything I do influences and is influenced by everything else I do. It all rather just happens. Interestingly, an eye for color and shape, an ear for nuance, an ability to put things together, and a bit of imagination have proved useful to me and to the people around me and I am grateful and content.

How did you discover Fire Mountain Gems and BeadsĀ®?
It was long ago, I don't really remember. I was still living in Kentucky. I'm sure it was word of mouth, probably from a customer. I think it may have been the first time I worked the flea market next to the Muzzle Loader's shoot in Friendship, Indiana. I know I sent for a catalog and have been buying from Fire Mountain Gems for probably close to twenty years.

What other hobbies do you have?
I always loved driving horses and trail riding, and indeed just caring for them. I still care for two, although I no longer ride and seldom drive. Books are huge in my life. Theater has grown from a hobby to a job, as has storytelling, so they probably don't count. I like woodworking. I sew a bit and scrapbook now and then. I like camping. I love to travel and driving long distances without deadlines.

Do you belong to any beading societies or beading groups?
I never even heard of a beading society until I opened an Etsy shop last fall. Etsy has beading societies, but I haven't yet figured out how to navigate the site to find them, or what their criteria for joining is. (I find computer work daunting--a challenge of old age.) In Kentucky, I tried several times to jury for the state Handcrafted on Kentucky program, only to be told over and over again that bead work wasn't art and wasn't even a craft. One juror went so far to as to tell me I ought to find a medium worthy of my talent. I was actually contacted by a lady from the program just before I moved to Montana, urging me to try again, as the opinion of beadwork as art was changing. Too late for me, alas. A group of ladies who have been taking lessons from me for the past year at our local Ben Franklin store, have recently decided to meet once a month to work on their own projects together for fun, provided I come and act as guru. This is an informal, unnamed group which meets on the first Tuesday of the month. Does it count?

Beading Success

What role does jewelry-making play in your life?
I spend hours most days beading, sometimes working into the wee hours or getting up early to make time. I do it because the doing is so satisfying and because there are so many visions floating around in my head I want to try. It is absorbing, emotionally soothing and stretches my soul. For me, the foremost sanity saver in my life has always been working and roaming outdoors, with beading a close second. Now that I am far less able to do the active outdoor things, making jewelry and other things from beads has taken over and I consider myself lucky to be able to do this. Since I do sell and teach, we'd have to call it a long standing part-time career.

If you used jewelry-making as a way to bring in income, how are you selling yourself and your jewelry?
Since I started beading many years ago, I have attended craft fairs, art shows and markets. I do a few consignment sales. Last fall I opened a shop on, which was huge for me since I had to teach myself macro photography and a lot of computer savvy and it took me months. I am still learning how to draw people to my site. A blog will probably be my next step. I am entered in several shows this summer. I've been giving lessons and beading evenings during the past year. That has been working very well for me and I would like to do more. I have never entered a contest before. What a scary idea! Now that I've done it once, I would like to keep trying.

Do you participate in any charity fundraisers?
I've never made jewelry specifically for a cause or program. However, a good many local causes know I will donate items to their silent auctions. I've given things to Mental Health, Senior Citizen Centers and the County Fair, among others. Recently everything I had with a cat, a dog or a paw on it went to a local pet shelter. I need to restock.

Any advice for aspiring jewelry-artists?
Make a simple business plan, to keep yourself on target as much as anything. Figure your cost per bead, headpin, sheet of silver, whatever, as soon as you acquire them and use those figures to track your cost per item. You need to do this for tax purposes, but you need to do it even more to keep a handle on the nose-to-candy window syndrome we all suffer from. Deftness, speed and consistency come from practice. Keep it all; you will get there. Above all, follow your heart and make what you like. Not everyone will share your taste. Don't take it personally when someone doesn't--not everyone likes opera. But good many people will love what you do and be grateful you do it. Rejoice in that and keep at it.

View all of Mary's designs in the Gallery of Designs.