In the Shadows of the Mountains: Kat West Creates Art

Photos and text by Steve Meltzer


Kat West lives in the foothills of the rugged, snowcapped Olympic Mountains, near the small town of Chico, Wash. Her home sits on a verdant hillside planted with flowers and shrubs with areas of forest just beyond the yard. The peaceful and pretty setting is far from road noise and the bustle of urban life. West and her husband Jim Thompson have lived in the Northwest since 2005, when they moved to be closer to her grandkids. Jim was a custom lighting specialist and has worked all over the world for hotels, casinos and large buildings. When he retired, they moved north.

West's studio space is in what would otherwise be their home's living room. Several tables and bookshelves fill the room--creating a workspace as well as display and storage areas. Her worktable sits by a large window that looks out on their yard and the woods. Natural light from the cloudy Northwest sky pours in the window, filling the room with a soft light that wraps itself around her beadwork. The light also brings out the richness of the dark beads scattered around the studio.

On a nearby worktable sits a couple stacks of boards holding half-finished necklaces and earrings. Although it seems chaotic, there is an internal order to the workspace--each bead has its place. Works in progress are on one side of the worktable next to trays of loose beads. Finished pieces are displayed on a shelf and along the mantelpiece of an unused fireplace.

Hunkered down amidst the trays of beads, stringing material and tools, West looks up when asked why she chooses beadwork as her art. She smiles and simply replies, ''I believe that beadwork chose me.'' She continues, ''I had played with beads for many years, but began to get serious in 2001.'' The turning point, the moment when she began to think of herself as more than ''a player with beads'' came a little earlier when, as she says, ''I could not find the perfect necklace to wear when I got married in 2000, so I decided to make one. It snowballed from there.''

But snowballing didn't mean giving up her day job. Walking around her studio space, she explains, ''I've been in medical imaging for 16 years. My primary discipline is mammography, but I'm currently training in CT [CAT scan Technology]. ''The day job helps to pay for the art. ''When I first started making jewelry,'' she adds, ''I was just doing simple stringing. Very quickly I was drawn to more complex designs, and more expensive raw materials.''

That's not to say that she follows a particular trend or style. As her skills developed and her sense of design grew more complex, Kat found herself looking at all sorts of beadwork and absorbing many different trends and ideas. ''I read a lot of magazines, but I must admit that I make what I like, whether it is trendy or not.''

Like so many artists, as we talk, West becomes more animated about her artwork. She takes a couple of boxes from a shelf and begins to carefully open them one at a time. Each box contains a large, incredible stone. There are rare stones and minerals like cobaltoan calcite, titanium-covered Brazilian agate druzy, ocean jasper and vanadinite chunks, as well as more common materials like tourmaline, citrine and rhodochrosite.

Each stone has its own story, a story that West tries to bring out in her jewelry. She holds each up to the light, watching the way the colors change and sparkle. Then she slyly adds, ''There also seems to always be a certain amount of cat hair in my work, but not on purpose.''

Her approach to style is eclectic to say the least. ''I love it all,'' she enthuses, ''from ethnic and earthy to sparkle bling. Some of my designs are from the 'less is more' school, but I am quite fond of 'more is more.' ''She goes on, ''Seed beads are essential and, as you saw, my collection of druzy and various minerals, semiprecious stones, as well as one-of-a-kind artisan beads.''

West exhibits an intensity over her work and devours everything she can find about beads and beadwork. ''I taught myself the basics from books and the Internet,'' she points out, adding, ''I everything Sheri Serafini has written.''

But she is more than self-taught; she's studied with a wide range of teachers--Maggie Meister, Diane Fitzgerald, Laura McCabe and others. After a moment, she adds, ''I consider bead artist Bruce St. John Maher to be my real mentor. He and I met in San Francisco many years ago. We had lost contact for a while but were reunited by beads. ...He has introduced me to some of the finest bead makers in this country and guides me through rocky waters.''

A self-described neophyte when it comes to marketing, she currently sells her work through a local gallery and her website ( As she puts it, ''As any artist can tell you, creating things and being a salesperson are very separate skills.''

When asked if there were any special insights she gained through her work over the last few years, West gets up from her worktable and invites a visitor to come with her to see something very special. Passing through the dining room, she opens a door and enters a large sun-filled room. The space is warm and moist, and in the middle of it, there is a huge palm tree with large fronds touching the skylights. ''This sunroom is one of the reasons we bought this house. When we moved in, the palm tree was here, but who would have expected this to happen?'' She points up to a large bunch of green bananas hanging from one of the palm branches, ''This is the first year we've had a crop. ...Bananas growing in the Pacific Northwest,'' she says with a smile. ''Every time I see them, I stand in unending awe of the magnitude and magnificence of the creation. The act of creating my art gives me a sense of union with that.''

Steve Meltzer is a Gig Harbor, Washington-based photographer. Visit his website at

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