Rachel Nelson-Smith

Rachel Nelson-Smith is one of the most popular and talented beadwork designers and teachers in the world. Rachel is the author of the new book Rachel Nelson-Smith’s Bead Riffs, as well as an earlier release Seed Bead Fusion, and also a contributor to numerous magazines and books, including the gallery book Masters: Beadweaving. Visit her online at www.rachelnelsonsmith.com.

We also invite you to sample projects from Rachel’s new Bead Riffs book we’ve posted on this blog: Download a PDF of the Billie’s Bounce necklace or a PDF of the gorgeous Rondo neckpiece.

Rachel, this is a distinct variant of the standard first question for my interviews with beaders: How did you start … singing jazz? Tell us about what that experience—and that work and play—are like.

A mutual high school friend of local ladies I sang renaissance madrigals with, Michael Parker, once asked me if I was interested in singers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In response to my disinterest he made a mix tape featuring jazz singers like those two, along with others like Bette Midler and Edie Brickell.

The music really grew on me as I listened to the recordings over and over—particularly the song “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” because Parker said it was a very difficult song to sing. Years later, my friend Craig Pena introduced me to his coworkers who had a garage band called The Jazz Dogs in San Jose, California. With this group, led by Apple software engineer Kris Stephens in psychologist Tom Martin’s garage, I learned to sing jazz.

Kris later took me in and I became his housemate. With his experience as a jazz trombone major, he taught me many of the ins and outs of jazz from a musician’s perspective, rather than a singer’s. Another member of the Jazz Dogs group, Nick Beason, who worked for Compaq at the time, would share his jazz CDs with me. We’d shop at Tower Records after practice and attend live shows at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Bimbo’s in San Francisco, and other venues in the Bay Area. Those concerts, recordings, and discussions expanded my jazz knowledge.

Later, I attended the weeklong Stanford Jazz Festival as a student of the well-recorded singer and pianist Dena DeRose, as well as Bay Area singer Madeline Eastman and one of my all-time-favorite international singers, Mark Murphy. Drummer Billy Higgins was also teaching that summer, along with bassist Ray Drummond. The horizons really expanded. In a vocal jazz class with Roger Letson at DeAnza College, I was even beginning to scat and gain more live performance confidence.

It was during this time I volunteered regularly at the local jazz station KCSM 91.1 FM in San Mateo for its fund drives—answering phones and taking donations—and this lead to volunteering on a near-weekly basis with radio announcer Jesse “Chuy” Varela. Chuy would share extra CDs and concert tickets with me for the volunteer work I’d do, mainly entering CD information into their database.

Ultimately, I had attended so many concerts at Yoshi’s through the gratis tickets from the radio station that the Yoshi’s ticket-takers would let me in whether I had a ticket or not—and, most importantly, whether or not the show was sold out. Many times a single chair was pulled into the center aisle so I could listen to a sold-out show.

As my love of listening, performing, and singing grew, I drove many miles to attend jam sessions in San Francisco at Rasselas and Bruno’s, as well as in Santa Cruz, where I ultimately spent time on the board of the Jazz Society of Santa Cruz and conducted their weekly jam session.

Great origins story, Rachel. Is the story about how you started beading as dramatic? Why don’t you tell it?

After a failed semester away at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, studying musical theater, I returned home to live with my parents in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I took up classes at the local junior college as a mostly undecided English, psychology, and theater major with a short attention span. To help with expenses I got a job in downtown Santa Cruz at the local bead shop, Bead It.

Other than some fabric and sewing knowledge, I had relatively little experience with beadwork save for the one time my high school friend Lyle Troxell demonstrated adding beads in peyote stitch around a crystal for use as a pendant. I generally attribute landing the bead shop job to having the same maiden name as the bead shop owner, Sue Nelson.

Supervisor Michelle Jeffers taught me how to string on flexible beading wire, how to make earrings with headpins and eyepins, and how to work with silk and knots. Fellow employee Bad Chad—as we called him—taught me how to work with wire. Then, one day a customer came in wearing a necklace of seed beads, which took my breath away and made me too excited for words. The woman told me to calm down, and she promised to bring directions on how to do the stitch the next time she was at the shop. True to her word, she brought the directions.

I can still remember digging for them in my cubby in the back of the shop. Wouldn’t you know I took those directions home and tried them? And wouldn’t you know—the woman who wore the beaded necklace that got me excited, provided the directions, and had such a profound affect on my life was Marcia DeCoster.

I think of that story often and am reminded of how even the smallest of gestures may have the greatest of effects.

After living in Santa Cruz for close to three years, I moved with my parents to the Silicon Valley, where I attended DeAnza College—studying music—and worked at a bead shop—3 Beads & A Button. The bead shop owners—Toni Yamamoto and Beth McGuire—encouraged me to begin teaching basics classes like bead stringing and making earrings, which lead to teaching early original beadweaving projects—the first was Rachel’s Netted Necklace.

The Phraseology necklace from Rachel Nelson-Smith's Bead Riffs

Your new book is called Rachel Nelson-Smith’s Bead Riffs. Would you talk about the metaphor of jazz riffing and what it means for beading—and maybe more generally for people in life?

Every moment of life is an improvisation. Every stitch is an opportunity to travel in a new direction.

Often, the seemingly default view of life and situations is to think there is only one course to take, but there is infinite possibility in every action: from making the decision to attend college, making the decision to call or not call someone who attracts you, to eat or not eat the ice cream, to choose to stitch this way or that, or to play a flat note or a sharp note in time or syncopated.

Will you take a risk, or not?

How do you describe your beadwork? Do you have a formal artistic statement? And if you don’t, would you make one up informally?

The type of beadwork I do depends on who the intended viewer is. For teaching, books, and how-to magazines, the designs are meant to be duplicated. When I’m working on an art piece or collaboration, the audience is gallery- and museum-goers, because I see the work as art.

I’m forever editing my artistic statement. This is what it says today:

With immeasurable numbers of beads, threads, and needles having rolled through my fingers, I pass away thousands of hours on minutia as small as one-millimeter square. The desire to set myself apart combined with a ready attitude toward accomplishment is behind every aspect of who I am and what I do.

How has this path of beading affected your life?

At some point I was consumed by the act of making things from beads. Before that point I was lost and had no heading. Beadwork gave me a reference point as to who I was and what I was doing on earth—how my presence here has made it a better place.

I ran into my high school friend, Lyle Troxell, who showed me adding peyote stitch around a crystal when we were teenagers. He was with his children, and we were in downtown Santa Cruz’s Peet’s Coffee. Lyle introduced me to them saying, “This is Rachel. She’s a Beadist.” I had a good laugh about that.

When I was in high school I would hand write my accomplishments out and decorate the page with ink doodles, then make copies and mail them to friends and family like a holiday letter but at random times of the year. I craved attention, and it was given to me, particularly from singing in local talent shows and participating in high school and local theater.

As an adult, designing beadwork continues to satisfy the desire in my character for recognition.

You blog at http://rachelnelsonsmith.blogspot.com/. Why?

One summer my parents sent me to two summer camps. One was a Christian camp I attended along with my step-sister, and the other was Active Learning at Santa Clara University, where we had to do things like memorize Lady Macbeth’s famous speech and repeat it to the small but intimidating class of other students.

That summer I became a shower—not teller—of things, and a teller of stories. I found the joy of being before a crowd of people and showing what I had to offer. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, and pretty much since then you could say it does it for me. Shortly after that I took to sending my regular-mail full-page updates of my life to family and friends—whether they were interested or not.

The same is pretty much the case with the blogging. I’m basically an exhibitionist—but these days I’m keeping my clothes on.

The Nightingale earrings project from Rachel Nelson-Smith's Bead Riffs

It seems to me that you’re a storyteller. Your blog expresses that, of course, but also your beadwork and your jazz singing are all about sharing stories. Do you agree? In what other places and spaces do you express yourself creatively?

Both my parents were literary. My father read out loud to my brother and me the Bible and books like Treasure Island and The Jungle Book, and both parents wrote poetry. My mother has always been a voracious reader, and she is the most accurate person I can refer to for spelling, definitions, and punctuation—she’s simply incredible. Before the iPhone and the ability to carry a dictionary in my pocket—yes, I have paid subscriptions to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged online dictionary and thesaurus and The Chicago Manual of Style—I would always call mom to clarify word definitions. The incredible part about this talent of hers is that English was not her first language—it was her third or fourth or fifth.

When I was a child, my father authored and illustrated in ink and colored pencil three unpublished books, including Marvin Bear and the Eating Place, that may be seen on his website: Here’s a link. The illustrations are extraordinary, and whenever I look at them it reminds me of good things about being a child. Later, when my parents separated, 15 of dad’s illustrations were printed in Trevor Cralle’s The Surfin’ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak, and he did a run of his one-frame cartoons in 1994 called Committed to Excellence.

When I attended Cabrillo College, one of my professors, Robert Fenwick, taught a very “Santa Cruz” elective class called Freeing the Natural Voice. An activity one day was to write on one side of halved index cards things we’d like to accomplish and to draw on the other side. Robert advised us that we would be surprised at which of the card notes would actually be accomplished were we to look through them in the future.

I wrote some vacuous goals and some with more gravity. Some of them read:
I want a whole wardrobe of clothing from J. Peterman.
I want to collect fancy umbrellas.
I want to visit the Taj Mahal.
I want a big, fatty, unconventional engagement ring.
I want to write 5 books.

As to the first three, I’ve yet to accomplish them and doubt I ever will. My soon-to-be husband found the cards and accomplished the fourth one for me. And, the last one is well underway in its progress of completion.

But how little I knew when I wrote that desire! I did not know what the topic of the books would be or how it would be accomplished. I do not suppose I would ever have written that line were it not for my parents and their literary influence all my life to that point—and right until now.

As for other places and spaces in which I express myself creatively, that includes everywhere I go. It doesn’t have to be artful or over-the-top—often I’m not funny or sensical or graceful.

But the point is to go for things beyond the normal—not just what the rest of the world seems to be striving for, but something different, something that expresses my ME-ness.

Taken literally, it is helpful to know I mainly work out of my two personal studios in a complex of artist studios nestled between car repair shops, a road paver, and an auto junkyard. The larger studio is where my work is displayed, and it’s where I make kits, store supplies, and do photography and graphic design. It’s adjacent to a classroom where I teach once a month. The small studio is just 56 square feet and dedicated to quiet beading and designing.

What do you try to help students achieve when you teach, whether in person or in a book?

When you make my designs from my directions, I want every question to be answered. I like to be thorough so not a single question is left unanswered.

Who are the beaders you’ve found especially inspiring to you in your life and work? What about other kinds of artists?

Joyce J. Scott’s work is particularly important to me because of the apparent view she takes of her own work. It is serious work, with statements made with intent. Joyce’s secret message to me would be one that underlines the possibility of making social statements. She’d say, “It needn’t be worn by anyone, and you have the power to make a statement.”

I’ve been inspired by the sheer coverage Liza Lou has achieved with her creations. If she had a message for me alone, it would be, “You can do anything with beads.”

Suzanne Golden was a significant figure in the development of my taste for color. Before I met Suzanne I was good with color, matching tones, creating pieces with a good feel, but post-Suzanne I can go from earthtones to beyond dayglow in a blink of the eye and from costly gemstones to plastic and resin without a second thought. If she had a message only for me, it would be something like, “You don’t have to care what anyone thinks, you are fabulous!”

Mark Henson’s paintings have also influenced me. His work hung at the White Raven where I would sing with the a capella renaissance trio. His work is full of bright color, or really subdued for some of his darker works, which are narratives on American society. His more sensual works of male and female forms definitely come into play with my own work, particularly in the case of the collaborations with glass beadmaker Ronit Dagan.

Tell us about the new book Rachel Nelson-Smith’s Bead Riffs: Jewelry Projects in Peyote & Right Angle Weave, including what it tries to do for readers and what it expresses in terms of where you are in your own creative journey and what you hope to share.

It is a great book I’m really proud of. Lark made it a beautiful book and really kept me on track in terms of making a cohesive group of projects.

It is an example of how two different beading stitches come together for all these neat and intriguing combinations. The way I look at it, there are about seven main stitches that can all come in flat, tubular, even, odd, and flat-round variations. You can take any two of these stitches and make a host of neat and intriguing combinations, then add in the variations of flat, tubular, etcetera, There is an infinite number of possibilities.

In the book, these are just 23 of the infinite variations of peyote and right angle weave. If you’re a beader and that doesn’t get your mind a-ticking away, I don’t know what would!

Honestly, the 23 projects in this book are just the tip of the possible iceberg when creating with peyote stitch and right angle weave. If I spent the rest of my long life obsessing on the combination of these two stitches, I’d still not hit on every last possibility even if I were to live until 100. I’m 38 now, so that is a lot of years!

The Cocktails for Two bracelet from Rachel Nelson-Smith's Bead Riffs

Of the 23 projects in the book, do you have a favorite or favorites, and what makes them special to you?

I loved making the necklace Phraseology, because the pattern is just so fun. The Nightingale earrings are a real joy to wear—I just love all the crystal and the square shape. I really like to wear Cocktails for Two, as well. It is a pretty bracelet, and it reminds me of the recording where Louis Armstrong and Betty Carter sing a duet—it’s just so suggestive and beautiful.

Rapid fire, Rachel:
Favorite fiction book?
Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel

Favorite beading book?
Carol Wilcox Wells’ Creative Bead Weaving

Favorite bead color?
Olive, olivine, chartreuse, green, bright green

Favorite beading stitch?
I cannot choose just one: tubular peyote, quadruple helix, brick stitch, right angle weave, herringbone.

Hardest beading stitch to master?
Trick question: I think they are each as easy as the other.

Favorite cookie?
Sugar cookies, all decorated with frostings and sprinkles and candies

Favorite city?
Santa Cruz, California, for the sheer beauty of it and the best morning walk of all time along West Cliff Drive and Cowell’s Beach and Steamer’s Lane and Lighthouse Field and Natural Bridges State Beach. Everyone is invited to join me at least once.

I’m there. Favorite beach?
Main Beach in Santa Cruz. Even though it is full of tourists in the summer, it is a glorious morning walk, and I’ve found more sand dollars there than anywhere else—besides offering the ideal summer experience replete with sounds of the adjacent rollercoaster rides.

Favorite fruit?
Fuji apples. I especially like passionfruit juice.

Favorite female jazz singer?
Sarah Vaughan for her amazing rich voice, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday for their boldness in choosing material, Ella Fitzgerald for her irreproachable willingness to mess every last thing up

Favorite male jazz singer?
Mark Murphy and Kurt Elling—they both scat and play edgy material

Favorite jazz musician?
Billy Higgins. He was a masterful drummer, and I learned a lot from him.

Top five desert-island music albums?
Anything by Balkan Beat Box
Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island
Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby
Tom Waits’ The Heart of Saturday Night
Virginia Rodrigues’ Nos

Top five desert-island movies?
Nacho Libre
Like Water for Chocolate
Blades of Glory
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
A Christmas Story

Do you have a favorite quote?

“Life is too short to be subtle.” It was the punchline of a speech I gave as a kid at an academic decathlon mainly based on my approach to meeting boys. I placed second in the speech division. I was very good at meeting boys around that time.

What have been your most important professional milestones in beading and, if you like, in other areas?

A request from the Smithsonian for my curriculum vitae. Having a second book published.

Describe your sense of humor.

I’m unfortunately not naturally funny—typically it takes a couple of cocktails and a blood relation, which limits the audience.

What would you like to be doing 10 or 20 years from now, Rachel?

I’d like to maintain a balanced, mindful, and conscious lifestyle. I’ll probably still be in Santa Cruz, and I will definitely still be doing beadwork. I would like to get a few more books under my belt—how-to beading, maybe a few others in the fiction realm, and maybe a photo-book collaboration with my friend Catherine on unnatural packaged and processed foods.

And what’s something you’ve never done that you’d love to try?

I’m very interested in working with costumers for live theater, and writing copy for The J. Peterman Company would be a high point. Someday I’d like to learn to surf—after all, I live in the real Surf City, USA.

Beader and jazz singer Rachel Nelson-Smith


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