MANDI SAUNDERS: THE GRACE OF CREATIVITY
WORDS: SHIRLEYLE GUERN
O&A visited lampwork artist Mandi Saunders at Fig Tree Farm in Hillcrest where she fashions minute artworks in the form of intricate beads. This is her story …
“When you buy something from an artist, you’re buying more than an object. You’re buying hundreds of hours of errors and experimentation. You’re buying years of frustration and moments of pure joy. You’re not buying just one thing, you’re buying a piece of a heart, a piece of a soul, a piece of someone else’s life…”
This is written on the card that glass artist, Mandi Saunders, slips in with each purchase that leaves her glass bead studio, Grace Glass, at the Creative Crafters shop at Fig Tree Farm in Hillcrest.
Her own story is an inspiring one and a little time spent watching her fashion what is, quite literally, often a world within a glass bead will change the way that you look at any meticulously hand crafted item.
Her journey, which began while she was living in a farming district for a number of years and continued with her move to Hillcrest four years ago, is a fascinating one. It has come with massive challenges and reflects her deep passion for the beads that she creates using glass rods imported from the island of Murano in Italy.
This kaleidoscope of colours surrounds her workbench – one on which the torch that her husband bought her when she started out doing what is known as lampwork almost eight years ago takes pride of place. The torch heats each bead to around 800ºC.
Also overlooking her workbench is a photograph of her son Bryce who always urged his mother to take her craft to the next level. She explains that he was tragically taken in a car accident in March last year – but he continues to inspire her to reach for the stars.
Mandi explains how, eight years ago, she had been given a beautiful salad server set with beaded handles for Christmas. Fascinated, she began looking for someone who could teach her to make these beads and ended up doing many courses to hone her skills in the Midlands.
“My husband bought a torch for me as I had such a passion for doing this. I practiced and practiced and I learnt new things all the time,” she says.
In order to fine tune what she has learnt, she has done numerous courses, always making what she has discovered her own.
Working behind a tinted glass screen that protects her eyes against the heat and brightness of the flame, Mandi explains how she takes a steel rod known as a mandrel, dipped into a bead release formula, and then begins to heat and wind glass around it.
Gravity and a variety of tools help her to heat, cut and attach different pieces of coloured glass which are pulled into thin glass tendrils known as stringers.
“To make an encased bead, I make a small footprint of a bead and paint the flower and leaves on to it with glass by hand – and then I start to add the clear glass. I add little bits of glass at a time until I have enough glass to form it into the shape of a bead,” she explains.
She uses a similar technique when making beads that encapsulate a whole under water scene. She carefully crafts each sea anemone and a variety of underwater creatures.
“I make all sorts of bits and then cut them up into little pieces and, using nippers. These pieces are like my paint brushes and I put them in place in the bead.
“If I want to paint a rose, I take a white rod and rubina ora which is pink glass that is made using real gold. I wind the pink rod around the white rod. Then I take some tweezers and pull off some pieces which I keep straight. This is called making a rose cane stringer. I paint with the stringer on to the bead. You can see that the white is on the inside and the rabina ora is on the outside. The white background gives you the definition as do the green leaves which are made from vine cane,” she explains.
Mandi’s skills are not confined to encased beads and extend to shaped beads like the vibrant strawberries that adorn her salad servers. “To make a strawberry, I wrap enough red round and round the rod and start to get it into shape. Then I take a green stringer, poke a hole in the strawberry and heat it to make the individual achene or seed that makes up the outer surface of the fruit. I break it off, cool it and start another one,” she explains.
Her signature line, delicate protea beads, are made in a similar but even more complex way as are a wide variety of other shaped beads that include everything from snowmen to owls, minions and guinea fowl. She has created bee beads for honey spoons and mice for cheese slicers as well as cupcake beads for cake forks.
She also makes an African range of beads featuring a lion paw print and leopard, giraffe and zebra designs.
Mandi can turn out a perfectly round, simple bead in three to four minutes. However, beads with decorative elements can take up to an hour.
The speed with which Mandi is able to create a bead can be attributed to the many years she has spent perfecting her art. “You have to have a very steady hand and lots of patience to persevere until you have mastered lampwork,” she admits.
Each finished bead is placed into the kiln beneath Mandi’s workbench where they are baked at 520º C which joins together and strengthens the glass molecules.
When Mandi leaves for the day, she turns off her kiln, leaving the beads to anneal – a process that allows them to cool extremely slowly at just a few degrees at a time over a 12-hour period.
“I can only actually see the finished products the next morning when they are cool enough for me to touch them,” she continues.
A PROUD TRADITION OF GLASS MAKING
Mandi is passionate about lampwork and the traditions that surround Venetian glass making which forms the foundation for her own particular art.
As she explains, Venetian glass making has been located on the island of Murano near the city of Venice since the 13th century when it was decided that, because the furnaces in which glass was made had a tendency to catch fire, to minimise the risk of an inferno, they needed to be located outside the cities which comprised mainly wooden structures at the time.
Over the years, and particularly throughout the Italian Renaissance, Murano became known for its glass art and jewellery as well as well as many innovations. Glassmaking was controlled by powerful families who, because they were confined to an island, found it easy to keep their recipes and techniques carefully guarded family secrets even to this day.
Mandi imports the glass that she uses from Murano and explains how each of the coloured rods incorporates specific metals which bring out different colours in the glass. These transform under the flame.
But the exchange rate, escalating transport costs and high import duties on both the glass that she imports and the high quality stainless steel cutlery that is brought in from India mean that these premium pieces carry high price tags.
Sadly, she says, many do not understand that artists make very little out of their work.
However, she says that much of her work is done out of love and, from the outset, she has been adamant that the very best glass in the world had to be teamed with high quality cutlery.
“I did a lot of investigating and approached a company in India. After going back and forth, they finally made what I was looking for with regards to beadable cutlery. It is a piece of cutlery that has a knife, fork or spoon or cheese slicer at the end and a 3.2mm handle on to which beads can be threaded. A ball screws on to the end to hold the beads in place.”
It was only recently that Mandi began making beads for jewellery. Jewellery making has now become her second passion, she admits.
Although Mandi has sold her beautiful beads at markets and some local shops for a number of years, she says finding her niche at Fig Tree Farm during 2022 has been an important turning point. She calls it her happy place.
She believes that allowing people to watch her make the beads from a rod of glass actually helps them to appreciate the process and the value of the end products which are displayed in the beautiful cabinet beside her work area.
“Since people have been able to see how I make them and turn them from a rod into a bead, they have a passion to take something home,” she says.
Mandi can be found working at Creative Crafts from 9am to around 1.30pm six days a week and, when not creating items for sale or specially commissioned pieces, she also runs workshops. She really enjoys teaching others lampwork which is her passion.
Contact Mandi at 072 266 9188.