Teresa Sullivan, Sewing Seed Beads into Superwomen

By Susan Gallacher-Turner

Entering Teresa’s living room, it was easy to see her inspiration starts at home. Bookshelves lined the walls filled with an eclectic collection of books on music and musicians like Radio Birdman, Nico, The Velvet Underground and Ramones, comic books and graphic novels as well as science fiction authors like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. The other walls held CD’s and DVD’s, two guitars, band posters and, of course, beads. There were beads in tubes, tubs and tins in all colors of the rainbow on shelves, the floor and hanging on the walls. Teresa also collects antique beads and African beaded jewelry from estate and garage sales.

Below, Teresa working in her studio.

Although Teresa didn’t get into beads until her mid-twenties, her interest in comic book super heroines and graphic novels goes back to childhood. As a kid, she loved to read Richie Rich and Mad Magazines. According to Teresa, she drew all the time, making her own paper doll clothes and comics, “I was even doing my own graphic novels before I even knew what a graphic novel was and doing my own cartoons.

So it’s no surprise that her seed bead sculptures depict super heroines. And although her current work is comic book inspired, it was her job at a tile factory that got her started in beadwork. She said, “I took home some clay and started making my own ceramic beads and around the same time I finally got my ears pierced so I made my own little earrings.” After that, Teresa was hooked on beads.

At first, she was only interested in chunky, trade beads which she felt had more history and cultural significance. “In the same way we wear a wedding ring to tell that we’re married, there are people who wear beaded adornment that tells others that, I’m ready to marry or I am married and have a son that’s a warrior.” And even in recent times, Teresa sees beads as a way to make a statement, “When Nelson Mandela showed up for his trial wearing western clothes and traditional bead work. It can have a non verbal impact. You wear it and the message gets through. It’s interesting that way.

While working in clay beads, Teresa joined the Portland Bead Society and took a class from Baltimore artist, Joyce Scott. It was in that class Teresa found a way to use beads to tell her own unique stories. Teresa explained, “When I saw Joyces’ work, I instantly saw a connection to the comic book style, the graphic representation that you could do and also the narrative aspect of it. Beads have always been a method for storytelling, so that really grabbed me. And with a two day class from her, you could stay busy for the next ten years with all the information and inspiration. So that got me going in a very fun way. And I guess I took it from there.

There are times when Teresa has a specific concept or character in mind when she starts sculpting one of her unique beaded art pieces. Other times, it’s the process itself that leads her. “Sometimes, I don’t start to get ideas for the piece itself that work until I just start working without specific goals in mind. So it does help to just dive in and let myself get a little bored and try something else, something new.

Teresa’s very first sculpture was a seed bead eyeball complete with optic nerve. Since then, she’s done super women sculptures and seed bead paintings inspired by 60’s comic books as well as jewelry. A recent jewelry piece includes a cryptic note she found at an estate sale. Teresa said, “There’s a story there, so I can laminate and incorporate it in a necklace and you can read it.

Sculpting figures and tapestry-like pictures out of seed beads is an exacting and detailed sewing process. According to Teresa, “You put three beads on, skip three beads and sew through the next three beads about twenty thousand times.

Now her beadwork keeps her so busy with new projects, teaching classes from Seattle, San Luis Obispo to Detroit, she sometimes forgets to water her plants. But it wasn’t always this way. While working at the tile factory, Teresa began exploring how she could make her art, her full-time work. She got books out of the library and took more classes. It was one of those classes that led her closer to her path, “While taking a year long beadwork class that was about the creative process, a bead store owner told me that she was going to expand her business, and I started working for her and was around beads a lot.

That led to working in several bead stores around town, teaching more classes for bead societies and guilds across the country, and showing her work here in town at Beet Gallery as well as in New York and Tokyo. And her exploration of beadwork as an art form just keeps expanding because she believes, “As artists, we push the notions of what is real. We’re making tangible objects, but they come out of our imagination.

When you enter the world of Teresa Sullivan’s imagination, you see real objects sewn seed bead by seed bead representing the power, strength and beauty of women. It is a powerful message for the maker as well as the viewer, and new territory that breaks the old cultural stereotype of beadwork. And Teresa’s glad to be a part of it, “The whole modern bead work genre is so new it’s kind of like the Wild West, unexplored territory, and that’s one thing that I really like about it. There aren’t a whole lot of people representing this science fiction, comics, rock n roll, crazy wild stuff in beads, I’m happy to fill it.

You can watch Teresa sewing seed beads into sculptural superwomen during Portland Open Studios Tour, October 18-19th.

Buy your tour guide from the Portland Open Studios web site or at any Art Media or New Seasons near you.

You can see more of Teresa’s work on her website at http://www.teresasullivanstudio.com, and listen to a podcast interview with Teresa here.

Above, Teresa in her bead filled studio.

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