Bugs and beads
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Topaz, pearls and amethyst are all over Mary Blake's studio; but so are beetles, dragonflies, owls and seahorses.
It's like "Treasure Island" meets "A Bug's Life."
Blake reaches into a storage cabinet in her basement workshop in her South Hills home, and reveals a toolbox of nylon-coated steel, wire cutters and beads -- lots and lots of beads.
"I bead like a complete hobo," she laughed. Most bead stringers favor pre-planning and layout patterns, but Blake prefers to be guided by inspiration.
Blake, 38, founded Studio Lilybean in 2005 after 18 years of working in jewelry design and beadwork. She now creates, markets and sells unique pieces she creates from vintage pins and beads. Her jewelry ranges in price from $25 to $500, depending on the rarity and materials used in the piece.
When she was a little girl, she wanted to be an entomologist, and that early love shows in some of her favorite designs. "I was totally obsessed with bugs."
Turning vintage pins into pendants for her beadwork necklaces is Blake's signature art. "Nobody else does what I do, and I love explaining it to people. A lot of time when I talk about it, people don't understand, but then I pull out a necklace and they're like, "Oh, that's a pin? I never would have thought that."
Blake reflects on the life of the former owner when she buys a piece of jewelry at estate sales. "I will realize a piece used to belong to a 90-year-old woman who wore it to her cotillion, and now I'm breaking it up and making it into more."
Matching the right beads to the perfect pin feels like "a triumph" to Blake, and because she doesn't use patterns or have multiple identical pins, Studio Lilybean art cannot be replicated.
Blake was born into a prominent Chicago family. The Donnelleys owned a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii, and growing up the children spent a lot of time in the islands.
"I would catch geckos and let them bite onto my ears as earrings. We'd be eating out and I'd go racing into the cocktail lounge with these things hanging off my ears and my mom would just shriek. This went on for years," she laughed.
Blake says her mother, Mary Donnelley, adored Asian art, and Pacific culture influenced her memorable personal style. Blake says her mother strengthened their bond by giving her the freedom not permitted in a socialite's marriage. "I was like Mom's free spirit; she let me get away with dying my hair and getting tattoos and piercings because she couldn't do it."
Her mother also gifted young Mary with a love of jewelry.
"Mom was a jewelry hound. The woman would wear three necklaces at a time, four bracelets, lots of rings. She had jewelry that she'd bring out just for the summer, like a jewelry wardrobe." Blake remembers her mother wore specific pieces only in certain seasons, and some jewelry she wore only in Hawaii.
Blake lost her mother to breast cancer in 2000, and her voice catches when she remembers. "When Mom died and my sisters and I divvied up her jewelry, I asked for her Hawaii pieces because that was the mother I knew, the mother I loved the most."
Blake met her husband, Ben, a Nicholas County native, when they were students at Denison University. She minored in studio art and majored in English literature. After a few years in California, the couple returned to the East Coast to be with Blake's mother during her battle with cancer; they moved to West Virginia in 2009 in search of a low-key, peaceful lifestyle.
Though she experimented with a range of artistic expression, Blake found her true passion in 1999 when she started working for Beadazzled, a bead store in Evanston, Ill. Her boss at Beadazzled had a creative gift. "Her thing was taking ideas out of magazines and making them yourself instead of paying $300 from J. Jill or Anthropologie," said Blake. "I'd make $45 a day and use it as a credit to buy my own supplies and then bead all day."
Though Blake still has many beads she's collected over the years, now she buys Studio Lilybean's beads from online companies and her own treasure hunting on Etsy, eBay and at estate sales. "I go to the boonies out here and I just pick up anything I can get my hands on," she said.
She sifts through a lot of pins to find material worthy of becoming a Studio Lilybean original, and she's learned to recognize patterns in various vintage pin styles. She said there are time periods when "certain things were done really well" or were popular, like marcasite in the Victorian era and enamel work in the 1960s and 1970s.
She also does custom pieces, like turning one bracelet into three new pieces of jewelry; such work allows one heirloom to be shared by multiple people.
Blake doesn't want a bricks-and-mortar shop, preferring trunk shows and the East End Bazaar, where people can touch the jewelry and ask about its history. She really likes Charleston, and laughs remembering how scared she was the first time a West Virginian stopped to help her when she had a flat tire. She says in Chicago when strangers stop, you prepare to get mugged.
"This is such a 'Portland Oregony' kind of place. That's why I dig Charleston. People are so cool here and unusual and awesome. So encouraging of the arts. I just like that about this place. It's amazing."
Reach Elizabeth Gaucher at Elizabeth.Gaucher@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.