DESERT SAGE BEAD ART
Kathleen Brennan handcrafts heirloom beaded cuffs and other accessories with the ancient symbols common to cultures worldwide, and the artisan influences of her lifelong home, the desert southwest.
Spend a little time with acclaimed western artist Kathleen Brannon, owner of Desert Sage Bead Art, and you will find it hard to believe that this engaging, warm woman describes herself as a recluse. “When people meet me at shows, I don’t shut up!” Brannon jokes. “But I’m a recluse, actually. I’m out here in the desert with my two dogs, and I do my beadwork.”
Brannon, who now lives in northern Nevada where she draws inspiration from the desert landscape, grew up in the Southwest and established a passion and respect for the West at a very young age. A trained acrylic artist, Brannon worked primarily as a colorist in ancient motifs, which she designed and painted on wood, before progressing to beadwork in the mid-1980s. A self-taught bead artist, she developed her craft through exposure to the native lands and the people of Arizona and New Mexico.
“As a non-native, I have been fortunate to learn the techniques of beadwork from extraordinary Navajo artists who were generous to share their artistic knowledge,” she explains. Brannon travels the reservation lands of the Southwest several times a year, showing in powwows, visiting with Native acquaintances, improving her workmanship and gaining an even deeper understanding of the history of her craft.
The stunning symbols she stitches onto her upscale cuffs are contemporary designs of ancient patterns. Her beadwork maintains the integrity of color and symbolism used on rugs and pottery by the Mayan, Aborigine, Asian, European, South African, Hopi and Navajo people. “The symbols are the same and have carried with them the same interpretation since the beginning of time. They are truly a common thread,” Brannon marvels.
For instance, a cross symbolizes protection, while the Navajo Rug pattern connotes grounding. Perpetual Life is another of Brannon’s favorite designs, which signifies no beginning and no end. Storyteller is collection of ancient symbols in one piece, including Whirlwinds/Dust Devils for energy, Arrow points and Paths Crossing for direction, and a Life Steps boarder to signify the ups and downs of life.
Brannon uses some patterns–like Indian Blanket, which symbolizes comfort and protection–over and over again because her customers love them. “You don’t come up and just buy a bracelet; you have to be told what the symbolism is,” says Brannon, who is patient with her clients who often need time to find just the right connection to the motifs on her one-of-a-kind cuffs. “The minute I tell a woman that Navajo Rug symbolizes grounding from the earth, you can see her totally shift to ‘that’s exactly what I need.’ It’s epiphany time, all the time. It’s really great.”
Brannon’s customers are primarily Western based, but the designs she works with create a universal appeal, attracting clientele from Europe, South America and even Australia. “Everyone can identify with some of the symbols in some shape or form.” Brannon adds that custom orders are a large part of her business, mostly for individuals who want their ranch brands beaded into a cuff.
Brannon designs and handcrafts each cuff herself. She starts with thin sheets of aluminum, shears them into strips, and cuts them into six-inch lengths that are bent over a rounded rail to get a balanced curve. She finishes the cuffs by hand-bending the ends with a long-nose pliers before covering them in washable Ultrasuede. Using premium Delica beads, which she shops for online and in every town she visits, Brannon weaves her intricate creations on a loom. The beads are then hand-stitched (rather than glued) onto the bands, enabling the cuffs to be opened and closed.
The colors of the West–desert sand, rust, sage, moss and amber–are Brannon’s inspiration. She works primarily in matte tones that are reminiscent of the dry, arid surfaces on ancient pottery. Different bead finishes are expertly woven in to bring dimension, texture, personality and just the right amount of “pop” to her pieces.