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Jewelry artist Laura Steadman: Memory beads bring strength in grief

Jewelry artist Laura Steadman displays some of the memory beads she made out of glass and the ash of a deceased loved one.
Jewelry artist Laura Steadman displays some of the memory beads she made out of glass and the ash of a deceased loved one. - BRANDON HARDER

Using a tiny bit of ash from a cremated body, Laura Steadman can create a keepsake for the deceased’s loved one: a glass memory bead.

Flutie was a feisty little Yorkshire terrier who was 19 years old when he died last spring.

Now, a very small part of him is encased inside six glass beads on Laura Steadman’s kitchen table. They’re blue and silver and resemble tiny planets.

They’re memory beads, the newest project for Steadman, a jewelry artist from Regina who works with silver and glass.

Using a tiny bit of ash from a cremated body, she creates a keepsake for the deceased’s loved one.

“It’s amazing what these memory beads do for people. … It just brings them joy. It brings them comfort,” said Steadman, who is one of few — if not the sole — memory bead maker in Saskatchewan.

Flutie’s ashes comprised the first memory bead she made — after practising with ash from burnt incense. This was at the request of Steadman’s mother, Helen, who wears her memory bead necklace every day.

The most recent beads Steadman made were for a young widow with four children.

“When you’re meeting with people like that, it can be pretty emotional,” said Steadman.

“I’m really flattered when they come to me and they let me do this for them, because it’s as personal as it gets, isn’t it?”

In the basement of her Hillsdale-area home, which is decorated with several disco balls, Steadman gradually heats a glass rod in a natural gas flame. It’s a careful process: Glass doesn’t like to be heated or cooled too quickly.

She winds the dripping molten glass on a metal rod — a mandrel — and it’s not long before a bead forms.

She rolls it in ash, then encases it with clear glass. She uses metal tools to finalize the shape, then heats the bead over the flame.

When it stops glowing, the bead goes into a kiln to anneal for upwards of three hours; it is gradually heated, then gradually cooled, to avoid stress and cracking.

Annealing aside, a simple bead takes mere minutes to make.

More complex works take more time: One bead on hand is a sculpted octopus, which took half an hour to make. Another is Steadman’s Flanders Fields-inspired red poppy on a flattened sphere, in honour of her 17 years’ service in the Armed Forces, as a reservist in the 16 Service battalion.

The latter design is in the Beads of Courage Hall of Fame, in Tucson, Ariz., into which Steadman was inducted in February.

Beads of Courage is an international program that empowers critically ill children to tell their story of courage through beads. They receive a bead for each hospital visit or procedure related to their illness.

“It’s a great way to support sick children,” said Steadman, who began donating to Beads of Courage in 2012, alongside several other local bead makers, including Shauna Mitru.

“Each bead represents an element of a treatment journey for a sick or critically ill child. … (So when) you see a kid with just ropes of them, you know that that kid’s a fighter and what they’re going through.”

When Steadman travelled to Arizona to receive her award, she met a boy who’d had cancer for nine years. He hugged her, and expressed gratitude to her and the other artists present.

“We’re sitting here going, ‘Well, we’re just bead makers,’ and these (beads), it means so much to them,” said Steadman. “And I think the same feeling comes for memory beads. … It’s like an anchor. It’s like something they can take strength from.”

Steadman began making jewelry about 10 years ago. She took a silversmithing class at the Neil Balkwill Civic Arts Centre, where she now teaches silver and beadwork classes. She creates and sells her creations through her company, EllJay Design.

Steadman said she is drawn to both crafts for the same reason.

“I love the process. I like colour, I like movement, I like texture. I like seeing how something starts as a flat sheet or a piece of wire or a rod of glass. And you can do countless things to it and get something completely different,” said Steadman.

“Like with a sheet of metal, I can hammer it, I can run it through a rolling mill, I can create patterns, I can cut it. With glass, I melt it in flame and I can sculpt it, I can poke it, push it, cut it, do all kinds of things with it. And then you see things just blossom out of the flame into shapes. And no two are ever the same no matter how hard you try.”

amartin@postmedia.com

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