Conversation with the Artist: Cliff Swain-Salomon
*All images are courtesy of the artist. Please do not use without permission.*
Image Credit: Donna Hackney
Cliff Swain-Salomon is known for creating non-traditional jewelry shapes and pushing the boundaries of color exploration in weaving seed beads. His work has been exhibited internationally, and several publications have featured his pieces, including Beadwork Magazine, Facet Jewelry, and Bead & Button. He has earned several awards—he won People’s Choice Award of Bead Dreams in 2018, and also the Facet Jewelry Reader’s Choice Award in July 2019 and Judge’s Award in November 2019. His work has also been featured in ad campaigns for Toho Beads in partnership with Bobby Bead & Starman. He is a permanent ambassador for the Bead Worker’s Guild and International Beading Week, as well as the international tutor for Melbourne, Australia for 2021.
Cliff teaches beadweaving at various stores, for bead societies, and for retreats worldwide. He is married with a 4 year-old daughter and lives in California, near San Francisco.
MOB: Who are you, what do you do, why do you do it?
There are many different things that make me who I am, yet I’m an artist at my very core. While I’m currently an off-the-loom seed bead weaver, throughout my life, different forms of art have lifted me up, sustained me, and helped me overcome heavy tragedies. I was born into art, growing up in my mother’s studio and helping with her gallery exhibitions. And art was born into me: she is a world-renowned batik artist. My sense of fashion design must have come from her grandparents: one was a tailor to the stars with a shop next to the Universal Studios lot, and the other a master dress pattern-maker.
“Spirit House,” slave bracelet, 2018. Contrast between manmade structures and organic landscapes found in a traditional Japanese tea garden. Within this setting one-eyed spirits in the forms of a dragonfly and two koi fish tend to the garden. Only seed beads including precious metal plated and semiprecious stones are used—titanate, morganite, rubies, fire opals, pink and yellow sapphires, Sleeping Beauty turquoise, coral, freshwater pearls, jade, and garnet.
The moment I started working with beads, I was instantly drawn to them, since they allowed me to tap into several parts of myself. As a problem solver/engineer, I enjoy bringing together ideas and objects and troubleshooting along the way, and I get major satisfaction when things finally work (because I’m very much a perfectionist). I’m also an introvert; although I love teaching and sharing information, beading allows me to be reflective, meditate, and turn inward to recharge, and offers me a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings in a nonverbal way. And finally, I often joke that I must be part raccoon because I love shiny, glittery things.
Before weaving with beads, I worked in several different media, both 2D and 3D. I also am a musician and love cooking. I began my college education at Arizona State University on a classical music scholarship and continued my studies in culinary science and restaurant management. To help pay my living expenses, I sold my paintings and sculptures at various art shows. After graduating college, I worked my way up to become a corporate trainer for the largest contract caterer in the world.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire limb was cut from my family tree when a drunk driver killed my sister, brother-in-law, and niece. Things went from bad to worse; one of my biggest contracts was with the prison system, which ultimately forced my hand to feed the man who killed my family members.
Because of the stress of dealing with that situation, I began working with the company psychiatrist, who also happened to be an African Shaman that invited me to apprentice under him. Working with him, he helped me find my true inner voice, which in turn helped bring my art to the next level as I was able to express myself more deeply and authentically. Simultaneously, I finished a second degree—holistic health care—while studying outside of college privately under a Tibetan Lama, a Blackfoot Medicine Woman, an Apache Medicine Man, and several other medicine men and spiritual leaders. Through their teachings, I began to incorporate into my art a balance of sacred geometry and chromatherapy, and how they exist all around us in nature.
“Waiting for the Rain,” sculpture, 2020. Dedicated to the wildlife in Australia affected by the 2019 wildfires. A darma wallaby, a red bull ant, sheep blowfly, and a yellow spot jewel butterfly seek shelter under a swan river daisy. Combination bead embroidery and beadweaving. Wooden base and felting also handmade and finished by me.
Over the next decade, I built a thriving private holistic health care practice and was brought on as faculty at my alma mater.
Yet once again, the road took a harsh turn, and within the course of a few months, two different accidents caused me to lose almost all use of my hands and legs for over three years. With very little else I could do, I returned to my roots, doing arts and crafts for my hand rehabilitation.
A friend I had made through a crafting group thought that I might enjoy beadwork, and that it could help improve my dexterity and fine motor skills, especially when using smaller beads.
“Phalænopsis Orchid,” earrings and pendant, 2018. Made in honor of my daughter, whose given birth middle name was Orchid, before adopting and gifting her a new name. To pattern these, I actually dissected a real flower to ensure it was anatomically correct. 14 different beading stitches are used in each flower.
Every piece I weave, I approach as I once did my paintings and sculptures — using the overall composition to guide the viewer’s focus. Many of my pieces mimic fine jewelry and metalsmithing techniques, such as prong settings and filigree, using only seed beads to create these illusions. To reach an æsthetic of high fashion, I find myself continually tapping into my family roots, especially my great grandfather. My wearable pieces leverage my background in anatomy to flatter and move with the wearer’s body.
I still deal with the nerve damage in my hands, so every piece I finish is a badge of honor, that I’m overcoming that which has held me back for so many years.
MOB: What are your current inspirations and influences?
Beading for me is a very slow and meditative process. Some designs can take months to create and as a result, anything I design has to be something that I feel a deep connection to. Before I begin any piece I ask myself the question, “Why is this design so significant to me and more importantly, why does it need to be made out of beads?” Every piece affords me an outlet of self-expression—to capture an emotional moment, to pay homage to someone special, or to meditate on an idea.
“Monet’s Garden,” hair stick barrette, 2019. Inspired by the colors and setting of one of Monet’s paintings of his home in Giverny. The petrified bogwood cabochon is embroidered and bezeled on ultra suede, with three woven lotuses and surrounded by lush beaded foliage. A sandalwood hair stick is held in place on the back by three beaded lily pads.
I find inspiration almost anywhere I go, whether I’m looking at the colors used in graffiti on a freeway overpass, the jewelry someone is wearing on a movie poster, the shapes of rooftops on buildings, or the textures of different fabrics. Many of my creations are inspired by organic elements such as flowers, insects, and other living creatures. Other pieces draw upon the concepts of the duality of manmade structures juxtaposed to those found in nature. I’ve even drawn from Japanese landscaping techniques—"hide and reveal” used in Japanese tea gardens—where the landscape shifts as you move through the space to create a sense of surprise. This is the design approach I used when constructing my piece, “Spirit House”.
Lately I’ve been researching the history of ancient and uncommon bead weaving stitches and finding ways to integrate them into my work, using modern beads, which allows for greater variation to stitches that have been around for thousands of years but are exceedingly rare.
MOB: If you were to pick a beloved piece from your collections and tell its story, what would it say?
To me, beloved doesn’t necessarily mean “warm and fuzzy”—the things that I cherish most are the ones that challenge me and help me grow as an individual.
“Downton Deco,” necklace, 2020. Inspired by jewelry from the recent Downton Abbey film worn by the character Lady Mary Crawley, this stunning necklace is iconic of the crisp lines and subtle Egyptian floral embellishments of the Art Deco period. 155 Swarovski crystals, crystal rice pearl, and precious-metal-plated seed beads are used in this design.
One such piece is “The Butterfly” necklace I designed just over a year ago. For a long time, I had wanted to design a piece that featured butterflies. The more I worked on the design, the more I found myself muscling my way through it—even more than I usually do. I wasn’t sure if it was artist’s block from the pandemic or the perfectionist in me.
“The Butterfly,” necklace, 2020. In addition to brick stitch, peyote, and wirework, this piece utilizes multiple variations of an ancient Indochinese box stitch. It is constructed using Murano glass, precious metal-plated seed beads, Swarovski, and freshwater pearls.
As I was mapping out the piece, I kept hearing a voice inside my head saying “the butterfly needs to be sitting on a fence”. When I repeated the thought to my husband, we each had a simultaneous moment of clarity…
Throughout my life, I’ve faced antisemitism in many forms, from ethnic slurs and my temple defaced with vandalism, all the way to getting kicked out of businesses and having to evacuate synagogues and Jewish community centers for bomb threats.
…we both instantly thought of the poem The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann. In this poem, Freidmann talks about the last butterfly he ever saw living in the Theresienstadt ghetto. One of the lines of the poem that has always stuck with me reads,
“It (the butterfly) went away I'm sure because it wished
to kiss the world goodbye.”
The same barbed-wire fence that Pavel experienced in the ghetto was reflected in the barriers I’d met as a child, and even more so as an adult. In a much different way, the poem took on new meaning for me, living in quarantine, isolated from nearly all outside physical contact to protect my high-risk daughter, and realizing the world we all would return to would never be the same.
In my piece, I didn’t want the fence to be literal, so I drew upon an ancient Indo-Chinese spiraling box stitch that reminded me of a chain-link fence. The piece is stark, with all the focus being on a single butterfly, and the fence where it sits. No flowers, no other creatures, just the butterfly and its message to us all.
The butterfly that Pavel saw was his last; this beaded butterfly speaks the hope that each of us may get to see another butterfly, another day, on and on.
MOB: Do you have any upcoming projects, concepts, and new work we should look out for?
For a while, I have wanted to make a piece in honor of my father. He has always loved carousels and some of my fondest memories growing up are of us going to various places to ride on them. When I met my husband, my profile picture (on the dating site where we connected) was grown-up me riding on a merry-go-round during a day of fun with my dad, just like I did when I was a kid.
“Dream Helper,” necklace, 2018. White jimsonweed flowers are incorporated into this design to depict a traditional Chumash Indian ceremony in which the hallucinogenic flowers are used to strengthen the bond of an individual to their dream helper who guides them spiritually throughout their lives. Materials used include handblown glass doll eyes, precious-metal-plated seed beads, drop and bugle beads, tiger’s eye, black onyx, and Swarovski crystals.
I recently have gotten into 3D printing and have been working on designing beads in the shapes of carousel horses that will go onto a fully-beaded bracelet cuff in the shape of a carousel. It also will include some German glass cabochons and some new geometric beading techniques I developed just for this project.
In addition to the cuff, I am working on a hat. A couple of years ago, when my father-in-law was visiting, he insisted on buying me a fedora that caught my eye. This is the first time that he, on his own, has ever chosen and purchased a gift for me in the 15 years I have been with my husband. (All the other gifts from my in-laws over the years were chosen by my mother-in-law or both of them together). It has been a journey for him to accept my marriage, based on his views of same-sex marriage—even coming to our wedding was a difficult decision for him.
I am decorating the hat with beaded orchids (our wedding flower) to represent the turning point in our relationship at our marriage ceremony where he accepted me as his son-in-law and as a part of the family. The piece will be traveling to a gallery in Osaka, Japan at the end of October, where it will be on display as part of an international bead exhibition.
Museum of Beadwork, Sept 28, 2021.
Thank you to Cliff for sharing his story with us! You can learn more about Cliff and see more on his website, click here.
- Heather Kahn