Conversation with the Artist: Melanie Chouinard
Meet the Artist
Melanie with her 25 year-old Timneh African Grey parrot, Michael.
* All images are courtesy of the artist. Please do not use with permission. *
Melanie Chouinard is a fantasy artist from the little mill town of Wilton, NH. During the day, she uses polymer clay, papier maché, and other media to sculpt wildlife and fantasy creations as The Silver Branch. In the evenings, she turns to beading as a further outlet for her passion, focusing mostly on bead embroidery statement pieces. For her, art is a way to convey stories and to capture the magic of nature for others to view and enjoy.
MoB: Who are you, what do you do, and why do you do it?
I'm a storyteller who isn't as good with words as I am with sculpture, so I like to sculpt to tell my stories. I started sculpting in 2011 without ever imagining how far I would go with the art. I had picked up some clay to sculpt a fairy door for a friend, and found that I thoroughly enjoyed creating it. Others wanted me to sculpt for them, and it soon became a business. I had a knack for sculpting faeries in particular, and, with a house full of parrots, I could not sculpt in my home (baking polymer clay around birds is not advisable.) I was welcomed by a dear friend to set up a studio in the back of her bead shop in an artists' mill. This is a place where an 1860's furniture mill was divided and turned into art studios and shops. The bead shop was a dangerous place to work – so many colorful, shiny beads! I truly struggled to resist losing focus on my clay for quite a few years.
Guardian of the Glen
This mask combines clay and beads in one piece. This piece reminds me of the trails of southern NH where deer are readily seen ambling through the ferns. Model: Kayla CaiKaukus
It wasn't until my studio expanded, and I moved into my own space across the hallway from the bead shop that my resistance began to crack. Through my door, I had a full view of a wall of Miyuki seed beads! Every day. All day. Who could resist that for long? I took a class on how to make a basic spiral rope with seed beads. It was fun, and I loved being able to use all the lovely seed beads I had been staring at for years, but it didn't quite light a fire for beading in my heart. It wasn't until a couple of years later when I found a form of beadwork that gripped my passion. I took a class on how to bezel set a cabochon using peyote stitch. This introduced me to the world of bead embroidery. Bead embroidery took my love for telling stories, my love for sculpture, and translated those things into beaded art. I realized that I could “sculpt” anything with beads, and the textures, shapes, stitches and colors were endless. No clay. No glue. Just a bit of thread on a needle and any bead I could get my hands on.
I particularly love the challenge of trying to figure out how to achieve stable form, shape and size with seed beads. As I beaded more and more, I left the realm of pendants and masks to design and embroider larger statement pieces.
Empress of the Fog Dragons (front)
Empress of the Fog Dragons (back)
This piece won a gold medal last year in the FireMountain Gems Seed Bead Competition. I freeform beaded one dragon's head then had a large challenge in trying to remember what I did so I could make a second. The dragons have a button under the chin to act as a clasp. Their bead embroidered tails are intersewn together. The wings are Miyuki seed beads and fire-polish netting on coat hanger supports! Each dragon has over 300 triangle scales made of various colors of Miyuki Delicas sewn over a cloth body I created. As much as I love this piece, I never want to bead another triangle ever again!
MoB: What are your current inspirations and influences?
In trying to recreate the enchantment of the sunlight filtering through the trees, the mischievous laughter of a hidden stream or the impossible flight of a bumblebee, it only seems natural to me to use my art to tell of the magic of nature through sculpture. As I work with beads, I am guided by the feel of the piece as it forms. No templates. No molds. No rules. This makes each of my creations unique. Bringing the magical, the fantastical, to life is the driving force behind my work. My goal is to hopefully let my artwork sparkle in the imagination and inspire others to keep magic alive in their everyday lives.
Briar Sea Mantle
This piece reminds some of the sea and some of a deer in the wildwood. I just love both! I designed this piece around a dozen labradorite cabochons including that mammoth teardrop shaped cabochon in the center. All the beads are khaki iris seed beads and the cascading shoulder guards are made of synthetic leather so no animals were harmed.
MOB: If you were to pick a beloved piece from your collections and tell its story, what would it say?
Cora's Garden would probably top my list, though it's like choosing a favorite child (so don't tell the others.) This piece was inspired by one of my favorite books, 'The Soul of an Octopus' by Sy Montgomery. Not only was it the book that I loved, but I had some wonderful chats with regular customers at the bead shop who were also reading the book. Those memories of conversation and laughter while I beaded the octopus are included in every stitch. I developed a way to bead starfish with crystals enclosed in the center, and taught many classes at the shop on this pattern.
This was my first 'larger' bead embroidery creation. Each tentacle is embroidered in layers to give it a three dimensional form. Cora's head is peyote stitch over a styrofoam ball. The other half of the piece is netting and coralling laced with a bead embroidered sea urchin of dagger beads, and starfish in a pattern I designed to hold a crystal at its center. The clasp is a puffy sea urchin I designed by combining my starfish pattern with a bead embroidered paua shell "button."
Cora's Garden was also the last piece I was able to create and share with my friends at the bead shop. The pandemic hit not long after its completion, closing the shop for good, and the pieces I have made since then have lost that promise of camaraderie, productive critique, and joy from fellow beaders. It is a piece that makes the top of my list here not as much for the design, challenges, and beads involved but for the happy memories tied to it.
MoB: Do you have any upcoming projects, concepts, and new work we should look out for?
Yes! I am excited about this one, even if the base work I'm doing is rather dull at the moment. I'm pushing myself further to create an even larger piece than my Empress of the Fog Dragons piece; an ocean and gilded-age inspired spinning carousel. I have completed a bead embroidery center column of jellyfish and bubbles, and I have embroidered most of the floor of the carousel. I am currently working on triangle panels made of brick stitch – 14 of them – to form a sloping 15 inch diameter canopy. This carousel will feature different colored seahorses on beaded rope spirals for “poles.” The entire piece will spin by hand to avoid having to replace batteries or run cables underneath.
This was my first bead embroidery that I entered into a competition. It earned a finalist ribbon in the Bead Dreams competition in 2017. I loved working with so many different black beads, bringing out definition purely with shape and bead finish.
April 14, 2022. All rights reserved.
- Heather Kahn