One might wonder about the sanity of the contemporary bead artist. Why would a 45-year-old man pick up this fastidious and ancient craft now? "This would be perfect work for someone who is in prison," admits David Chatt, who has spent as many as 1,000 hours completing a project. In "Two Hands, Twenty Years, and a Billion Beads," the nationally recognized Seattle artist exhibits his wryly absurd and insanely intricate beadwork. As someone who isn't normally attracted to the fussiness of beads, I came away from the show surprised by the cleverness and fascinated by the skill on display. This is an oddly humorous, at times pretty array of sculptures, trinkets, and vessels made from thousands of hand-sewn glass seed beads, using the right-angle weave stitch that Chatt adapted, allowing him to create dimensional constructions both beautiful and bizarre. The subjects of Chatt's work are often not what one might expect in this medium: white men in suits climbing a corporate ladder made of dollar bills, a golden evening bag that opens to reveal a glass eye staring up (Private Eye), or Flab Bag, a bulbous pouch in multiple shades of pink with sacs of beaded flab sprouting around it, effectively pushing the art into the realm of surrealism. "I think my best and most mature work uses the come-hither qualities of beadwork to draw the viewer in and then takes them someplace they didn't expect to go," says Chatt. (It's true: The tiny, glistening, and seemingly innocuous beads are very appealing.) "I also like to play with irony in my work. A big white guy [Chatt is 6 foot 4] making his way in the world with needle and thread is already ironic, but when you see your granny's kitchen-table craft used to make a lovely red purse that opens to reveal dismembered body parts (Portable Pink Parts), well, I don't think most people expect that, and I enjoy that reaction." Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E. (Bellevue), 425-519-0770, www.bellevueart.org. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat. (until 9 p.m. Thurs.); 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sun. Extended through Feb. 19.
Full-length interview with David Chatt
DAVID CHATT, 45, is a contemporary bead artist. The Seattle artist, who is showing his work in "Two Hands, Twenty years, and a Billion Beads," at Bellevue Arts Museum, recently had an e-mail chat with Seattle Weekly's Sue Peters.
Seattle Weekly: Could you tell me a little bit more about your work and yourself? What inspires your work?
David Chatt: The work that is included in this exhibit spans 20 years and includes work from the very beginning. When I first started working with beads, I was most interested in mastering technique. Beadwork has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, but twenty years ago it was still something that people's grandmothers did at the kitchen table. There were not very many places to turn to for supplies or instruction, so it was with a sense of discovery that I began to experiment. My parents had a small collection of Native American beaded objects that interested me. After a few initial experiments with embroidery, I started looking at a beaded basket that they owned. I visually dissected it and figured out how it was made. I then took that technique and used it to form a second skin over glass vessels.
I grew up with an artist. My father, Orville, lives in Sedro Woolley, where I grew up. He is a maker of jewelry and was head of the art department at Skagit Valley College before his retirement in the mid-1980s. He always had a wall of beads and a variety of materials for us to work with. Several of my early childhood art projects are part of the bead wall display. My drawings from those years were covered in tiny dots, my clay work consisted of little bits of clay that were stuck one to the next. . . . I have always been attracted to fine detailed work. I also have several architects in my family on my mother's side. When I started working with beads I saw them almost immediately as architectural units and figured out how they could be sewn together to form structures. My early beadwork is mostly about design and color, but for me it was also about learning how to best exploit the seductive qualities of glass combined with the intricate qualities and their inherent architectural potential. Technique building was and continues to be a source of inspiration. I was very attracted to the process of assembling thousands and thousands of tiny bits of glass and also to the seemingly untapped potential of the medium. I could imagine all kinds of ways to form structures and to sew beads together in ways that I had never seen before. That sense of discovery was exhilarating.
I think that when you look at the early work (the vessels), at first you see something beautiful, but as you look closer you start to see the thread, and even if you don't know anything about beadwork you understand on some level that there are countless hours invested in each piece. As society moves more and more away from hand work and seeks faster and more efficient ways to accomplish things, there is now new respect and interest in processes that cannot be hurried. Each piece becomes a meditation and draws the viewer in in a different way than one might be had the work been made in more traditional ways.
As a kid growing up in Skagit Valley, I was a bit of an oddball. I was an artist's kid and was more interested in decorating my room or sitting and playing with art supplies than I was in throwing a ball or shooting a gun. I think it is fair to say that my community didn't really know what to think about me. I am 6 feet 4 inches tall and have always been a large lad. Adults would ask me if I played football, and I think I would have rather lit myself on fire than play football. It felt like I spent my youth and a significant amount of my early adulthood flailing around and not having any idea what I was going to do with my life. Then I started messing around with beads and messing around became a bit of an obsession and the obsession eventually turned into my life's work. Now I look back and can see a straight line from there to here and I am a bit surprised that I didn't figure it out sooner. A wise man once said, "If you want to know what you should be when you grow up, pay attention to what you do when no one is telling you what to do." This has definitely been true in my case.
SW:I'm intrigued by the surreal and absurd aspects of your work and the unexpectedness of finding such visions rendered in beads.
Chatt: As my work has developed, I have continually challenged myself. At first it was all about technique and design, but the more I worked and paid attention to how my work was received, I began to recognize the inherent seductive quality of beadwork. People see the work from across the room and are attracted to the colors and the patterns, but as they get closer they begin to imagine how the work was made and how much time is invested in each piece and they appreciate it in a different way. I have been interested in the fact that the work draws the viewer close. The work is small and people have this sort of benign warm feeling about the medium. . . . They expect to be delighted but then what?
I think my best and most mature work uses the come-hither qualities of beadwork to draw the viewer in and then takes them someplace they didn't expect to go. White Men in Suits has a kind of toylike quality. It is an image that I can imagine children being attracted to. It is not hard to like, but when you start to wonder about the image of tiny white men in suits climbing out of a money bag and fighting with each other to get to the top of a ladder that is made from dollar bills, well, it allows me to take the viewer along with me and to consider some social issues that are important to me. I also like to play with irony in my work. A big white guy making his way in the world with needle and thread is already ironic, but then when you see your granny's kitchen table craft used to make a lovely red purse that opens to reveal dismembered body parts . . . well, I don't think most people expect that and I enjoy the reaction. Humor is another way to draw people to the work, but the more I work the more I am interested in what happens next. I think art is more about questions than answers, and I don't want people to see everything all at once. I want people to wonder about the images and the process.
What inspires me? Life, discovery, color, gathering together materials, and making order out of chaos.
SW:Who/what are your influences?
Chatt: My father is the obvious answer. Growing up with an artist was great. I was number five of six kids. My parents were teachers, so there wasn't a lot of extra money for going out to dinners or movies. Instead, my parents would load us in the Vista Cruiser and take us on a ride. Sometimes we would end up at a beach or a lookout but often it was just a ride for the ride's sake. They both loved looking and really taught all of us to notice the world around us. They pointed out things for us to notice, whether it was the colors in the sky as the sun set at Rosario Beach or a strange remodel on one of the homes in our community—they noticed details and taught us to do the same. My father wrote a book called Design Is Where You Find It. It is about finding inspiration for design from everyday things, be it nature or a collection of industrial equipment. In the copy that he inscribed to me, he wrote, "For David, learn to see what you are looking at."
Other artists that have influenced me: One of the most powerful art experiences that I have ever had was several years ago at the Tacoma Art Museum. I had begun to work with beads and while it was becoming more than a hobby, I still was unsure as to where I was going with it. TAM hosted an exhibit of Keith Haring's work juxtaposed with his two major art influences, Disney and Warhol. I didn't really know that much about Haring's work and I was only going because a friend insisted, but as soon as I walked in the place my head went into overdrive. I have thought of that show so many times. Haring's work is deceptive in that when you first see it you see these sort of playful, colorful images, and while it is attractive you don't really get it until you start to look a little closer. He was able to deal with many of the most controversial topics of his times in his work. The emergence of gay culture and AIDS were two things that he frequently turned to for inspiration. These were issues that many people did not want to deal with. The two presidents that presided over our country as the AIDS epidemic blossomed certainly didn't want to talk about gay people or their nasty little disease. Keith was able to use his brightly colored, cartoony images to draw people in. Once they got there, he gave his audience these amazingly poignant and stirring images that made them look and see things perhaps a little differently than they might have. I keep a picture of him on my studio wall.
SW:What effect and response are you hoping to achieve with your art?
Chatt: Part of what I do is just for me. Each piece is a meditation, so it gives me time to sit with a topic and hold it in my hands. I am also attracted to the process. Sewing together beads one to the next is a process that cannot be hurried. It slows me down and keeps me centered. I do, however, show my work and try to sell a piece now and then, so I do consider the audience—but I don't need for them to know everything that I was thinking about when I was creating it. My favorite pieces are those that people can draw their own conclusions about. Sometimes I don't even know what the piece is about until I am finished. That may sound strange to those of us who tend to think in straight lines, but for me, being an artist is about listening and paying attention to where your eyes go. If I find an image compelling, that is enough for me to get started. Each piece takes a very long time to produce, so I have ample opportunity to consider the image that I am working with and allow it to evolve. Sometimes I can figure out why I was attracted initially and hone the vision to clarify its message, but other times, I just allow the image to be, and trust that if I am drawn to it, perhaps others will be as well.
SW:How long does it take you to complete a piece?
Chatt: This would be perfect work for someone who is in prison. It is completely unreasonable to expect to make a living doing what I do, but it is what I do and I have made peace with that. Any estimation of time is just that, but I think that I probably spent as much as a thousand hours constructing Confrontation in the Green Room. That was the longest time I have ever spent on a single piece. Five hundred hours for some of the other major sculptures is probably pretty close.
SW: Breaking News is evidently an important piece for you, as the thoughtful accompanying commentary indicates. Was it unusual for you to be inspired by such a serious event?
Chatt: I don't think that Breaking News is the only piece in the exhibit that deals with serious issues. What was different was that it was a reaction to a very current event. At the time, I felt like I either had to just put my work down and allow myself to be drawn into the news as it unfolded, or I had to make work about what was happening as it happened. I just couldn't think about anything else.
SW:And how did the others help you create the piece?
Chatt: Much of my work is very repetitive and doesn't require years of experience to produce. I have taught my techniques over the years, and am comfortable sharing and passing along what I know. The people that worked on this piece had varying degrees of experience, from complete novice to highly skilled. I basically parceled the piece out and figured out where people could help, and gave my friends parts of it to work on according to their ability. I kept the more difficult parts for myself and then worked on putting all the pieces together and fine tuning the image. I had never worked on another piece like this, and I very much enjoyed the coming together. The circumstances provided me with this unique opportunity and started getting me to think about having someone help me.
I have since worked with an apprentice for a time, and have called on some former students to help out on specific projects. My hands can never keep up with my head, and I would like to see what would happen if I had a "many hands" approach to the studio. It is a thought that I keep in my head, and perhaps I will figure out a way to make it happen one day, but for now I am still sewing 99 percent of my work.
SW:What is the significance of the right-angle stitch/weave? What does it permit you to do? And did you originate it, or perfect it?
Chatt: My father is a great garage-sale enthusiast. When I took an interest in beads, he started finding things for me at the sales. One of these offerings was a beaded purse that looked like it may have been made in Africa, but I have never been able to verify that. It was constructed in a technique that I did not recognize. It hung around my studio for a while, and eventually, I picked it up and tried to figure out how it was made. As it turns out, this piece was made by using two threads that cross back and forth forming four bead units. The beads sit at right angles to each other. If you have seen plastic pearl ties from the 1960s or wooden-bead car seat covers, this is the same technique. I did not realize that this was a double-needle process, so I figured out a way to get the same configuration using only one needle. This made it much less cumbersome than it might have been. I am most assuredly not the first person to do this—I have heard that there is some antique Russian work that employs this technique, though I have not seen it personally.
So, this technique is based on a four-sided unit with a bead on each side; the next unit shares a side so three additional beads are added to make the next unit. I think of these units as squares—so if you can imagine a piece of graph paper with a bead on each line segment, you start to get the idea. I worked with this technique in its flat form for a while, and then realized that squares which employ four beads can be made into cubes which employ twelve beads. This was huge, because beadwork is usually thought of as a technique that one covers something with, or makes flat objects from. That said, I was one of a handful of people who had started to challenge the preconceived notion of what beads could be used for and had started to think of it as a sculptural medium. This cube approach provided a way to work totally three-dimensionally. One can work side to side, top to bottom, or above and below without ever leaving the grid configuration.
Once I had that figured out, I learned how to alter the stitch in a myriad of ways through increasing and decreasing, using multiple beads per side, etc. I continue to alter, explore, and discover new ways to use this basic technique. Did I discover it? No. . . . What I did was to take a basic stitch, change it a bit, and figure out ways to vary it and develop it. Right Angle Weave really did revolutionize beadwork for those who can understand and internalize its basic logic.
SW:Is that a reproduction of your home studio at the museum?
Chatt: No, I was in the midst of moving from Capitol Hill to Ballard, where my partner and I recently purchased an old former church. The timing was right and the interest was there, so I deinstalled the shelves and carted them over to the Museum along with several other pieces.