Photos by Charles Champagne
Despite the fact that her apartment is full of wonderful things, Jane Olson-Phillips regularly hits estate and yard sales in search of more. “I look for odd bits to make things with,” she said during a recent visit in her home studio. “I look for anything interesting—broken chains, pieces of metal, stones, fossils, fabric.”
Those finds may eventually go into the necklaces and wall hangings she makes from antique and vintage beads combined with fine linen and cotton cord. As she says on her website, she likes “balancing the hardness and colors of beads with the soft textures of the knotted cords.”
Olson-Phillips is both collector and artist. Born in Madison, Connecticut, she graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in English, although she preferred studio art. “I was an English major,” she said. “At the time, art came under [the department of] home economics. I wanted to study science, English, and Spanish. But I took all the art courses they offered.”
“Sculpture was my thing. I worked with wire, stone, plumber’s cement. That’s the stuff they repair pipes with. You can cast it.” She pulls out a small piece, a woman’s head with a celadon-colored glaze that she made from that unlikely medium.
In 1959, she married Edmund Olson. She stayed home with their three sons and made art when she could. She also taught art as a substitute teacher. “My husband worked for United Technologies,” she said. “In 1975, we were sentto England. We lived in Devon, then the Midlands from 1975 to 1988.”
She enrolled in art classes at Dartington Hall, an artists’ commune near the medieval town of Totnes. “It was an old stone stately home with a jousting field,” she said. “There was a wonderful sculpture garden with pieces by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. I took classes in weaving, silversmithing, basketry, and pottery.”
Making baskets was challenging. “We were cutting our own willow on the banks of the River Dart,” she said. “The final assignment was to go out in our own yard and find something to make a basket of. It could be any size. I used boxwood. I had to strip off the leaves and soak the branches in the bathtub. That was a problem because we only had one bathroom. Then I had to load the boxwood in the car and drive it to class. We made the baskets in class.” Peering into her studio kitchen, she located the basket, which measures about twelve by eighteen inches. She uses it to hold photos she is sorting into albums for her sons.
While in England, Olson-Phillips discovered the joy of antiquing. “I bought Egyptian amulets from junk shops. I have beads from King Tut’s tomb that were given to me by a woman I met in Devon. Her aunt was a friend of Howard Carter’s wife. [Carter (1874–1939) was an English archaeologist and Egyptologist who is famous for discovering the intact tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut) in 1922.] She gave me beads to make earrings and let me keep the leftovers. I took a sample to the British Museum. They said, ‘The only thing we can tell you is they are more than two hundred years old.’”
From England, Olson-Phillips and her husband traveled widely. “We went on a three-week tour in Egypt in 1986, up and down the river, touring the ruins. We flew to the Aswan Dam, got on a boat, and stopped at all the ruins along the Nile. We saw the Knossos ruins then crossed the river and went to the Valley of the Kings.”
Upon returning to the States, she and her husband settled in Middletown, Connecticut. “I worked for a nonprofit, Aid to Artisans,” she said. “It helps craftspeople in Third World countries develop their work in a more saleable way. We helped them develop a product and price it, taught them how to ship it and where to buy materials.”
Each country had a specialty, she said: Pakistan artisans embroidered on handspun linen tablecloths. Mexicans produced pottery. In Ghana, artisans worked with beads and woven pieces. In India, the focus was on ritual flags and banners. “That led up to a trade show of products ready to be sold at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan..”
Olson-Phillips moved to Baton Rouge in 1992, partly for the climate. “We’d been cold for twelve years in England; Connecticut was cold, too. We wanted to live in the South. My husband was really ill. We wanted a place with good medical facilities and a good arts community. One of our sons was already living here.”
In 1996, Olson-Phillips started the Baton Rouge Bead Society. “It was disbanded for lack of help a year ago,” she said. But while the society was going strong, she put on exhibits and taught classes at local libraries and at Magnolia Mound Plantation. She is a member of the Contemporary Fiber Artists of Louisiana, which plans an exhibit planned in February at the State Museum. She is working on pieces for that and for the Baton Rouge Art League show in April. She also belongs to the Bead Researching Society, the Bead Society of Greater Washington, Beadesigner International in Boston, and the Bead Society of Great Britain.
In 2010, Olson-Phillips donated most of her bead collection to the Phoenix Bead Museum, which was taken over by the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.” “I started thinking about how old I was,” she said. “I thought it was time to give a good home to my beads.”
In 2014, she had a two-month show, Knot Just Beads, of her knotted fiber and bead necklaces at the LSU Textile & Costume Museum at LSU. She has donated some of her personal collection to the museum, including Victorian knotted purses, scarves, and table coverings. She gave the Rural Life Museum about two hundred “African beads made for trade. They were used to buy slaves.” She also donated two Victorian beaded funeral wreaths and a leather sewing case outfitted with sewing needles, knitting needles, crochet hooks, and scissors.
Despite the downsizing, Olson-Phillips still has plenty of materials to work with. Polymer clay is one of her favorites now.
“I’m experimenting with it and trying new methods,” she said. “It’s really the new art medium. It is accepted as fine art. It comes in little blocks of different colors. You can cook it in the oven; you can carve it. You can cut it into strips and turn them through a pasta maker to process it.” She has made beads, pendants, tiles, and masks from the clay.
As she talked, her cat Ramses, a sleek orange male, jumped nimbly onto her work table and settled under the warmth of a gooseneck lamp. She found him at the pound fourteen years ago, but he is as spry and vocal as a kitten. “Ramses keeps me company when I do my beadwork and makes sure I don’t lose any beads,” she said with a fond smile.
Jane Olson-Phillips shows and sells her work at Caffery Gallery in Baton Rouge. Her website is janeolsonphillipsdesigns.com.
Ruth Laney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.