I grew up on stories. My Amah told me Cantonese stories in the garden overlooking Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. And when the day came and we waved a shipboard goodbye to Amah in a riot of dockside streamers, my mother began to spin her own fairy tales. Wherever we wandered, she wove me into the to be continued cocoon of her imagination. Scenes from my gypsy childhood became the stage sets for her tales. When I began to draw, I told my own fairy tales in pictures. Bundled up in a deck chair on a cold Atlantic passage, I placed myself into gardens of parrots and laughing kookaburras. From my caravansary of experiences I created worlds a solitary child could populate and decorate exactly as she chose. It was natural that I would become an illustrator, an illuminator of stories. I was lucky to work with one of the world’s great storytellers, my friend Amy Tan. We created two best-selling books and a PBS television show, Sagwa, that invited children to create their own stories within stories. My early career as a fashion illustrator trained my sense of what makes a woman alluring, decorated, perfect in form. I see what is current in style, what shapes create that look, what colors and textures. You gain a feel for fashion, for pushing the limits of the visual and social paradigm. I always create with the look in mind, but keep my own style as the lens. The look has been big and bohemian, lavish and large, and I have indulged my passion for decorative detailing. But now, minimalism seems to be making a comeback. That will be an interesting challenge for me as an over the top fashion artist. In my childhood travels, I was surrounded by an ever-changing picture book of ethnic costume and decoration, the continuing influence in everything I create. My parents collected a lot of Asian art, porcelains, paintings, costumes. These treasures followed us all over the world as every few years the household would be loaded onto another ocean liner and resettled in a new country. The colors, fairy tales, and handicrafts of many different cultures informed my childhood and became my natural vocabulary as an artist. Chinese art was a constant of my traveling childhood as we wandered around the world. Asian symbols and motifs characterize much of the jewelry I design.
The materials I use today are mostly from Asia: pearls, jade, lacquer, and silks. Vintage decorations of kingfisher feathers, carved jade locks, Hmong silver bells—these cultural artifacts become the centerpieces for my necklaces. And pearls excite my imagination! I can paint with pearls. Their iridescence works like Old Master glazes to create shifting subtleties of color. Once I began working with them—the magic way they capture and translate light, the fabulous intimations of Rajahs and cosseted odalisques—I had truly found the first cornerstone of my medium. My second signature is fabric. The treasure of the cloth captivates me and I work with it as an expression of precious adornment, mixing obis, saris and antique Chinese textiles with stones. I like to mix cultures in my designs—African trade beads with Chinese jades, for example, and use aneclectic combination of gems and artifacts and fabric to express this. A piece typically begins with the dominant theme—an antique cloisonné button from Shanghai for example, and then let it guide me to add other elements—colored biwa pearls, Minoritychased silver beads—and build it like a bird’s nest.I am fascinated by the engineering and plan out the structure, the length of each string so it hangs or sits properly on the body.
I keep an enormous inventory of beads, pearls, fabrics, and artifacts in my studio. Everything has to be at my fingertips to collage the work together as the design develops. My San Francisco studigreat vieo is large and airy with a w of the downtown city. After thirty years of producing art, I finally invested in light and installed a megawatt bank of daylight fluorescents to augment the windows and skylights. And alternately, to entice serenity and inspiration, there are silk-shaded, Chinese porcelain table lamps casting pools of golden light, incense smoke, Degung music. Also, I work with a studio assistant who helps me with everything from modeling for photographs to packing and assembling the limited edition collections. My husband, Robert Foothorap, is a professional photographer and shoots the model setups I style. I do the product shots myself and all my print and website design using Photoshop. I have an indispensable pearl knotter since I do so many multiple strand pearl necklaces and I work with a talented sewer. I still do most of my own work, which is why I chose this profession—the lovely meditation of creating with my hands.
My favorite moment is when everyone goes home, UPS hours are over, and it is just me with my ideas and the delicious time to free create. That is when I do what I love, telling myself stories and weaving complicated plots with historied beads from the African trade, old Persian chalcedony, fragments of Chinese wedding collars and, yes, pearls. Artist Gretchen Schields lives in Santa Monica, California.