Shirley Le Guern meets talented glass artist Mandi Saunders.
Glass artist Mandi Saunders calls the small corner in the Creative Crafters shop at Fig Tree Farm – where her glass studio Grace Glass is tucked away – her happy place. Torch in hand, she is usually there between 9am and 1.30pm – either creating beautiful beads or holding workshops.
“You have to have a very steady hand and lots of patience – and plenty of passion to keep at it until you get it right,” she smiles as she looks up from her workbench.
Mandi specialises in lampwork. Her fascination with this began after she was gifted with a beautiful salad server set with beaded handles more than seven years ago. Being a “crafty person”, she was soon on a mission to find out more and ended up doing a number of courses in the Midlands.
“Soon after starting, my husband bought me a torch because I had such a passion for lampwork,” she says.
Mandi uses glass imported from the island of Murano in Italy. The recipes – which include coloured glasses containing many different metals such as copper and gold – remain closely guarded family secrets.
Mandi explains that Italian glass-making dates back to the Middle Ages. In 1291, Italian authorities relegated this thriving little industry to the island of Murano. Apparently, glass factories had a habit of catching fire and they wanted to minimise the risk to mainland cities.
The techniques Mandi uses date back just as far. She uses a torch, powered by modern day LPG and oxygen, to heat glass that is wound around a central stainless steel rod known as a mandarel to around 800ºC.
Using both gravity and tools, Mandi heats, cuts and attaches different pieces of coloured glass which are pulled into thin glass tendrils known as stringers.
“To make an encased bead, I make a small footprint of a bead and paint the flower and leaves onto it with glass by hand – and then I start to add the clear glass. I add little bits while keeping it in the torch to continue melting it until it becomes more perfect,” she says.
Then the bead goes into her kiln, which is heated to 520ºC. This bakes the bead, joining the glass molecules to strengthen them.
When Mandi leaves for the day, she turns off her kiln, leaving the beads to anneal – a process that allows them to cool extremely slowly over a 12-hour period.
“I can only actually see the finished products the next morning when they are cool enough for me to touch,” she explains.
Mandi says it took at least two years for her to realise that she could make a business out of her hobby.
She started off doing cutlery and buys code 305 quality stainless steel implements that have 3.2mm handles on to which beads can be threaded, from India. A ball screws on to the end to finish them.
Many people asked her to make beads for jewellery, but she only started what she now describes as her second passion quite recently.
Mandi’s proteas are her signature line. After completing a course, she experimented until she had produced her own version – which is extremely popular. She also makes an African range of beads featuring a lion paw print and leopard, giraffe and zebra designs.
She says the protea was probably the first shaped bead that she made. Since then, she has come up with strawberries, snowmen, owls, minions and guinea fowl. She has created bee beads for honey spoons and mice for cheese slicers, as well as cupcake beads for cake forks.
She can turn out a perfectly round, simple bead in three to four minutes. However, beads with decorative elements can take up to an hour.
Mandi is inspired by her son Bryce, who not only designed her branding but constantly motivated her to take her art to a new level. Tragically, he was killed in a motor accident in March last year – but his picture remains above Mandi’s workbench as a constant reminder of what she can achieve.
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