Bead Piles but Make it Fashion, My Interview with Jeweler Breana Ferrara
Artwork by Gabriela Villanueva
Jewelry is easily my favorite aspect of fashion. Your accessories and how you wear them say so much about who you are and what your journey has been like. For example, I wear a simple gold wedding band around my thumb every day. It originally belonged to my great-grandpa who learned how to speak English in a one room schoolhouse on the prairie. I inherited it from my grandmother, whose house I spent countless hours in as a child listening to her talk about the history of our family and all their exciting adventures. Jewelry can be sentimental, cultural, religious, or even just loud and thrilling. Breana Ferrara is a multi-disciplinary artist living in Massachusetts who specializes in wonderfully weird and excessive jewelry. Primarily focused on beading, her pieces are intentional, colorful and just a glamorous mess! Ferrara blurs the line between sculpture and jewelry and is so down to earth I could cry. I’m not sure how I found her on Instagram (you can also follow her HERE) but I was an immediate fan and commissioned myself a lobster broach. This piece really showed me how thoughtful and considerate she is, as well as talented. The claws of this broach have dozens of tiny baby lobsters added specifically to give away to people when I wear it! Shortly after I signed up for one of her digital beading classes and had the time of my life. She is such a great teacher and has the warmest demeanor. This was my interview with her discussing her art and her story.
First thing’s first, introduce yourself to us! What’s your background in art?
I’m Breana Ferrara (she/her) and I’m a queer art jeweler/sculptor working out of my home studio in Fitchburg, Massachusetts! When I was very young--probably 6 or 7--my grandfather taught me how to use a sewing machine and ever since then I’ve been obsessed with fashion and jewelry! I originally attended Mass College of Art in 2013 for fashion, but after taking my first jewelry and metalsmithing course as an elective my freshman year, I fell in love and decided that’s where I belonged! I graduated with my BFA in Fine Arts 3D: Jewelry/Metalsmithing in 2017 and ever since then I’ve been teaching workshops and classes, and making and selling my jewelry!
How did you get your start in beading?
When I graduated from MassArt and moved to Fitchburg, I was hit with the reality that my jewelry studio access would be limited and there was no way I would have the money to buy more than the basics for my own home studio at the time. That, combined with an overwhelming fatigue and existential crisis surrounding art making, led me to a year of not really making anything of substance in my home studio at all! While I needed the break, I was really itching for a new medium to get me excited about jewelry again. When you go to school to be a jeweler, beads are often looked down on as an overly simplistic way of making jewelry and then overlooked for more “technical” ways of making jewelry like stone setting and silversmithing etc. etc. (I’ve since learned that beads are actually very technical...Material and technical hierarchy sucks!). But the rebellious part of me wanted to go against that material hierarchy I hate in the art jewelry field so much and dive head-first into beads! I have always loved using fibers in my jewelry, and I learned bead embroidery when I was younger, so while I was a little skeptical of beads at first, they ended up fitting very nicely into my methodology and aesthetics as a maker. I still use traditional metalsmithing here and there, there are lots of mixed media components to my beaded work, but it isn’t as central to my art as it used to be! I love how accessible beads are--one bead never looks very substantial, but once you get excessive with hundred and hundreds of beads they become super sculptural and textural and powerful!
Tell us about the materials you use. I see a lot of mother of pearl shells and freshwater pearls incorporated into your work as well as beads, which I assume are glass?
Yes! I use glass seed beads quite often, mostly because I love how substantial they become in massive amounts sewn onto a surface and the texture/feeling/weight that they create. I also love pearls and mother of pearl because they are an almost supernatural material--somehow, something so iridescent and beautiful comes from a natural process which is both beautiful and disturbing for me! But I use a lot of dyed and cultured pearls which are kind of the opposite...unnatural, but natural at the same time. I don’t know, I love contradictions in materials! A good amount of the mother of pearl beads I carve myself. I love seeing how deep I can go with a process so sometimes buying beads at a store isn’t enough for me, I want to make my own beads! Even so, I never say no to *any* kind of bead….I am in love with them all! I have also started making what I call “bead collages” where I use puffy fabric paint and beads to make mosaic-like textures on my jewelry. As I said before, I am a jeweler at heart so most of my pieces have at least some metal elements involved even if they aren’t as prominent as the beads!
How do you structure these massive brooches and necklaces to ensure they last?
My jewelry is pretty unapologetically excessive and over-the-top, meaning that it isn’t exactly “every day” kind of jewelry for most people. I think of it as art or sculptural jewelry that one would save for a special occasion, but be able to hang in their home as art in the meantime. That said, I still need to make sure that hey hold up to the wear that they will receive and so, for example, I make sure that my bead embroidery is reinforced using multiple threads at once to sew down the beads, that every knot I make is tight and dotted with a little super glue, and that all of my foundational fabric forms are double-stitched at the seams to hold up to the weight and stress of the beads and wear over time. Even so, it isn’t fool proof! Bead embroidery, because it uses thread, is naturally a bit fragile, and so are glass/mother of pearl beads, so I take as many steps as I can to ensure strength, but repairs sometimes come up!
What is it that draws you to accessories? Do you mainly focus on brooches and earrings?
I’ve been obsessed with bodies since before I can even remember, enamored by human forms in all of their shapes and sizes and beauty. To me, jewelry/accessories are so amazing because they are made to interact with and emphasize our bodies. Jewelry and accessories make our bodies into art when we put them on. Our bodies are already art of course, but the accessories transform us into different forms of art. They are also one of the first things that people notice about us, how many times have you gotten asked about your jewelry? It’s a natural conversation starter which can be good or bad I suppose. Jewelry is pretty blatantly expressive and emotional and telling without you having to say anything at all! I also love how sentimental jewelry becomes, we often use our favorite pieces of jewelry to pass down to others, lots of family heirlooms are pieces of jewelry. They can have so much weight and history and energy attached which is pretty darn cool! I have been known to make a lot of brooches as they’re my personal favorite form that jewelry takes, mainly because of how versatile they are (brooches are truly “one size fits all” which you can’t say about necklaces, bracelets, or rings!). I also make earrings and necklaces too though. I shy away from bracelets and rings, which is my own personal bias because I find both of those to be the most uncomfortable types of jewelry for me to wear personally. But I’m still open to making all types, I just gravitate to what I like to wear!
Your work shows a wide range of texture, color and size which makes each piece wonderfully excessive, why is that important to you?
I used to be a very loudly expressive person--I’d wear rainbow colors and patterns all the time, I’d express my opinions confidently. Over time, I learned that made me “too much” for a lot of people. I was always a little too emotional, too loud, too fat….too “something” and over time that really made me into a much more introverted and timid person. I have been working on getting my confidence and self esteem back, but I have really found that my excessive, loud, and unapologetic jewelry is a way for me to reclaim what years of social conditioning and being discouraged to be my true self has taken from me. It’s really empowering and therapeutic and my jewelry is truly where I feel safe and at home, so really leaning into that and not apologizing for it (even though some may call my jewelry unwearable or impractical) is super important to me.
Do you make sculptural pieces as well as jewelry and accessories?
I do make sculpture, but pretty much all of my jewelry is sculpture at the same time. I like the idea of making objects that have a way to attach to a body and a wall at the same time depending on the mood of the owner! Once and awhile I have made sculpture that is purely sculpture, but usually there is at least one way that what I make can attach to the body!
What are you celebrating with your art? What do you hope each piece says to its owner?
I’m celebrating being proud to be different, “out there”, emotional, vulnerable, and loud. We don’t have enough of that sometimes and it saddens me that so many people are told to make themselves quieter, smaller, and less imposing so that they can fit in. Though it can frustrate me at times, I’m really proud that what I make isn’t afraid to be different or vulnerable or big. My jewelry takes up lots and lots of space--most of the time it makes the body that’s wearing it bigger and more noticeable. I really admire those who wear my work out in public haha! As I’ve said, I tend to save the jewelry I make for special occasions. It’s even a little intimidating for me to wear but I always love to look at it and hold it, so it usually serves a purpose even when it’s not being worn. The biggest compliment I can ever get is when something I’ve made elicits a connection with another person--when people can actually relate to the unspoken emotions and messages in my jewelry. I want those that own my jewelry to feel ecstasy and belonging equivalent to when you share a vulnerable secret with a best friend and you’re relieved and surprised to learn that they can relate to you and that weight is off of your shoulders. I put a lot of myself into what I make, literally and symbolically, and I think those that own my pieces have to relate and resonate with those parts of me in order to want to own what I’ve made! That, in itself, is a moment of deep connection and understanding. I hope that my jewelry can make its wearer feel deeply understood and accepted.
A lot of your inspiration seems to come from sealife and reptiles, is that an accurate statement? Why do you find them so influential? Do you draw inspiration from other places as well?
I mentioned this earlier, but I am continually fascinated by all forms of human bodies--especially the ones our society tends to label as antithetical to our preconceived ideas of beauty. As a fat person myself, I’ve spent a lot of time making art about fat bodies because I love celebrating them and indulging in the inspiration of all of their beautiful curves and bumps and rolls. I still love using more corpulent forms (hence my instagram name, @corpulence_drip) but in my bead work for some reason I started being really into mixing animals with those human forms and kind of distorting them/anthropomorphizing them until they become kind of fantastical and otherworldly. My other main interest in life besides art making is cryptozoology/the paranormal and I think that bled into my pieces which have become a bit cryptid-like as of recently! I try to take my favorite natural forms (ie human bodies, plants, sea life, other animals) and make them inspired by nature, but very unnatural at the same time. Again, I love contradictions and perversions in my work!
Do you keep a sketchbook? If so may we see a couple pages?
I have always felt pretty insecure about it, but besides figuring out some technical kind of stuff on paper, I really don’t keep a sketchbook. I don’t enjoy drawing or sketching, so I just find ways around it that work for my brain. I like to make models and patterns with my hands and if they don’t work, I cut them apart and scotch tape them back together! A lot of my work is very spontaneous, though the concepts and themes are very much planned, with the only really need for planning being the patterns for my plush foundational forms. Despite working really hard in my drawing classes, which I thought would teach me to love drawing and sketching, I still hate doing it! The beauty of being an artist out of art school is that I don’t have to force myself to use a sketchbook anymore. I think most artists would find an artist without a sketchbook to be pretty sacrilegious so sorry to anybody reading this that’s appalled right now! I do find journaling in my notebook and image collecting via the interwebs/social media very important and inspiring and self-reflective though! In place of a sketchbook page I can show you a cool coloring page that I made for a coloring book with some other artists when we were all in a show called “Plays Well with Others” that was in Florida this past Fall!
Tell us about some of your favorite pieces.
My favorite piece I’ve ever made with beads is ironically the first beaded piece that I ever made almost three years ago now! It’s called “Decorative Fruits” and it’s essentially a giant plush udder-shaped pendant hanging off of a super dainty, fragile string of seed pearls. The udder is adorned with sterling silver nipples that I hand-formed and sewed onto the udder, and surrounded with glass beads. The nipples are pierced and gigantic beaded blobby/droopy fabric forms hang off of those by silver pins (each of these can be worn individually as brooches when detached from the silver nipples!). This is my favorite piece probably because it’s so sentimental as the first time I ever used beads extensively in a sculptural jewelry project, and also because I really was able to indulge fully in the process. It’s so ornate in a way that you have to feel and experience up-close to actually understand, and it took me three straight months of work to complete. Since that piece, I’ve grown and gotten a little more efficient with beading and my process in general, but it’s so symbolic of the end of my post-college artmaking slump and the beginning of my current practice and because of that it’ll always be my favorite.
Decorative Fruits pulled from the artist's Instagram (@corpulence_drip)
My most recent favorite piece has to be a necklace I made about last year’s election called “I Want to Believe”. It’s a polymer clay pendant covered in puffy paint and beads that’s shaped like a UFO with the phrase “I Want to Believe”, with a side pendant made from the same materials that says, “I Voted?” This was my first time in a long time working with leather which is used for the necklace lanyard and the beam coming out of the UFO. Although I care very deeply about politics and I’m pretty vocal about where I stand, most of my work isn’t overtly political. I’m passionate, but my art in itself isn’t really activism. I got invited to a jewelry show called AMEND that was meant to be about the election and voting rights and initially I was a bit freaked out about the concept because I didn’t know how to caption my super complex and messy feelings. I said yes to the show, and the resulting piece was one of the most challenging I’ve ever conceptualized, but it ended up being an important one. Sometimes I get uncomfortable with the contradictions and gray areas of politics, and my anger towards the broken systems and violence towards marginalized bodies in our country leads me to just feel an overall angst, which for me is pretty unproductive. This piece really forced me to work through that angst to action. Concepts and themes come very easily to me, but expressing gray areas in an idea was difficult. It’s still not blatant, but let’s just say if you read into the symbolism you can probably relate to the message!
I Want to Believe pulled from the artist's instagram (@corpulence_drip)
Do you enjoy making commissions? What do you find rewarding about making a specific piece for a specific person?
I love bringing other people’s dreams to life through commissions! I am always honored in a way when somebody trusts me with their vision. I always try to keep it true to myself and my aesthetic, of course, but usually the types of people that commission me are super gracious and open to me transforming their ideas into reality! In a way, when somebody shares their idea with me it’s like they are sharing something vulnerable and honest within themselves, and when I can work with that idea and make super cool jewelry out of it, it’s like I’m relating to them on an incredibly deep level. It’s an exchange. Don’t get me wrong, I have so many ideas (maybe too many ideas) of my own, but making something truly special for somebody else, birthing their vision into existence, that’s magic.
What’s been your most challenging commission and why?
My most challenging commissions are mostly in my past. When you are a working creative, sometimes you say “Yes!” to any and all projects because we all need to pay the bills! I’ve found that there are plenty of people willing to pay me to make work that is in line with my own style and aesthetic, but I used to say yes to making things that I hated making and that had nothing to do with my personal style. For example, I once had a family friend give me some sentimental sea glass from a family trip to Italy to transform into some silver jewelry for her and her daughters. 1. Sorry y’all, I hate sea glass, I can’t help it! And 2. A simple green piece of glass set into a plain silver ring has just never been my passion or specialty. I can do it, but it’s not me. It’s funny because for somebody who makes ridiculous over-the-top jewelry, I love wearing simple jewelry and I admire those who make it very much! But that’s just not me at all. Making a straightforward piece of jewelry, something small and understated and simple, just feels like a lie when that’s not where my magic is. I still made some badass jewelry for her, but at the end of the day it just feels inauthentic to make work for somebody that I can’t feel excited about!
What do you see your pieces being worn with? How do you tend to style your work?
For me, I 100% encourage any wearer of my jewelry to wear it on top of the outfit that makes them feel good about themselves and happy in their body!! I’m pretty understated in how I dress so I’ll be putting a giant beaded brooch on a grandpa sweater while I’m wearing some leggings and sneakers. But, for example, my best friend Jackie Andrews will be wearing 10 patterns at once and a bunch of other bright and fun jewelry with one of my brooches or earrings. I think because my jewelry is so highly personal and emotional, it just blends naturally with the true aesthetic of the wearer. I care about the aesthetic of my work itself, of course, but how it’s styled is never dependent on one or any particular aesthetic!
How would you describe your personal style?
My style of dress has been described as a “Queer Mr. Rogers” which is kind of how I’ve reclaimed my personal style and feel confident in it. I once had an ex tell me that I “dress like a grandma” and for years that gave me such a complex about how I dressed and my own style. I still struggle with feeling truly confident about my style or lack of it, haha! I’ll be honest, unless it’s a special occasion, you’re lucky if you even see me in some small simple stud earrings and a little brooch! Sometimes jewelry gives me sensory issues so anything on the lighter/simpler side that still has a pop of color or something magical about it will always have my heart, but there’s always a time and a place for a gigantic honkin’ piece of jewelry! Anyways, a lot of the other jewelers I know who make the biggest jewelry can be quite minimal in their personal aesthetic! It’s ironic, I know, but I can’t quite explain it!
Any ending thoughts or stories you wish to share?
I don’t have any stories but I do have some advice for anybody who makes art or wants to make art. Please do not let any hierarchy of materials, skills, or techniques stop you from making what you want to make and living your artistic dreams. Obviously if you can, taking classes in certain craft or art techniques is great, but lots of times I use YouTube tutorials or written tutorials that I just Google! There are so many resources available now with the power of the internet. I know the internet isn’t always accessible either, but my point is that you should not let not being classically/formally trained stop you from making your art dreams come true or trying your hand at a process. Don’t let anybody tell you that because you aren’t “good enough” that you can’t make art! Be creative for the sake of being creative and do what makes you happy. That’s all I’ve got! Thanks for sticking with me and reading my thoughts!