Casting Beads

Casting Beads: Penland artist David Chatt proves beadwork can transcend handicraft
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The objects in David Chatt’s 2011 piece Bedside Table include a transistor radio, rotary phone, alarm clock, and other items that evoke the life of an elderly person. At first glance, the items—all ghostly white—seem to be made of marble or coated in dust. But closer inspection reveals they’re encased in a sewn mesh of tiny white beads that creates a uniform surface. Using beads in high-concept art pieces has become emblematic of the artist’s career, but it’s just one way that he takes the material in unexpected directions.

Consider Breakfast Set, a full meal of fried eggs, toast, and bacon on a place mat—made entirely from beads. In Confrontation in the Green Room, a nude man, regarding himself in a mirror, is presumably not thrilled with what he sees. The union of the material and subject matter is surprising, but what really comes across is Chatt’s sense of humor. Beadwork hasn’t traditionally been a vehicle for humor or irony, and in fact, hasn’t been given much thought as an art material at all. “Our society had relegated beadwork to the realm of kitchen-table craft,” says Chatt, “but other cultures have used it for their most revered artifacts.”

The cheeky tone of many of his pieces indicates that Chatt is not going for reverence, but he has received widespread recognition. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and The Corning Glass Museum, among others, and he’s taught at prestigious art institutions across the country. Last August, he was honored with the North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship, awarded to just 18 artists. Still, his work defies classification. “I’m sometimes considered a fiber artist and sometimes a glass artist; I am a sculptor who makes jewelry, he says. “Am I an artist or a craftsman? I think the [art] that is hard to fit into little boxes is sometimes the most interesting.”

Regarding the material, it’s hard not to focus on Chatt’s process of stitching thousands of tiny beads together with needle and thread. “I’ve always been fascinated with minutia,” says the artist. “There’s something compelling for me about gathering, accumulating, sorting, arranging, and creating order from chaos.”  It’s a practice that requires tremendous patience. “I tend to count weeks or months, or lately, years,” he says. “I may have spent as much as 2,000 hours on some of the larger pieces.”

A native of Washington state, Chatt first came to WNC as a teacher and later a student and visiting artist at Penland School of Crafts, where he now works as the full-time baker. In addition to his fine-art bead sculpture, he makes functional jewelry. “I am interested in going to my studio every day,” he says, “and being excited about the work that is on my bench.”

Look Closer
See more of David Chatt’s work at or at Penland Gallery.