Artist Spotlights Series:
Robin Atkins, Bead Artist

Welcome to the Artist Spotlights series, Simply San Juan's collection of interviews with local artists. I am pleased to introduce you to Robin Atkins, an extraordinary bead artist currently living and working on San Juan Island Washington. Read on to learn about Robin's thoughts on making artwork, her daily schedule, artists she admires, and lots of fun stuff -- thanks for visiting!

Read more artist interviews at Artist Spotlights.

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.
Blessings Book

Please share a brief biography, including where you’re from and how you got started as an artist.

Although I’ve always enjoyed making things, sewing, folding paper, playing with crayons and paint, I never thought of myself as an artist until I began doing improvisational bead embroidery. Before that I made gold and silver jewelry for about 5 years, and was reasonably successful at selling it. At that time, I felt that I was an excellent craftsman, but not an artist.

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.

My passion for beads began in 1985 with a simple desire for a lapis-gold-pearl necklace. They were so expensive at Nordstrom’s. I knew from my metalsmithing days that I could buy the components for much less. By good luck, there happened to be a class offered at the community college in Japanese pearl stringing (hand knotted necklaces). I took the class and got instantly hooked. Soon I was stash-building, making beaded jewelry to sell, and teaching workshops in my home. In 1988, I quit my day job, and have been self-employed ever since.

At first, though, I didn’t think of myself as a bead artist. As with the metalsmithing, I considered myself a designer-craftsman. That changed in 1991, when a friend and I started playing around with bead embroidery, stitching beads on fabric without a plan for the outcome. We discovered how much fun it is to slip a word or concept into the back of our minds, and then let it emerge through our beading however it might. The more current and important the word or concept was to us, the more intriguing our work looked when finished, and the more we felt like we were creating art. It was a relatively easy jump from there to calling myself a bead artist. It had nothing to do with selling my art, and everything to do with using my work to tell my truth, expressing personal thoughts, in a visual way.

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.
Moth Pin

Writing seems to be another important, lifetime interest and skill. Writing books about beading, especially books that are written with the intent of helping the reader to find their own pathway through art and creativity is another direction my artwork takes me. Teaching too. I really enjoy teaching people how to bead, again especially when it’s more than techniques, when there’s opportunity to teach students methods for finding their own visual voice.

I guess, then, I get to claim multiple roles as an artist: beader, author, and teacher. I love them all!

Why do you do what you do?
Because I love it! Really… it’s that simple.

What jobs have you done, other than being an artist?
With a MA degree in counseling psychology, I worked for about 8 years counseling troubled youth. I also worked for 14 years in professional theatre (marketing and management).

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.
Mountain Streams

What role, if any, does an artist play in society?
Some of the important roles we play are: truth-tellers, entertainers, communications experts, unifiers.

What is “creativity”?
It’s the human instinct to play with the objects we love.

What motivates you to begin a new project, and what keeps you going?
I always have more ideas, more fun materials, and more inspirations than I have time to accomplish. Keeping going has never been much of a problem for me. Maybe it’s because I don’t let myself get bored. When I do feel myself getting a little bored, I change something, pick up a bead I really love and add it to my piece, whether or not it seems to fit the direction the work is flowing. Also, since my work is personal, reflecting current reality in my life, it tends to be compelling for me.

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.
Only Money

How do you describe your style?
For the most part, my work comes from my heart and reflects very personal thoughts, memories, issues, and feelings. I think of it as visual journaling. I prefer to work improvisationally, without a plan, pattern or design.

For the most part, I’ve made my living by teaching beading, selling beads, and writing books about beading. That was a very conscious decision made after a time when I made gold and silver jewelry to sell. I did not like promoting my work, or any aspect of selling it. So, when, later, I started beading, I decided to find other ways to pay the bills. Fortunately, I took well to teaching, writing, speaking and selling beads. I’ve made a decent living without having to sell my artwork. Sometimes I do sell it; sometimes I’m given commissions. But, when I’m making a piece, I never have to take whether or not it will sell into consideration. This is a blessing!

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.
Raven Moon

How much time do you spend doing your work every week?
It varies a lot. When I’m dry, I find other things to do. When I’m working on a compelling project, I can’t stop. Before getting married, I’ve been known to work in my nighty and skip regular meals for several days in a row. My art and my business have been more or less merged for 25 years now, so it’s difficult to separate the hours. My best guess is that during this time, I averaged about 60 hours/week doing art and business, maybe a bit more.

Has your work changed over time? How?
Yes. Each new thing I learn, each new material, each new idea, and everything I see shapes my work. I try to let it flow as it wants. When I get stuck, I generally return to work I know and understand.

If there was no chance of ever being paid, would you still do your work?
You bet! My art makes me happy, keeps me entertained and challenged. I knew a very talented, creative beader who had a crippling stroke. She couldn’t do fine beadwork anymore. So she took up flower gardening. Color and beauty were not lost to her. Hopefully I’d be like her if something happened to me such that I couldn’t do beading any more.

Describe yourself in 3 words.
Inquisitive, friendly, happy

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’ll be 80 years old in 10 years, and, with a little luck, still playing with beads, fabric, paint and whatever else I can find in my stash.

Any advice for aspiring artists?
Just do it! Get over needing to do it right; let go of needing to figure it out. Just do it!

Do you sell your work anywhere locally?
Yes, I am a guest artist in Cinda Sue Dow’s studio at the annual San Juan Island Studio Tour. It’s the only event where I sell my work. I don’t sell in galleries. However, once in a while, I offer things for sale through my website.

Robin Atkins, bead artist, San Juan Islands Washington.
Stepping Stones

Anything else you’d like to say?
Yes, I invite you to come visit my blog, Beadlust. And thanks for reading this!

This interview with Robin Atkins for the Artist Spotlights Series was completed on May 7, 2012. For more information about Robin and her work, please visit Beadlust, Robin's blog, and Robin Atkins, her website.

Read more Artist Spotlights:
Patti Barker, Yvonne Buijs-Mancuso, Cinda Sue Dow, Beth Hetrick, Peggy Sue McRae, Jan Murphy, Kevin Roth, Tom Small, Lewis Spaulding, Nancy Spaulding, Margaret Thorson, Virginia Van Camp, Paula West

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