Penelope Diamanti’s work reflects her nomadic experience. Deeply influenced by the art and cultures she encountered while living and traveling in Europe, East and West Africa, Central America, Peru, Bolivia, India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia, she incorporates beads, talismans, amulets, and other components she’s collected, into her distinctive jewelry.
Entirely self-taught, she does come from a family of artists, but didn’t realize she had any talent until she discovered her medium: beads. She not only appreciates their shapes, texture, colors and materials, but has also made a lifelong study of their rich history, bringing an additional layer of meaning to her work. With a special interest in color, she developed a course in color theory specifically for jewelry artists and weavers, and teaches this workshop as well as workshops on design, and business skills for artists. She wrote Beadazzled: Where Beads and Inspiration Meet to showcase the diversity of work in this medium.
Dedicated to providing unique materials to fellow bead artists, and to promoting their work, she founded Beadazzled in Washington, DC in 1989 and later added locations in Baltimore, and Tysons Corner, VA. In 2012 she retired from the stores to dedicate herself to her own work and to supporting indigenous Maya women in Guatemala by bringing their beadwork and textile crafts to museum store audiences in the United States.
When did you begin your work?
In 1972 I first started selling my beaded jewelry while a student at UC Berkeley.
My parents were living in Ivory Coast, and when I visited that year and I was smitten with the antique trade beads I found in the market. My serious beading career started when I brought a trunk full of these beads home and started researching their origins, while designing and selling my work at shows, fairs, festivals and shops.
How did you train for your work? Were you trained formally?
I have no formal training. I come from a family of artists who can draw and paint, but I was hopeless at that. Until I discovered beads I thought I had no artistic talent whatsoever. I did benefit from a wonderful hands-on art and cultural education as over the years my father’s diplomatic career moved us from Greece, to Germany, Gabon, Rwanda, Kenya, Switzerland, Ivory Coast, Nicaragua and finally India.
What motivates you to create?
The raw materials I use (beads, pendants, connectors, and found objects) inspire me. I feel like they let me know what they want to be. I love the experience of playing around with the various colors, textures, and shapes of components and figuring how to put them together, then expanding the concepts with variations on a theme. I’m happiest alone in the studio exploring wherever the journey takes me, but I also enjoy the challenge of working up a collection for a particular audience or show.
What artist/photographer inspires you and why?
I’m inspired by the jewelry of ancient Egypt and the Middle East, of Central Asia, and of the Himalayas, as well as traditional African jewelry, and my grandmother, Agnes Stewart’s work with African beads. Among contemporary American and European designers, Angela Fisher was one of the first to present African beads in bold and contemporary ways. I also admire Grazia Zalpha’s endless creativity, and work by Lucia Antonelli, Susan Green and Gretchen Shields for their artistry with ethnographic beads.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Traveling the world to buy the beads then, settling into my home studio to work for hours, days, even weeks on end without distraction, lost in the world of line, color, and texture.
Where do you see your art/photography going?
I can’t envision a life in which I’m not creating. These days I’m exploring galleries and other venues in various parts of the country that will be a good fit for my various collections, beyond the museum stores where my work is currently found.
In the DC area, with friends and former employees of Beadazzled, I’m looking into pop-up venues to present our jewelry and the work of emerging designers we nurtured through the store. The idea of a Bead Truck or Bus (bead store on wheels) has also been bandied about. I’m unabashedly an entrepreneur and promoter of talent wherever I see it.
Although it’s no longer fluent, I speak French, German and Spanish. I believe passionately in equality and justice for all. I have been “the other” in many cultures and always try to help newcomers feel at home here. I devour audio books while I’m working, I love cats, who unfortunately also love playing with my beads. I thrive on travel, but also revel in coming home to ground in peaceful solitude in my own space. After experiencing the wonderful ancient Indian healing modality of Ayurveda I spent three years studying it, and now share this knowledge with clients. I practice yoga with friends, cook vegetarian food, try not to take on too many projects at once, and wonder about the cosmos beyond our fragile little planet.