In crisis, beads of strength
An Idaho woman who is in Tampa Bay for cancer treatment finds comfort in her jewelry making.
By SUZANNE PALMER
Published September 10, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - To look at her jewelry, it would be easy to imagine artist Mary Walter as a bit of a bohemian.
The collection includes moonstone droplets, chalcedony leaves, citrine flower petals and Murano glass fairies.
Truth be told, she was a philosophy major in college with a minor in history. Walter, 54, smiles as she explains she was studying for her master's but ended up with an "MRS" instead. John, her husband of 32 years, chuckles. She worked as a financial analyst and later, constructed environmental databases.
How does one get from philosophy to number crunching? Walter says it's not such a stretch. "It's a system. You start with a presupposition and everything logically follows." Both disciplines use logic to arrive at their respective ends.
When Walter grew tired of the right brain world, she began to explore her creative side. She always loved jewelry and decided to open a store selling pendants in 1992.
"It was during the New Age crystal phase," she says, "and my husband and I didn't get it, but we sold the crystals anyway."
She learned about beads, became fascinated by their history and decided to sell them. She specialized in historical beads.
Beads survive, she says, be they glass, bone, horn or precious and semiprecious gems.
Just as jewelry can become an extension of the wearer, it also can be an extension of the creator. In Walter's case, there is a sense of symmetry (born of logic, no doubt), boldness and strength in her pieces that seems to perfectly match their creator.
The artist is clearly drawing on her inner strength during this phase of her life. Walter did not arrive in the Tampa Bay area by happenstance. She is here to receive treatment from the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center for a rare form of lymphoma that is attacking the bone in her skull.
"It's like Swiss cheese," she says.
The chic, white turban she wears attests to the effect of more than 20 radiation treatments and continuing chemotherapy. There may be a bone marrow transplant down the road.
Walter says her illness has had a liberating effect on her art. Often challenged by pressure from customers to alter her style, she no longer feels any need to create her jewelry strictly to please clients. Some are put off by the size of her pieces, unsure how to wear them. While she has created smaller pieces in the past, now "I just shrug and say, I'm going to do what I'm going to do," Walter says.
While often fatigued from her treatments and the stress of having to live apart from her husband and her home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Walter shows no sign of melancholy. She is staying in Valrico with an aunt and uncle until her treatment is finished. Her daughter, Bethany, made the trip with her. John visits as much as he can.
"It's wonderful to have family so willing to open their home to us," she says.
She says she's been sustained in her illness by "my husband and my God.".
With her business closed, and her days spent at the cancer center or her family's home, she has more time to devote to beading.
"I bead during chemo," she says. "It becomes time when I'm not thinking about what doesn't feel good, what could go wrong. I'm just thinking about what all I can create."
Walter was inspired by the arts and crafts movement. She felt drawn to the organic lines so characteristic of this style, as well as the marriage of natural elements to materials used in fine art jewelry like 18k gold and sterling silver.
"The emphasis was on the flow of the object, rather than the intrinsic value of the material used," she says.
She became interested in jewelry as more than just an accessory.
"Art for the body," Walter says. "It's not so much the outfit you are wearing. In fact, the outfit is totally not the issue."
Rather, the jewelry can become an extension of the wearer, an adornment to the person, not the clothes. She also has a passion for working with wire, primarily sterling silver and gold. She's exploring wire weaving and is excited about the possibility of creating new works using historical techniques.
Craftsman House Gallery co-owner Stephanie Schoor met Walter when she visited the gallery with her daughter, who was wearing one of her mother's pieces.
Schoor recognized the craftsman influence and asked her about it. Once she saw more of Walter's work, she knew it would fit into the gallery's current collection. While Schoor obviously delights in the jewelry pieces, she is not unaffected by the artist. "Mary's an amazing woman," she says.