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Beads, wire, and love: Why Abbotsford’s downtown art community is worth supporting

Donna Gomes fell in love with a handful of beads.

They caught her eye when she was standing in Strung Out on Beads, the specialty bead store in downtown Abbotsford, with her grandmother eight years ago.

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By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 26, 2014

It took Gomes four hours just to plan out this deep sea-inspired pendant. (Image:  Valerie Franklin)

It took Gomes four hours just to plan out this deep sea-inspired pendant. (Image: Valerie Franklin)

Donna Gomes fell in love with a handful of beads.

They caught her eye when she was standing in Strung Out on Beads, the specialty bead store in downtown Abbotsford, with her grandmother eight years ago.

“I thought they were just the neatest, prettiest things ever,” Gomes says, smiling at the memory. She bought the beads, took them home, and fashioned them into a pair of simple earrings. The next time they met for lunch, her grandma brought her a gift: two spools of wire, a bag of head pins and eye pins, and a set of round-nose pliers with a cutter. Right there in the restaurant, she gave Gomes her first lesson in wrapping and looping wire.

“Basically, that’s how it started,” Gomes says. “It took one pair of earrings and a bit of encouragement, and I was off to the races.”

All Donna Gomes’ work starts off as straight wire — even the jump rings. (Image: Helen Kahlke)

All Donna Gomes’ work starts off as straight wire — even the jump rings. (Image: Helen Kahlke)

It became her passion, and turned into a small side-business. Almost a decade later, now finishing her second-to-last semester in UFV’s library and information technology diploma program, Gomes has created countless pieces of bold and substantial jewellery, usually featuring polished metal, natural crystals, or handmade glass beads. Intricate spirals, knots, and coils of wire give her work a distinctly organic, even serpentine feeling. The metal comes alive with movement.

Gomes loves what she does — but, she says, she probably wouldn’t have ever kept going if it hadn’t been for the unexpected coterie of passionate beaders and jewellery enthusiasts she found at Strung Out on Beads. The store where her love of beading began nurtures a quiet but vibrant artistic subculture. These days Gomes sells her work out of the showcase at Strung Out on Beads, and also teaches beading and wire-working classes there.

“They’re just fantastic people, and the store itself is so welcoming,” she says. “It’s a community.”

It’s artsy businesses like this that root Abbotsford’s creative culture in the city’s historic downtown core. Along those two or three funky blocks, artists can restock their palettes at specialty stores, sell their work, and connect with other creative minds. Local paintings of all shapes and sizes brighten the walls of restaurants and cafés downtown, and bulletin boards in stores advertise photography lessons, art tours, and watercolour classes. On Saturday mornings in the warmer months, crafters and artisans hawk their handmade wares at the farmer’s market on Montrose Avenue, which sells everything from wooden doll furniture to the best sourdough bread in the city.

There’s no denying that it’s become popular, even trendy, to shop locally. Over the last several years, we’ve seen an increasing cultural appreciation for things made slowly with loving care, like handmade jewellery — a niche market, but a growing one. And it’s not just Abbotsford. The popularity of websites like Etsy, which allows crafters to sell and ship their work directly to customers around the world, shows a rising consciousness about the value of handmade work. There’s a growing demand for everything from hand-tooled leather boots to knitted baby blankets to carved wooden iPhone cases — and, of course, jewellery. Gomes has been selling her work in her Etsy shop, “EnWrapturedJewelry,” for the last three years.

This celebration of the unique is a refreshing change. Most one-of-a-kind objects sold by independent artists aren’t factory-perfect. They don’t look like you bought them at the mall — and isn’t that the point? Instead, they have character and charm. They’re unique. They’re made with love, and many artists will create commissioned or bespoke pieces specially made for you. No one in the world will have one exactly like yours.

Anytime you buy local, you can also ease your conscience with the knowledge that your stuff hasn’t been mass-produced by some poor underpaid labourer in a factory on the other side of the planet. When you buy a necklace from an artist like Donna Gomes, you’re connecting with a human being instead of a company. You’re also helping to feed your city’s starving artists, as well as the starving small business owners who supply them.Donna Gomes

But like most artists, Gomes doesn’t do this for the money; after all, making pendants isn’t a lucrative venture. She does it for the same reason dancers dance and painters paint: jewellery is her creative outlet, a wearable form of art.

“I’d like to make it pay for itself, but this isn’t something I want to turn into a job. It doesn’t matter to me if I don’t make another dime off this,” she says. “I do it because I love it.”

And that’s why we love it, too.

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