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Glass, ashes, and courage

Beads for the Child Cancer Foundation.PHOTOS/SOUMYA BHAMIDIPATI

Shirlee Wilton in her workshop.

Shirlee Wilton has been working with glass for 10 years. Her specialty is making glass beads. She talks to SOUMYA BHAMIDIPATI about lampwork, the Child Cancer Foundation’s ‘Beads of Courage’ programme, and making memorial beads out of cremated ashes.

“I love the colours, it’s just a really lovely product to work with,” Wilton said, twirling a rod of coloured glass in the blue flame of her torch.

“For me, it’s a form of meditation … it’s a beautiful hobby.”

She draped the molten glass, winding it around a metal rod covered in bead release to stop the glass from sticking. This was lampwork – traditionally glass would be heated over an oil lamp, hence the name, though torches were now preferred.

Wilton fell in love with the art after taking part in a glass workshop in Whangarei.

“They let me have a little play on the torch, and basically I was hooked,” she said, her head tilted as she analysed her work through her safety glasses.

She had been a self-taught glass-artist ever since then. “There aren’t a lot of us, and we’re all over the country.”

Depending on the piece, each bead could take about half an hour of uninterrupted work. Unlike many cheaper beads, her beads were kiln-hardened and handcrafted.

“So when you go to a craft market, you can’t compete with the price of the beads that people get from overseas,” she said, while also using a jack to dexterously pinch and tweak the molten globule into the shape of a horse’s head.

There was an added element of love to her labour: Wilton made beads in support of children with cancer and for people whose loved ones had died.

“In New Zealand, lampwork artists donate their beads to the Child Cancer Foundation,” Wilton said.

“My daughter was diagnosed with stage four cancer when she was 14.

“For every single treatment a child has, they get a bead.”

Wilton had since become the bead co-ordinator for the foundation. According to its website, the ‘Beads of Courage’ programme provided a physical representation of a child’s journey, recognising their strength and courage.


While children received a simple bead for regular treatments, they could choose a lampworked bead to mark momentous occasions, such as birthdays or a more significant procedure.

“They get to choose a bead that’s special or different,” Wilton said. She had crafted and sent thousands of these beads over the years.

“Minions are really popular.”

As part of the programme, families whose child had died of cancer received a bead in the shape of a butterfly.

“I find the butterfly ones the hardest to make,” Wilton said, “I’m usually bawling my eyes out at the end of it.

“I’ve seen where they’re going. It could have been my daughter.”

The horse head joins its companions in a metal kiln next to the workbench, where it would stay for a few hours.

Memorial beads encase cremated ashes in glass.

Wilton’s memorial beads were a relatively new venture. These were beads made using the ashes of a cremated person.

Wilton started making these about six months ago, after the death of a friend’s mother.

“A friend of mine said can you make a bead with her ashes,” she said, “And then they turned out really nice.”

Wilton had previously incorporated sand into her lampwork, so she knew how to encase the ashes.

She was careful to work with the family to create a design which properly reflected their loved one. Once a design had been agreed upon, Wilton would then make a prototype bead for the family to confirm, before working the ashes into the final memorial bead.

“It’s a really personal choice,” she said, “Some people like to see the ashes and some people don’t.”

Circles, flowers, hearts and cats were common motifs.

Wilton had made about 30 memorial beads, mostly for friends and family. She was now also offering the service through Wairarapa Funerals.

Memorial beads were a good option for someone who wanted to be buried with another person, if the other person wished to be cremated.

“A lot of people have their ashes scattered and once they’re scattered that’s the end of it,” Wilton said.

“I thought if someone wanted to do that and couldn’t afford the three-four hundred dollars for a silver necklace [containing ashes], then this could be a good option.”

While she loved the work and the meaning it held, working with ashes was also challenging. A thorough cleaning of her workspace was required, and all unencased ashes needed to be returned to the family.

While it hadn’t happened yet, there was the possibility a bead could crack, meaning Wilton would need to present the family with a broken bead containing ashes, as well as the complete piece.

“There’s a lot of pressure on you,” Wilton said, “Colours can change, it can crack.

“It’s all part of the alchemy of glass.”

While she had not fully considered it, Wilton was open to her ashes being memorialised in a glass bead if that was what her family wanted.

“But I’d probably specify who made it.”

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