A glass act

Posted Sept. 12, 2008, at 6:19 p.m.

Halfway between Machias and Roque Bluffs State Park, a magical garden gate leads to the studio of Karen Johnson. This close to the rockbound coast of Maine, the air is full of the scent of the sea and the sound of wheeling, shrieking gulls.

Inside Johnson’s studio, jars and bowls and baskets of sea glass line the walls, and finished sea-glass jewelry hangs in the windows, where it catches the light and makes the workspace positively glow.

Johnson, a retired educator, has found a second calling in making sea-glass jewelry, and if the line of admirers around her booth recently at the Wild Blueberry Festival in Machias is any indication, she’s really onto something.

“I’m recycling nature’s discards,” she maintained. Sea glass is one of the very few cases of a valuable item being created from the actions of the environment on man-made litter.

Finding sea glass isn’t difficult. Just walk the coast of Maine where sea “trash” — dumped from boats or passing ships, or washed from old seaside hotels and cottages that burned and fell into the sea — is smashed and softened by the action of rolling over and over again on rocky coasts. The frosted glass is also called beach glass and mermaids’ tears.

But turning those bits of semitransparent glass into jewelry takes imagination and creativity.

From the looks of Johnson’s workshop, she has plenty of both.

Johnson, 66, began collecting sea glass about seven years ago when she lived in coastal Corea, a bit south. “I did all the beaches and under the docks,” she said. “I’m almost putting myself out of business. I collect everything.”

That, from the looks of Johnson’s studio, is an understatement.

If there were an award for the Most Avid Beachcomber in Maine, Johnson would capture the recognition. She has baskets and glass jars full of sea glass, another basket full of washed-up pottery shards, bowls of beach debris on the floor, and flotsam and jetsam line the walls: a rusted cowbell, pitchfork tines, a stove damper, cork and wooden buoys, driftwood and hundreds of slats from now-defunct wooden lobster pots. The open rafters of her porch workshop are crisscrossed with her beach finds, creating a ceiling from the sea.

Then there is the “Bowl of Fun” that contains unusual items washed up on beaches, including glass beads and marbles, pieces of a clay pipe, an antique match case and the bottom of a set of false teeth.

She explained that red and citron sea glass are the most rare colors, and that all light purple pieces were white at one time but that a chemical in the glass reacts with the salt water to change the tint. Red sea glass is found only once for every 5,000 pieces found, while the rarest of all sea glass, orange, can be found about once every 10,000 pieces. “Black” sea glass is rarely found and often originates from pre-1860 glass that is actually dark olive-green. Green, clear, brown and amber beach glass is common.

“I really started with one piece and I made something for myself,” Johnson said. Friends encouraged her to pursue the art and she now has her own seasonal shop, All Washed Up.

Each of her designs is artfully wrapped in sterling silver wire and she lets the shape of the glass dictate whether it will become earrings, a pendant or part of a bracelet. Even the wire seems to have a mind of its own as she carefully wraps each glass treasure.

Holding the glass, Johnson works the wire around the little gem, fitting the glass inside the nest of wire. She presses and feels the glass, shaping the wire as she goes. “This one wants me to work hard,” she commented as she wrapped.

It’s quiet work and Johnson said she finds great pleasure in the solitude of her art. “There is an advantage to age. I am at peace with myself.”

After teaching, being a principal and then hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1993, Johnson now is writing a historical novel. She also is running for a state Senate seat. Her jewelry making is a refuge, a peaceful place she can retreat to.

Johnson said many people make sea-glass jewelry, but it is clear from the whimsy and art of her designs that she sees something many others don’t. Her choice of glass for each piece is made carefully and with much patience. “It’s the spirit of the work that I try to capture,” she said.

Johnson never “tumbles” glass to create false sea glass, called craft glass, and does not buy sea glass from collectors. “I will grind a tiny corner,” she admits, but adds, “I am a purist. I try to keep the piece as natural as possible.

“I will trade glass for jewelry,” she said. She is mum about her glass-hunting grounds and is worried about the changes in the currents along the Atlantic Coast, which some attribute to global warming.

“I watch the storm tides and pay attention to what the currents are doing,” she said. “I think, I hope, there will be a resurgence in finding sea glass if the currents shift this way. It will be good if more treasures are washed in.

“Then again, it could all be washed out to sea”

Johnson’s studio, All Washed Up, is located at 142 Kennebec Road, Machias, and is open from July to September. She may be reached at 263-4815 or karen.johnson@umit.maine.edu.

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