Like a moth to the flame

Hillcrest’s Mandi Saunders never imagined that a set of salad servers would ignite her passion into glasswork. The beaded servers set her on a rewarding path of learning, creating and teaching lampwork skills to others.

Mandi Saunders is described as having an art-heart when it comes to lampwork. She admits spending every second of her working day – and her spare time – creating beautifully crafted and intricate works of wearable glass art that never fail to catch the eye.

Just short of eight years ago, Mandi received the set of salad servers with beaded handles as a gift from her gran. Smitten by the history behind lampwork, a type of glasswork in which glass is melted with a torch, rolled and twirled to form solid glass objects like the beads, she went on a mission to find out everything on how these beads were crafted from a simple glass rod. She wanted to learn, in detail, how it was done.

“I found a place in the Midlands that specialised in lampwork (making beads and small sculptures), and I completed all the intermediate and advanced classes that I could. After my first lesson, the process of making glass beads at the flame had me hooked!”

Before lampwork, Mandi was a nursery schoolteacher with a degree in childcare and child psychology. Her real passion, the multiverse art of gestures and strings of beads, is something she only tapped into later on her creative glass journey.

“I get so much joy when I’ve had time on the torch, even more so when someone buys a piece. It’s totally validating.”

The more skilled Mandi became, the more people noticed. The home studio she opened in 2014 in a farming district prior to moving to Forest Hills four years ago, and her current creative space, Grace Glass, were a natural progression.

Today, she’s so popular among locals looking for something creative and new to learn that she can hardly keep up with the demand for her glass bead making workshops.

We recently visited her colourful studio at Fig Tree Farm in Hillcrest, and it quickly became evident that she’s a means for others to let their inventiveness run wild. The emphasis is not on achieving perfection but rather having a great artistic time, as Mandi’s work is kinetic and unrestrained. The people she exchanges conversation with (some students, some strangers) are either intrigued by her work, or thrilled with their own creations, as she opens the kiln to reveal the results of a recent workshop.

A single bead is made by melting a glass rod in a flame of 800°C.

We watch in awe as she creates a single bead from scratch by melting a glass rod – in a flame of 800°C – and wrapping the melted glass around a mandrel to produce the base of a bead, which can then be moulded into a different shape before going into a kiln that anneals (slowly bakes and cools) starting at 520°C. If the glass cools to quickly it will crack.

“It can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to make a single bead, and the glass does its own thing in the heat, so you can never really tell what a piece is going to look like until you actually open the kiln.”

Mandi uses imported glass rods from the island of Murano in Italy – the same kind used to make Pandora and Troll beads. She derives much joy in finishing more detailed pieces because of the fine work involved, something that also requires an incredibly steady hand.

From Christmas and wildlife to insects and flowers and more, Mandi loves the dotted decorations most. After making the base of the bead, she melts a thin glass rod of pure silver and gently touches the base, creating near perfect little dots. This technique allows her to concentrate her attention on the object she is working on. She says it is a zen technique and definitely therapy.

From these exquisite beads and figurines, Mandi makes earrings, bracelets and necklaces and she decorates cutlery imported from India. Even with immeasurable patience, passion, skill and practice, the inevitable does happen.

“Let’s just say I’ve passed my thumb through the blue flame on more than one occasion! And the duds, these never go to waste. My youngest, Ella Grace, who is desperate for me to teach her every technique in the book – loves to play with them, and Jean, who shares the studio space with me, always finds use for them in her creations.”

As Mandi talks, with great emotion, about her passion, it becomes obvious that this is not just about a creative outlet that she loves. It is also about preserving the memory of her greatest cheerleader, her son Bryce, who was tragically killed just over a year ago.

“This is my gift, a gift that was encouraged and supported, more than anything else, by Bryce. He is my driving force, and I think he’d be genuinely happy if he could see what I was up to now.”

The final result of Mandi’s lampwork is amazing because every single bead is unique and unrepeatable!

“There’s so much truth to the words of artist Rebekah Joy Plett who says … ‘When you buy something from an artist, you’re buying more than an object, you’re buying hundreds of hours of errors and experimentation. You’re buying years of frustration and moments of pure joy. You’re not buying just one thing. You’re buying a piece of a heart, a piece of a soul, a piece of someone’s life.’ This really says it all!” says Mandi.

Mandi hosts glass bead making workshops Mondays to Saturdays in different time slots, and they’re R400 for a two-hour introduction and R250 a follow up lesson.

Details: You can follow Mandi on social media @Grace Glass or get hold of her on Whatsapp only on 072 266 9188.