Hi there! My name is Shanna Steele and my business is called Meadowbrook Menagerie. I live in an eclectic area of east Fort Worth called Meadowbrook and a menagerie is a “strange or diverse collection of items," which I feel adequately describes my products. I primarily make jewelry – most of it handwoven using glass beads, gemstones and crystals – but I also love creating items out of wood and paper, as well as turning old things into something new.
I have had my work published in beading magazines close to two dozen times and am a 2018 Designer of the Year for Beadwork Magazine. I do contract work for the magazine and an online bead and jewelry supply retailer, but my true love is going to area shows and meeting people who love to buy and sell handcrafted items. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram to see where I’ll be popping up next!
Q: How did you get started in beading? Do you remember your first experience making a piece of jewelry?
I actually learned the basics of beading at my first job when I was 16. I worked for a jewelry store in Dallas called Castle Gap, which sold Native American handmade jewelry. There was a jeweler on hand to set stones and solder, but there were still simple repairs to be done, such as stringing and attaching charms – so I learned the basics! Years later, I completed my bachelor’s in sociology and history from TCU (go Frogs!) and began my masters in social work. I had been a teacher and social worker, but wasn't happy. In fact, I was stressed and sad a lot of the time.
At the time, I had a piece of costume jewelry that I loved… it featured a Gothic cross on a ribbon. I liked the cross, but wanted to redesign it as a layered piece with the pendant nestled in strands of seed beads. I went to Michael's and remade that necklace and others. Before I knew it, people were asking if they could host home parties featuring my wares.
About two years after I remade that cross necklace (and 12 years after I first learned to bead), I was selling some of my work, working as a designer at a bead and jewelry supply company AND I had my first piece published in Beadwork Magazine!
Q: How do you come up with new pieces? What is your inspiration/design process like?
Honestly, I usually let the beads speak to me. I took a hiatus from beading for a while because I grew tired of the more traditional seed beads, gemstones and crystals. I felt like I had explored everything out there and wanted more, but I wasn't sure what. A few years ago, a new line of Czech glass beads debuted – most of them have two holes, which makes weaving so fun because you can take the same bead and get two completely different designs out of it.
I am never one to sit down with a piece of paper and sketch something out, but I did do that to get the pattern right for my Heavy Metal bracelet that was featured in Beadwork Magazine (December/January 2017). I usually have a general idea of what I am doing going into a project and will just sit and play with my materials until something somewhat resembling my vision comes to life.
I am, like many artists and craftspeople, inspired by nature – especially fall. I love vintage items, but am also a pretty urban person, so my work often has an eclectic vibe of "1920s flapper girl meets boho chic modern woman.”
Q: What is your current workspace like and what do you love most about it?
I live in a house built in the 1920s and have my very own room dedicated to my crafts. Like the other rooms in my house, it is bright and airy with nice views of trees and potted plants. It has original crown molding and hardwood floors and is a beautiful, comfy space in which to work. I set up a multi-sided/multi-functional desk with tons of shelves and drawers in the center of the room. There is a bench behind one side of the desk, against the wall, where I sit most of the time. The bench actually stores a lot of my beads and supplies so my desk doesn't get too crowded. There is a chair on the other side of the desk so I have somewhere to sit when I need to take notes, make lists, write instructions or do illustrations for a magazine project. Up against a set of windows, I have a vintage vanity that I use as my laptop desk. Next to that is the corner where I store all of my items for shows and events. I even have a closet where I keep backstock items, shipping supplies, etc.
Q: Take us through your "typical" day at the office.
I usually have coffee and breakfast at my computer desk while I check emails, ship packages, do orders – you know, all of the logistical stuff that goes into having a business. Once I get that out of the way, I sit at my craft table and do whatever the task du jour is. During the spring and fall, my tasks are usually related to replenishing inventory that sold at an event over the weekend. In the winter and summer, when I have more time, I come up with new designs or work on tasks I have been neglecting. Right now, I am working on launching a website, so that is consuming a lot of my days (and nights).
Q: How long, on average, does it take to complete one of your larger pieces?
Aside from the statement "you must have a lot of patience" (which my husband and son will probably tell you is false), this is the question I get asked the most. The answer is complicated. Just like my patience, my time is largely consumed by coming up with new ideas. Because I don't copy other people's patterns and every design comes from somewhere in my scrambled brain, the figuring out process can take me anywhere from a day (In Bloom Bracelet) to two or three days (Tucson Vista necklace set). Once I have something designed and have made it a time or two, I can crank it out in no time. The In Bloom bracelet, which took a day to figure out, only takes me about an hour and a half to make now. The Tucson Vista necklace takes about six hours now.
Q: What is the one art tool you can’t live without?
Just one? Haha. I figured out a long time ago that electrician's tools are a beader's best friend. I love my thread zapper. But I literally couldn't do what I do without beading thread (I use WildFire) and beading needles (the size 11 Tulip needles are the bomb diggity).
Q: What are your favorite things about being a jewelry designer?
I have been doing this full-time for the better part of a decade. Remember how I said I once worked for a bead and jewelry supply company? I did instructional design for them, which meant I taught at stores and came up with projects to demonstrate online. That was fun and all – and I was very lucky to have that opportunity – but I love working for myself. I have the right to almost all of my designs at this point. I can work with any materials I choose, even if I choose to make jewelry out of paper. (I did that once. It wasn't good.) I get to be creative when I want to and when the juices aren't flowing freely, I have plenty of other tasks I can work on. I love seeing my work in print, knowing I am teaching and influencing people around the world. Most of all, I absolutely love doing shows in the Fort Worth area and meeting other makers. While an introvert by nature, being in a space with other creative people really ignites my soul and inspires (and humbles) me greatly.
Q: We know jewelry design can be a competitive field. What advice would you give to someone interested in getting started?
I actually had someone tell me they want to learn to make jewelry so they can make a living selling it. I laughed. If you are trying to become a designer to make money, don't. It is not about making a ton of money and unless you plan on selling your jewelry line to a department store, you won't make the big bucks. Being a jewelry designer is about doing what you love.
I would advise taking classes, whether it be online or in person, to learn techniques and skills. Jewelry is an oversaturated field, but it is also a diverse field. I love weaving, but I won't touch wire wrapping or metal work. Work with clay? No, thank you. I have such niche products that I go into shows with other jewelry artists and don't feel competitive because we don’t make the same things. You have to figure out what you love to do and be the best at it. I don't follow what everyone else is doing and make stylish agate pendants or lariat necklaces with tassels – that stuff won't be in style next year and then what would I do? You have to find YOUR voice, YOUR medium and YOUR passion and run with it. Think of everything you make as part of a brand or a logo that is unique to YOU. Because it is.
Q: What can we expect to see from Meadowbrook Menagerie in 2018?
Because I was named a Designer of the Year for 2018 by Beadwork magazine, I will have a featured piece in each issue. The first one is out now (https://www.interweave.com/store/beadwork-february-march-2018-digital-edition) with my project on the cover. I have five more coming and several of them are among my all-time favorite creations.
In addition to work for them and appearing at local shows, I am launching a new website called Steele Magnolia Designs. I have had many requests from people who want to buy my patterns, instructions and finished pieces online. This website will incorporate all of that. I will be selling downloadable PDF versions of my instructions, pre-made kits for projects with my signature color palettes and the sample pieces used in photography. There will even be a section on the site where I will write articles and blogs with advice, instructions, etc. There is always something new going on in this creative brain!