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Hudson glass artist turns loved one's ashes into timeless mementos

Glass artist Cherri Pearson melts and shapes glass Monday with a propane torch, tools and hand movements at her home studio in Hudson. Pearson creates beads and pendants and adds the ashes of a customer’s lost loved one or pet.
Published Apr. 10, 2013

HUDSON — Most mornings, Cherri Pearson can be found working at the Pasco Art Asylum, a humble gallery on U.S. 19 that she shares with a few fellow artists. But on Mondays, when the shop is closed, she hones her craft in her backyard workshop.

As usual, she's dressed for the fire, donning jeans and a T-shirt, a well-worn pair of flame-retardant arm protectors, safety goggles and a stars-and-stripes kerchief wrapped over her waist-length hair, knotted into a long pony tail.

On her to-do list: a couple of beads and a few pendants that, after working and firing in a table-top glass kiln, will be finished when it's time to turn in for the night.

Gingerly she picks up a sandwich-sized plastic bag, marked "Schatzy." It holds the ashes of a friend's beloved poodle.

"I don't need much," she said as she measures out a smidgen. "I ask for about 1/4 teaspoon and whatever I don't use goes back to them."

But first she makes them a memory, taking the ashes of their loved ones and solidifying them in tiny orbs of glass.

• • •

Clay Verge hangs his memory bead in a kitchen window in his Hudson home where it sparkles just so in the afternoon sun, casting rainbow prisms on the walls and spilling a message of light from his long-time partner, Suzanne Roberts, who died in February 2012.

"She spent all her time in the kitchen cooking, so it's the perfect spot," said Verge. He's an artist himself, working alongside Pearson at the Pasco Art Asylum. He also fashioned an urn out of clay that holds the rest of Roberts' ashes.

"The nice thing about it is that you can do both. It only takes a miniscule amount of ashes to make a bead," he said. "And if I'm going somewhere and want her to come, I can take that bead and hang it in my truck or put it in my pocket and take it with me."

It might seem a ghoulish practice, but people grieve in different ways, Pearson said as she sorted through old Chase & Sanborn coffee cans brimming with thin straws of colored glass.

"Some people get creeped out by it. But ashes are just an organic piece of what's left. The spirit moves up to heaven or where ever you believe," she said, plucking out a rod of pale pink. "Wearing a piece of jewelry or hanging it on your rear view mirror or carrying a bead in your pocket is like going to the grave and talking to someone."

• • •

Her tools are a hodgepodge: repurposed dental instruments and an X-Acto knife, a mortar and pestle to smoothen the ashes and a thimble-sized sieve to sift them through so they will better adhere to the glass. She heats the glass with a stationary propane torch and uses a stash of glassblower's tools she purchased from others who gave up the craft. The beads take form on a thin, steel mandral. She uses an iron marver to shape the molten glass.

"Some (tools) are from Germany, some are from just down the street," she said. "It works for what I'm doing now, but I really could use a dual fueled blow torch. Some day if I get rich and famous I'll buy the tools I can afford. But I'm still learning."

It was Pearson's own personal loss that got her started in the lamp worker trade, a term coined in earlier centuries when crafters used oil lamps to heat the glass.

"My mother passed away and my daughter wanted some of the ashes to put in a piece of jewelry or something," Pearson said. "I looked online and saw what people were charging, but we couldn't afford to do anything with it. I always had an interest in lamp working, so I decided to teach myself how. I got on the Internet. I watched videos and I talked to other glass workers."

It was a natural progression for the self-taught air brush artist. Since graduating from Hudson High in 1975, Pearson has worked as a legal secretary and a doll maker. For the last 15 years, she has crafted a living in the art of air brushing images, often portraits of lost loved ones, on T-shirts, vinyl banners, tire covers and motorcycle gas tanks.

"(The glasswork) was a little frightening at first," she said. "I was fumbling along — not knowing what to expect — and trying not to burn myself. It took me almost two months to learn not to scorch the glass."

The first bead she sold was for a woman from Massachusetts who wanted to encase the ashes and some fur of her liver spotted Springer spaniel, Oliver. Pearson has been busy every since.

"When I'm working I think about trying to do the best I can; the absolute best I can so it's not only a memory but it's something that they want to wear — something that will make them happy," she said.

• • •

Pearson lit the stationary torch and rolled her chair toward her work bench as her miniature Australian shepherd, Dixie, settled in at her feet.

What followed was an intricate process of heating and cooling; rolling and working the molten glass like saltwater taffy.

"Glass working is kind of a dance and sometimes when the glass leads it doesn't go so well," Pearson said with a grin. "It's about keeping everything in rhythm and keeping the glass from flopping; figuring what I have to turn and when to heat and when to cool to get what I want."

Her offerings include traditional solid and doughnut-shaped beads that can be strung on a bracelet, or can encase a piece of fur or snip of hair. She makes swirling teardrop and heart-shaped pendants, animal-shaped beads and arrowheads for those wanting a masculine touch, such as the pair she recently finished that bear the remains of a fallen biker melded in Harley-Davidson black and orange.

Her pieces range from $35 to $75. The higher-end selections feature sterling silver.

"I try to keep it reasonable," Pearson said. "I know people can't afford a lot these days."

And while much of her work memorializes the dead, Pearson is also part of a group of glass workers and woodworkers who celebrate the living by donating their works to "Beads of Courage." That nonprofit organization honors the brave steps of children with serious illnesses by letting them choose and collect their own beads while undergoing treatment at more than 150 children's hospitals throughout the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.

"I got involved with that because I'm an old softie," Pearson said.

And for whatever reason, glass work seems to settle her.

"I tend to be hyper," she said as she rolled a newly formed bead over ashes and prepared for the final coating of clear glass.

"My brain goes faster than what I can do," she said. "This makes me focus on what I'm doing — makes me slow down. Getting burned a bunch of times will do that for you."

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@tampabay.com.

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