Red Selmer is a lampworker and resident of Taneytown. A lampworker is a craftsperson who manipulates glass in the flame of a specialty torch to make beads and other small glass items.
As a teenager, Selmer did bead weaving, a Native American craft.
“You create a ribbon of beads in a design by weaving the threads together and adding beads as you go,” Selmer said.
Selmer grew up in the back of an art supply store. Her mother was the warehouse manager and kept the job so Selmer could go to meet her after school. Selmer was able to take her pick of the damaged art supplies and made things from them.
“If we needed something we made it,” Selmer said. “We also sewed. I sang in a madrigal choir, so we made my costume.”
At that time, Selmer thought of art as only visual, such as painting. For a long time, she did not think of herself as an artist.
Selmer’s path into making beads was through history, not art. She never took any art class and never aspired to be an artist. Her great love was history and that continues today.
When Selmer was a teenager, she became a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. An anachronism is a thing that is from a place in time that is different from the time in which it exists. The SCA is an international living history group whose members are history buffs. Members get together at events to participate in a variety of medieval activities. At first, Selmer participated in cooking medieval feasts. She also did costuming.
Another aspect of the group’s activities is arts and crafts. Six years ago, Selmer and her husband Jacob attended a large event in Slippery Rock called Pennsic. Her husband persuaded her to take the lampworking class. The class was the second offering because it was so popular. Since the portable torches used were noisy, she could not hear what the instructor said.
“I made several very ugly beads,” Selmer said, “but I was challenged.”
Selmer’s husband was so convinced it was a craft for her that he bought her a starter kit and the necessary tools.
According to Selmer, the lampworker purchases glass rods. The most famous are from Italy. It has been the center of glass making since Roman times.
“I have a bench mounted torch,” Selmer said. “I melt the glass in the torch and wind it around a fine metal rod called a mandrel. The mandrel allows me to hang onto my glass. With heat and gravity, I can sculpt what I want. I put the glass in the kiln to anneal [heat and allow to cool slowly] at a high temperature and release fault lines created by the process. It means that beads can last 3,000 years. The dichotomy is that glass is very durable although we think of it as fragile.”
Selmer worked alone making beads for a few years, experimenting and learning things on her own.
“Lampworking is a fascinating subject,” Selmer said. “Archeologists have found beads from Iceland, China, Central Europe and North Africa. The Vikings were enamored with glass beads and valued them like gems. They collected beads from other parts of the world as they traveled. Glass beads were strung together with gems.”
Selmer has started a Facebook lampworking group called “Historical Bead Makers” that has members from all over the world.
“We hope the [Facebook] translator works because of all the different languages,” Selmer said. Members include archeologists, anthropologists, people who work in museums.
“It was the love of history that led me here,” Selmer said. “I wake up every morning and I want to go to the torch. I think of what beads I want to make. I always have more ideas than what I have time to create. Our ancestors were incredibly talented. Even with better equipment than they had, it is hard for me to craft beads of the quality that were made centuries ago.
“I never used to wear much jewelry. Ten years ago, if you said I would be selling jewelry, I wouldn’t have believed you. I never get tired of the endless variations of color, pattern and light. Light is an inherent part of your art. It is more glorious if you are at the torch. The light glows through the glass cane and looks like you are holding a stick of light. I enjoy it so much because I cannot lose attention for a second or I will lose the bead. It is a meditative state. It is what happiness researchers call ‘flow.’ It is when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing. It centers me.”
Selmer has hosted an event for the Frederick Hot Glass Society. They provided some of the equipment.
“We set up tables and had eight torches set up at once,” she said.
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People from the local community came and learned to make their first bead. Some lampworkers shared ideas and techniques.
She will be selling her work at the Westminster Pride event on July 9 and Frederick Pride Festival on June 25. She and her husband, a local blacksmith, are also on the Carroll County Artists Tour on Dec. 3 and 4.
This summer, Selmer is going to take a class taught by Jeri Warhaftig at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Warhaftig is known for borosilicate glass chain. Borosilicate glass contains boron trioxide, making it stronger.
“My goal is to constantly be improving,” Selmer said. “I am so impressed with experts’ work and I want to improve. Lampworking is not a super accessible craft. Good tools are expensive. I was fortunate that my husband, as a blacksmith, has quality tools already, but it is not something that you can just jump into. Since there is nowhere locally that teaches lampworking, my goal is to create a space on our property where people can come to learn.”
Selmer can be contacted at Instagram Redsbeads. Her Etsy shop is goldenapplebeads and her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column, An Eye for Art, appears regularly in Life & Times.