Most five year olds pass the day learning new words and developing their fine motor skills, but when stained glass artist Debbie Bean hit half a decade she became obsessed with the film “Time Bandits.” She got her parents to take her to see the movie—twice—and while grateful, she’s still not totally sure why they humored her or even precisely what about the story she resonated with.
Her esoteric tendencies, however, didn’t end there. A few years later, when in the third grade, she took to carrying around her father’s copy of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” as if it were her “bible,” and read it on repeat.
“I think being exposed to these detailed and magical worlds propelled me into an inevitable life as an artist,” she said. “They showed me the power of creativity and how it can connect and influence others into following their dreams no matter how crazy they may seem.”
For Debbie, her creative dreaming has taken her from photography to painting to stained glass art. She spends her days designing visually satisfying geometric pieces that include simple triangle window hangings, larger brightly colored panels and timeless tasteful trays.
We wanted to know more about what it’s like to be the grown-up version of an avant garde clever five year old, and so Debbie politely let us poke around inside her inspiring brain.
Let’s start at the beginning—What about making art with stained glass spoke to your creative spirit?
I grew up with stained glass in my house. I designed my first panel when I was 10 for a window that we needed to replace and took my first class my last year in high school. At the time it didn’t occur to me that this could be anything more than a hobby, so it wasn’t until years later when I picked it up again that I knew I wanted to pursue it full time.
How did you learn the trade?
I have taken a few basic classes and have been fortunate enough to work with my glass supplier closely so when I have any questions, I just go to him. When I take an interest in something I immerse myself in the whole process. So when I started doing stained glass again a few years ago, I just threw myself into it completely. From reading books, researching online, watching instructional videos and just practicing every single day.
You work out of a home studio! What's that like?
I love working from my home studio. It means I have a place I can go and just focus on my work, but I’m just a few steps from our house, so I can easily take care of our dog that’s getting older and three hungry cats.
It also means that you can find me working at any time of day including the weekend. I like that I have been able to work as much as I do to build my business since I don’t have to worry about commuting or racing home to let the dog out. I can start early in the morning and push myself to work as long as I can before stopping for the day.
What inspires your designs and draws you to geometric shapes?
I have always loved geometric forms. It’s what I’ve always been drawn to from an early age. When I was younger I drew a lot and experimented with early computer design programs. I saw a poster at a restaurant and ran up to it, only to discover it was from the Bauhaus movement. It looked almost identical to the kind of work I was doing. I think that connection is what continues to inspire me today.
Are there any particular emotions or feelings you hope your pieces evoke?
Our brains naturally want to find patterns in our everyday lives, so it’s not surprising to me that a lot of my work is about creating these repeating geometric shapes. I think there’s an intrinsic sense of comfort that people feel when they look at my work. When people share with me where they hang my work in their homes always touches me. It means a lot to me to know that people are enjoying what I do enough to let me know. I always appreciate it!
I’m a little obsessed with your color choices—they just speak volumes to me and leave me feeling, for lack of a better way of describing it, happy. What’s that part of your creative process like?
My answer is twofold. I have taken several color theory classes over the years, so I have an understanding of how colors interact with each other and how they affect people. There’s tons of research about everything from color therapy to the study of light waves down to the basic principles of color theory. I find all of that fascinating and it definitely informs my color choices when creating new pieces.
But if you were to watch me in my studio, you would see I use a more organic process when working with colors. I go with what “feels” right for the piece and when I step away from it I know if it’s right based on how it resonates with me. So it’s really a balance of taking years of study, my own personal preferences and what my gut says.
You studied painting under a Tibetan monk, can you tell us a little about what that was like?
I have constantly been so fortunate in meeting my teachers throughout the years. It’s always felt like a matter of being at the right place at the right time and when I moved back from NY, I wanted to have a formal teacher/student relationship with a Tibetan Lama to deepen my understand of the Buddhist traditions and found a teacher that lived on the same street as me.
It was his mission to bring the Vajrayana teachings to the West and to build a retreat center up in the Tehachapi Mountains. Every year, Lamas come from all over the world to this center and one of them is a master painter (amongst other things). I spent a few years where I would go to Tehachapi when he would visit. It started out with him giving me the most basic of jobs in between which I would go and make the afternoon tea and help with cooking the meals for the day. As time went on he entrusted me to do more detailed work, until one winter it was just the two of us painting alongside each other.
I would wake up early in the morning, make breakfast and get the fires going in the large hall we worked in. I still did the cooking and serving the afternoon tea as well as painting all day. The days were long and we would be so focused on our work that we wouldn’t notice the fires had gone out, providing us the only source of warmth. It would suddenly occur to me that my hands were so cold it was hard to hold a paintbrush and I would get up, grab more wood, make more tea and then go back to painting until it was time to make dinner.
In all the years I have known him and the other Lamas, I have seen the same thing in all of them. How to work hard but still be joyful, how to be disciplined but still take time to enjoy where you are and who you are with, and most importantly that the work you do is not about you but about the connection you have with others. It was an extreme honor to work alongside someone so talented and especially someone that is so skilled at what he does and without any ego or pretense. Even though my schedule looks very different today, I still always look forward to his visits.
How do you think your previous experience as a professional photographer influences your creative process?
There is so much about my experience as a photographer that parallels my work today. I worked with film for years, so a lot of my time was spent in the darkroom. I think it was really my favorite part about photography, so working in the studio now is a very familiar place for me to be. Photography and stained glass have similar principles, in both mediums you’re working with how light interacts with shapes.
I also photograph all my pieces whether it’s for my Instagram or website. It also forces me to constantly look at what I am doing from different perspectives, which is always helpful in pushing me towards that next level with my work.
Is there one lesson you learned along the way you wish you could’ve told your younger self?
Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Not about your art, your career, how you spend your time, any of it. Focus on what makes you happy and as long as you are kind to others, it doesn’t matter what you do. There’s a difference between being selfish and keeping the focus on yourself. Once I really understood how to distinguish the two, I became happier and my life became much fuller in the process.
What are a few everyday items that are an essential part of the Debbie Bean day?
My morning cup of tea. I have gotten into the ritual of tea making lately. I make my milk tea on the stove with fresh turmeric, ginger and cardamom and a bit of coconut oil in it. I really enjoy the process of making it and starting my day taking a little extra time just for myself before I get caught up in all the hecticness. Once I’m in the studio, it’s probably what you would expect—my glass cutter, podcasts and some sage to keep the good vibes going all day.