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Interview with BeadDreams Winner Cliff Swain-Salomon

Cliff won the People's Choice Award for his piece, "Spirit House." Read on to learn more about his fascinating sources of inspiration!
Swain Salomon Spirit House 2
Headshot Cliff SwainSalomon
Cliff Swain-Salomon

**All photos other than the above hero image belong to Cliff.** 




Do you ever find yourself mesmerized by a piece of art, wondering how on earth its creator found inspiration behind such a beautiful end result?

Behind every stunning submission in our annual BeadDreams competition, there is an artist with a fascinating story to tell. Maybe their inspiration came to them in the form of a dream, and stirred them to beading greatness, or maybe it came from a single thing around them and evolved into a larger whole.
For Cliff Swain-Salomon, our BeadDreams People’s Choice Award Winner, it was the former.
We were fortunate enough to be able to get a firsthand glimpse into the creative process of Cliff’s winning piece, "Spirit House," and the below is his story.

water ripple photo
The water on the finished piece was inspired by the ripples in the small pond at the gardens Cliff observed, as well as his own fish splashing around in their tank.
Monet and Dali

When Cliff visited the Monet Waterlily exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he found himself viewing the oil paintings not through the lenses of a museum-goer, but through the surreal lenses of another artist: Salvador Dali. Whether it was feeling a personal connection to Dali, or having just seen his work on display at the museum, Cliff took the inspiration to heart, posing the question:


“What would it look like if Dali visited Monet’s gardens and painted his own take on them?” 


If you’ve ever fallen down an artistic rabbit hole, you know that once you get inspired to do one thing, it’s never just one thing. Once Cliff had decided that he needed to know the answer to his question, it became a quest for artistic excellence. 

A Koi fish

Cliff started to research Dali and found that he used eyeballs throughout his work. That, combined with the glimmering body of a koi fish swimming beneath the ripples of Monet’s water lilies, led to the idea of designing a one-eyed koi fish. 


Cliff began by freeform peyote stitching the koi fish, all the way down to the precise motion of the fish’s body and the outline of its scales. To form the fins, he used diagonal peyote to give the fish a realistic structure and proper curves. After completion, Cliff set the koi aside and pondered what a larger piece might look like.

koi color palette inspiration
A photo Cliff shot of the koi fish swimming in a pond at the Japanese Tea Garden. The colors in this photo helped him design his color palette!
creatures v1
A few of the one-eyed koi creatures, viewed alongside the actual koi fish.
spirit house stone
One example of a stone spirit house.
A trip to the Japanese Tea Garden

A few months passed and Cliff was eager to continue his project.


During a visit to his favorite koi pond found at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Cliff revised his original question to: 


“What would happen if Dali painted this garden?”


He then spent six hours photographing the Japanese Tea Garden, taking notes on all of the various structural elements and formulating ideas. One such element, spirit houses, particularly caught his eye. Traditionally made of stone, wood or bronze, spirit houses are believed to house the spirits of loved ones that tend to the garden. 


After his journey through the garden and his encounter with the spirit houses, everything fell into place. An hour later, Cliff had conjured up the initial sketch of his jewelry piece, which included his own spirit house where he could keep his loved ones that had passed close to him. The one-eyed koi fish would be enclosed inside of the house. 


When I say everything fell into place, I mean just that: everything fell into place. A few weeks after drawing out his vision of the spirit house structure, a friend of Cliff's posted a photo of the Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong, which looked exactly like Cliff's vision. Talk about kismet!  

Artist turned detective

Cliff's inspiration stemmed not only from the physical manifestation of a koi fish and a garden but also down to the small details within the garden, such as the garden roof tiles (below) found in San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden.

roof tile cab inspiration
Inspiration for all the bezels came from the San Francisco garden's roof tiles.
roof tile detail

An artist’s vision is made up of many different pieces that fit into the bigger picture; some are philosophical, some physical, some historical, and some don’t make any sense at all until everything is analyzed. An artist is like a detective, collecting scraps of visual and anecdotal evidence that will ultimately lead to the final piece of art.


Cliff's journey with the koi fish and his work of art had only just begun at the Japanese Tea Garden. His vision was finalized but assembling the piece itself would require much more time and research. Part two of our two-part series on Cliff focuses on just that. Stay tuned for a microscopic look at the technical execution of Cliff's piece, "Spirit House"!

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