Athan Chilton puts her protective visor on over her curly brown hair and coats a welding rod in bead separator, preventing the hot glass from sticking to the metal. The flame of her torch heats the tip of a rod of glass until it begins to melt. As the molten glass drips onto the welding rod, she turns it to ensure smoothness, sometimes using tools to create grooves or contusions.
“When I start, I never know what I’m going to do,” Chilton says. “As an artist, you make something out of nothing: I look at a lot of people’s work and see pictures of things I like, but my work pretty much comes right out of my imagination.”
The Urbana artist describes her work as “eccentric, personal and colorful — a little off-center, perhaps.” A former singer-songwriter turned jewelry and glass artist, Chilton possesses a history as colorful as the glass beads she makes and has become, in her words, “the ‘beadmaker’ in Urbana.”
A Bay Area native, Chilton lived in CU for about eight years while growing up, as her father was a professor at the University in the ’60s. Always artistically inclined, she can’t remember a time in her childhood when she wasn’t drawing. Chilton later tried art programs at SIU and the University of New Mexico but disliked the line they drew between craft and fine art.
“They weren’t teaching anything I didn’t already know, so I don’t regret (leaving),” she says. “In that time period, there were other things going on, so many didn’t go the school route.”
After a stint as a musician on the West Coast where she played guitar, sang and wrote music, Chilton returned to Urbana in ’81 to be part of a project at a local recording studio that ultimately fell through. She took up a job as a secretary at the University and returned to her artistic passions. At first, she remembers, she “messed around” with fiber arts and knitting before getting into stained glass.
“I started doing stained glass windows locally, some of which I think are still around,” she says. She recalls doing some “really crazy stuff,” including a stained glass portrait of a woman’s malamutes, one of which had died. “It was essentially a memorial dog window. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find pink glass the right shade for a dog’s tongue?”
Between ’02 and ’04, Chilton made the switch from cold glass, which is used for stained glass, to hot glass after spending an afternoon watching a woman in Indianapolis use the latter.
“I learn by looking — I went home, got a torch and was scared to death of it,” she recalls. “But then I got addicted and eventually got good enough for people to want to buy (my pieces).”
Prior to this, Chilton had made jewelry using gemstones and metal. However, she says the popularity of her glass beads led her to shift focus and devote more time to her newfound craft. She also gives lessons to interested locals, most of whom find her through Glass FX in Champaign.
Chilton’s favorite material is a silver-added glass used in conjunction with a reducing flame to give basic beads a metallic finish. She likens the effect to a Polaroid picture: You can’t tell what colors you’ll get by looking at the original rod.
Her pieces can be found at several local markets, including Lincoln Square indoor market. Chilton says that people seem to have a way of finding her, so she doesn’t think an online store is necessary. Her most expensive beads go for $12, but she notes that she hasn’t seen much of a drop-off with recent economic trends.
“I’m still not sure what it is that makes people buy (the beads), but it’s been a great development,” she says. “People purchasing them allows me to fulfill my dream of doing some sort of art I don’t get sick of and that can bring in money. And for that, I am very grateful and glad.”
Customers use her beads for more than jewelry — some have told her they’ve used her pieces to adorn lamps, fans, draperies and even zipper pulls. She’s heard of her beads going all over the world to places she’ll never go, such as Istanbul and Qatar. They have become popular because they possess continuity and beauty, she says, but are also portable, small and unique. “My pieces have to be functional and beautiful,” she says. “There’s enough ugliness in the world, so it’s pretty important to put beautiful things in there, too.”

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