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Beads of Hope – A Good Life is Worth Making

If you’ve ever visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., you quickly recognize that the way you navigate the museum itself mirrors the experience and history of being Black in America. I went for the first and only time in March 2020, and without my knowing, it would be the last thing I’d do before lockdown. 


You first enter the exhibit by boarding an elevator, cramped too close for comfort, then descend slowly away from the natural light of the lobby. Down, down, down it creeps – in time and darkness – toward the story of the slave trade that ultimately brought my ancestors here. 


There are many beautiful things about Black history, but there are also the scars that left generational wounds. Like never quite knowing where in Africa your family came from. Or never being able to find records that your great, great grandparents even existed. Or watching French Creole die with your grandmother. As a Black American, there are the things you feel but you never learn, exactly. 


The start of the exhibit is tight, modeling the claustrophobia in the belly of a slave ship. Everything in you screams to escape, but I circled back endlessly through crowds of people, desperate to find meaning and understanding.  


Suddenly, I was stopped cold by a display filled with beads. I was struck by beauty and confusion. What did these pieces have to do with my history? As I looked closer I saw a description: Trade beads. They were used to barter many things, but within the slave trade, African people were exchanged for them, sometimes by their own tribe members.


I was visibly shaken. 


I had traveled to Washington D.C. that weekend for a girl’s trip but back in Texas, my workbench was littered with prototypes of ceramic beads. At the time, I had been working in clay for several years but was just finding my voice through colored clay and wearable art. I had no idea why, but something in me was pulling me toward creating these intricate pieces. I was flirting with the idea of launching my first collection, and my girlfriends were wearing my pieces around the museum, ready for a photo shoot on the National Mall after our visit. 


I walked around the rest of the exhibit dazed in thought. These beads were made of a bright, cobalt glass but imbued with something darker. Betrayal. Greed. 


There are checkpoints within the museum where you can share your observations for the national archive. Normally, I’m not one of those people to memorialize my thoughts, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. How was my new art form the currency of my ancestors’ oppression?


I remained haunted as I wound the dozens of ramps that ascend through the rest of the museum. Past the Buffalo Soldiers, a replica of Emmet Till’s funeral, the Freedom Riders, and Obama’s inauguration. Rising. Up. Up. Up. Back into the light. 

People throughout the lobby, ironically named the Corona Pavilion, were talking about more people contracting what would soon be called COVID-19 in New York City. That was still hundreds of miles away, and then I was willing to bet money that it’d never spread further. Much closer, my heart and head were still downstairs with the trade beads. 


As we all know, the next few months, even years, would be a swirl of difficult things, namely a seemingly endless pandemic that took the lives of millions and isolated us in our homes. Then, with the killings of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbury, Brionna Taylor, and so many more Black Americans in quick succession, the world was also thrown into a racial reckoning. At a time when thousands of people were standing up for what they believed in, I was trapped in the bowels of standing for nothing.  


I was working my first corporate job. Crisis communications for a technology company. It was all-consuming, and without knowing it, somewhere between joining just after college and that moment, I had lost myself. Working constantly, people pleasing. A chameleon, conditioned to assimilate to survive. 


When I was growing up, I dreamed of a very different life than what I was living. I always imagined I’d be an artist in some way. Maybe a fashion designer? An architect, or an interior designer. Finally, a child of the digital age, I thought graphic design would be my thing. I was even accepted into a fine arts program to study just that. But I could tell that my parents were apprehensive about what it meant to make a career from art. They encouraged me to explore majors that were creative, but more stable than just art. So, advertising is how I compromised, for stability. But in stability, there was no peace.  


In my corporate job, despite doing good work and my best to fit in, I experienced constant microaggressions that made me at best embarrassed, and at worst ashamed, to be Black. Years of comments about my hair. My weight. My skin. Being a young Black woman in corporate America is to be constantly seen and disappear at the same time. Needed for labor, yet wanted nowhere. During the pandemic, I was spending countless hours working in my home studio, grappling still with how little we’d progressed from the hulls of those slave ships. Isolation was in some ways a gift because it gave me the permission to admit my truth: 


I was drowning in other people’s ideas of who I should be. 

I was distraught by what was happening in the world, in a sea of people who didn’t care about what other people around them were experiencing. 


I had compromised on my passion for money, which left me financially blessed and spiritually poor. 


Other people told me that they enjoyed life. It had to be more than this. 


Then there was clay. 


I signed up for my first pottery class on a whim after being extremely stressed after work. I was so awkward in my own skin from pretending to be someone else all the time that giving myself something I wanted nearly caused me a panic attack. Clay was – and is – the one time my busy mind quiets. Clay was – and is – the one thing that makes sense without any thought at all. Particles literally align, and suddenly all is right with the world. 

In the quiet of pandemic isolation, I’d sometimes put my hands in clay during conference calls and make tiny beads. I wasn’t making them for any particular reason, but they poured out of me like water. I called them Worry Beads. Red, then blue. Some green. Small. Now a little bigger. Imperfect. One by one, they slowly amassed until I had thousands. 


With every bead I made, they chipped away at the persona I’d built. As I created, I meditated on the truth I’d found that day in the museum. I imagined that I was making a bead for every ancestor traded. Rewinding time. Up. Up. Up. Back into the light. 


I imagined a life where I wasn’t so weighed down by my masks, roles, and titles. I imagined a world where I did just this, forever. With every bead, I was getting closer to a future I wanted to be a part of. With every bead, I was making a life I was prouder to live. 


I found my voice by sharing my musings, on my Instagram that was now almost entirely dedicated to clay and social justice, and in real life. I was constantly in conversation about the exhaustion of pretending, and my experience with Blackness. My shame melted to purpose as I found the language to have uncomfortable conversations, and experienced the freedom that came from coming out of hiding. 


Driven by that passion, with no experience whatsoever, I somehow figured out how to set up a business. In September 2020, I started NB Makes and coined the saying – a good life is worth making – because, more than anything, it had become my personal mantra. In the throws of the pandemic, we had seen society collapse and rebuild again, so I no longer felt like I had to believe in the lie of what should be. What should be for others was negotiable. What had revealed itself to me wasn’t: when we’re exploring our passions authentically and being in community with other people who are doing the same, that’s truly what it means to live a good life. 




I had created a collection of jewelry from the Worry Beads that I was truly proud of, and when I launched my first jewelry collection online, I was surprised to see it sell out almost instantly. It was amazing to see my creations on the bodies of friends and strangers, and in a world of what had felt like “no’s” to see several someones say “yes” to my creative vision. 


In the fairy tale version of this story, I’d tell you that I went viral, grew NB Makes exponentially, quit my corporate job in a blaze of glory, opened my own pottery, and never looked back. I’m here to tell you that if that’s not your story, that’s just fine because it’s not mine either.


I did leave that job, don’t worry, but I still work in communications full time while I run my business, and I like that that’s part of my story, too. The world likes to tell us that we have to be just one thing, and I reject that entirely. Every experience we’ve had makes us who we are. I often am grateful for my path because it’s given me the experience of learning how to exist, and finally being seen, in two worlds – art and business – and the benefit of borrowing the learnings from both whenever I need them. 


Today, NB Makes has grown in ways that may not be successful by the microwaved standards of this world, but it’s expanded steadily and is making an impact. I’ve honed my colored clay practice into a process that brings me peace and I feel is uniquely mine. I’ve created thousands of patterned tapestries, which have translated into dozens of jewelry collections and tableware that are as unique as the experiences that have inspired them. 




I’ve met thousands of customers at markets that have given me more perspective on life than they’ve traded my pieces for money. If I’ve seen you at a market, I’ve treasured our conversations and your smiles and the way your eyes light up if you see even a little beauty in something I’ve created. 

I’ve sent thousands of pieces into the world. They’ve adorned the ears of brides and the tables of artists I adore and admire. My pieces have seen joy I never could have imagined experiencing, let alone giving. 


Most recently, I’ve started teaching my ceramic and jewelry practice and am even partnering with a local collective to start a mentorship for ALAANA high school students who may be interested but unsure about whether a life in the arts is for them. We hope to have real conversations with each student to show them that a good life, grounded in their passions, is not only possible but worth making. 


We call the program RISE, and I hope each and every one of our students does just that. Up. Up. Up. Into the light of their futures. 

Studio Potter Content Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in each of our archived and contemporary articles are those of their authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Studio Potter journal's staff and board. Studio Potter operates as a resource for a communal voice and represents the multiplicity of contemporary and historical ceramics.