Rydell captured in her studio. Photo: Ted Olinger, KP News

The local artist transforms glass beads into works of art.

“It went systemic. It took my whole mind, body and soul. Nothing could interfere with the concentration of it.” 

That is how Brynn Rydell described her first experience making glass beads more than two decades ago. 

She never looked back and will be one of the local artists featured in virtual studio tours by Two Waters Arts Alliance this month. When pandemic restrictions led to cancellation of its annual Art Walk, TWAA worked with nine local artists to film interviews and tours of their studios. TWAA and the Mustard Seed Project will post the videos, expected to be about ten minutes long, on their Facebook pages and websites in August. 

Raised in Lakewood, Brynn came to Gig Harbor to work at the Tides Tavern in its early days. When she met her husband, Harry, they decided to live on the Key Peninsula 40 years ago. After missing out on their first choice of a place in Longbranch, Harry found a 60-year-old home in Vaughn. 

“It wasn’t livable, so we spent three months fixing it up and we’ve been fixing it up ever since,” Brynn said. “You can tell it was built 100 years ago, and you can tell they were drinking beer and barn raising on a Sunday.”

‘Molten glass?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Sign me up.’

Brynn was no newcomer to the KP. Her grandparents owned waterfront with a cabin near what is now Joemma State Park. “The beach was my Shangri-La,” she said. The accommodations at the property, without water or power, were initially two tugboat pilot houses. 

Harry, a surveyor for Manke Lumber, still commutes to Shelton. Brynn stayed at home to raise their sons. “I knew when the kids started elementary school that I had made the right choice,” she said. “Within three days you knew who had a stay-at-home mom, who came from a broken family, and who had been raised in preschool. Preschool has come a long way since then, though.”

“I have always dabbled in art. I can’t draw myself out of a paper bag, but I have always been busy with my hands,” she said. “I have done weaving, knitting, crocheting, building lamps out of driftwood. All the knobs in my kitchen are from agates and petrified wood we tumbled when we were kids. I can’t be normal.”

Brynn began volunteering in classrooms and also teaching art to fifth-graders alongside tapestry artist Margo Macdonald at Vaughn Elementary School as part of a pilot project for the school district. When Brynn’s eldest son, Garth, was at Key Peninsula Middle School, she applied for a job as a paraeducator there and continued to work in the classroom for 16 years. 

“I was really in my sons’ lives when I started working in the schools,” she said. “They couldn’t get away with anything.” Garth now lives on the Key Peninsula with his wife and two daughters and his brother, Marshall, lives in Gig Harbor. 

Jan Buday, a glass jewelry artist, worked with Brynn at KPMS and suggested they learn about glass beads. Brynn said her first reaction was, “ ‘You mean weave them, string them? Been there done that.’ Then Jan said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Molten glass?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Sign me up.’  

“At first it was like rubbing your head and patting your tummy, learning to turn the mandrill one way and turn the glass on the mandrill another and at the same time watching this 1,900-degree flame that you are working in and trying to keep everything from falling into your lap. It took some concentration. After a few months I could play music and sing.”

“Then one day,” she said, “Margo said she needed three necklaces for a school auction. She gave me three months to figure out how to do it.” 

Macdonald said, “I’m a good nudger. Brynn has a strong sense of design and color.”

Buday recalled those early days. “Brynn and I took workshops together and we decided to go out on our own and create jewelry to sell. I worked with Japanese braiding as a vessel for my glass beads. Brynn went her way with creative and artistic uses of silver and other metals. Her work is superb.”

A cancer diagnosis a year ago slowed Brynn down. “Chemotherapy and radiation put me on a couch.” She is recovering, but her energy is still a problem and she hasn’t been able to make beads. A single bead, she said, can take 45 minutes. And the glass wine stoppers she makes take 90. Working in silver and copper, which are less energy intensive, has helped to channel her drive to create. 

Brynn is the great-granddaughter of Thea and Andrew Foss, who founded Foss Launch and Tug in 1889. Foss Waterway, in Tacoma, was named in honor of Thea, and she is the inspiration for Tugboat Annie. A short film about her, “Finding Thea,” was released in 2006. 

Tugs remain a part of the Brynn’s life. In 2009 she bought Joe, the last wooden hull tug built by Foss Launch and Tug. Launched in 1942, it was named Joe Foss but renamed Little Toot when it was sold in 1972. Eventually, it was purchased by Robin and Kae Paterson of Gig Harbor (Robin was president of the International Retired Tugboat Association) and renamed Joe. 

When the Patersons were ready to sell they knew Brynn was interested. Brynn asked her sons if they wanted the boat — purchasing it would mean selling her life insurance policy. They didn’t hesitate. The tug, moored at the Longbranch Marina, now plies south Puget Sound, occasionally for an overnight, but most often for a dinner cruise. 

Brynn published a portfolio of her work in 2007, “Tugs: My Journey in Glass.” In it she wrote, “I’ve lived over half my life doing the usual things that one does in life and pretty much stayed out of trouble. I married, raised boys, various dogs, cats, birds, turtles, gerbils and injured animals. I’ve had various jobs through my younger years … too numerous to name, besides who cares. Now I play with molten glass and silver. Wonderful books to read, fabulous beaches to walk, good wine to share with friends, group dinners with all of us wonderful cooks. And of course my wonderful boys. They keep me laughing and sprouting more gray hair. Living life and hopeful for the future.”