Western Horse & Gun - November/December - Desert Sage Bead Art

Distinctive Desert Sage
By Amy C. Witt

Sage, like many of us, finds it’s home out west, swaying in the warm desert wind. The deep browns and reds, the rich lavenders and blues, decorate the desert and tell a story of the wild.  The smells, the life, and the cacti create an atmosphere blossoming with life.  Some folks would never consider the desert as a place to roam; while others, like Kathleen Brannon, knew early on in life that her roots were planted deep within the desert sun.

 Living and exploring the beauty of the Southwestern United States, Kathleen Brannon developed an unwavering respect for this region at a young age.  An acrylic colorist by trade, specializing in ancient motifs, Kathleen’s path began to journey onto a different road as she started studying symbolism, traditions, art and history from around the world.  This knowledge grew into a love and appreciation for Native American traditions – particularly their meaningful and vibrant beadwork.

 Kathleen was destined to find a way to weave her love for symbolism and tradition into her art.  The quest was on to create success amongst the distinctive artists of the west.  With the help of Native friends and elders who shared the inherit processes of their tribes, Kathleen began teaching herself the ancient craft of bead art.  She incorporated her inspiration of the native land with the people and traditions of Arizona and New Mexico. 

 The vibrant colors of the west, the sand, rust, moss and smell of sage continually inspired Kathleen to turn her dreams into a reality, and by the mid-1980s, Brannon had finally found a niche.  Her passion for beadwork led her to begin making bracelets as gifts for friends and family on holidays and birthdays.  She begins each unique bracelet with a thin sheet of aluminum that she sheers, bends and forms by hand.  The aluminum is cut into six-inch strips and then bent over a fence post to create a curve.  After the bracelets are formed, they are covered in washable ultra-suede.  Kathleen’s art begins to come to life as she uses premium Delica beads to weave her creations onto the looms. Never using glue, her beads are then hand-stitched onto the leather. From start to finish, it takes approximately eight hours to complete a single bracelet.

 Kathleen’s work continued to progress and she began showcasing her jewelry at street fairs, art-in-parks, household trunk shows and parties.  From there, she continued to blossom.  With the introduction and mainstream public use of the internet, in 1985, Desert Sage Bead Art was officially born.  Brannon created a website and decided to continue to re-invent herself and her art.  As her workmanship began to excel, so did her business.  Shortly after her website was established Desert Sage Bead Art began to blossom into a well-respected and unique jewelry company.   

 “My success came much later in life.” Kathleen expressed, “As a non-native, I have been fortunate to learn the techniques of beadwork from extraordinary Navajo artists, who have been generous enough to share their artistic knowledge and experience. I am very appreciative.”

 As Desert Sage Bead Art began to grow, Kathleen began establishing booths at rodeos such as Cheyenne, Pendleton, Reno and the National Finals Rodeo, where she would continuously sell-out of her beautifully handcrafted creations.  Her client base began to expand, and she started to develop a diverse population of customers.  Rodeo women and cowgirls; ranch women and ranchers’ wives; along with women who love the western lifestyle, started to purchase and continued to purchase the jewelry.  Desert Sage Bead Art began filling custom orders for requests such as ranch brands beaded on cuffs and belts, to beadwork on headstalls and saddles.  These custom projects started to consume a large part of Brannon’s business.  Her work created a universal appeal that women began to notice and attracted customers from Europe, Australia and South America. 

 “I live in gratitude. I have no desire to ever retire…why would I? I always knew I wanted to be an artist and make a living at art.”

 Today, one of Brannon’s favorite designs is called Perpetual Life, which signifies no beginning and no end.  The symbols she stitches are contemporary designs inspired by ancient patterns.  While using colors and symbolism from Navajo rug patterns, pottery, feathers and storytelling, Brannon creates an interpretation of the symbolism, while telling a story that everyone can appreciate and find connection in.  The handcrafted heirloom-beaded cuffs, belts, headstalls and other accessories that express ancient symbols common to other cultures around the world continue to be the backbone of Desert Sage Bead Art today.  Brannon continually creates a distinct connection between beadwork, history and the art of the west.

 Desert Bead Sage Art has also proudly evolved in collaborations with other artisans of the west.  Adam Tanner from Tanner’s Custom Leather in Weatherford, Texas, is responsible for the skillful leatherwork Brannon uses to compliment cuffs, belts, saddles and headstalls.  Most recently, Brannon and Chet Vogt from Vogt Silversmiths, invented a new collection.  Vogt prepares and engraves silver cuffs, while Brannon works her magic and finishes the high quality silver with a beaded inlay.

 Relocating to Northern Nevada, Kathleen Brannon continues to work and thrive each and every day amongst the beauty of the desert she holds so dear.  The colors of nature inspire her to create a palette of hues.  Pairing beads together, her masterpieces flourish into life inside her private studio where eight bead looms are consistently in production.  This new location sits gently surrounded by the peaceful desert - the kindred place Kathleen will forever draw her inspiration.