A survivor in the glass bead game

1) Artist Cathy Tillotson spends most of her time melting glass, and creating beads. Photo by Rebecca Johansen
Brain tumour survivor and artist Cathy Tillotson shows her resilience through the craft of bead making. Rebecca Johansen reports.

Cathy Tillotson grabs a thin piece of blue glass from her desk; it begins to melt as it connects with the heat of the flame, the melting glass dripping slowly onto a sliver mandrel, a tool which material can be shaped against. The process is hypnotising – sometimes she gets so caught up in admiring its beauty she becomes distracted. Dozens of small marks on her arms from shattered glass are proof of this. They tell a story of someone who hasn’t given up, but also of an artist who has fallen in love with a dangerous craft. Cathy is passionate and keeps going when injured, fearing the beads will be ruined.

Cathy’s daughter Lauren says she doesn’t give up, and one of her best qualities is how resilient she is. It’s an important quality she developed 32 years ago, at just 16 years of age, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour in her pituitary gland. After her diagnosis, Cathy, now 48 went home and cried, but she was determined to fight. She told herself to do whatever she could to get through and after graduating high school she stayed in hospital for two months, where her head was shaved, and the tumour removed.

Although she has recovered from her tumour, it still affects her daily. “I do get really tired sometimes, so doing what I do works well,” she says.


A survivor in the glass bead game
Cathy Tillotson showing off some bead earrings she’s created. Photo by Rebecca Johansen

Cathy has not always made a living off her art, 27 years ago she was working as a personal assistant in finance, and there she met her husband Dean. After the birth of her daughters Lauren 18, and Kayla 16, she became a stay at home Mum. Where she started getting more involved in art.

However, creating art has always been a part of her life, as when she was younger her Mother taught her how to knit and sew. She didn’t start creating necklaces, and jewellery until she was a teenager, as she found out she had an allergy to plating. But her love of making glass bead making didn’t start until she attended a course which was advertised 17 years ago.

Cathy still works from home, spending most of her time in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where her orange and red brick house is consumed by greenery. On the outside brown, orange and grey pavers lead to the front door, where 48-year-old artist Cathy Tillotson awaits.

A middle-aged woman with short brown hair, with blonde and orange highlights opens the door. Opening the fly screen with her right hand, a silver bracelet around her right wrist shines from the reflection of the sun. Her hands are gentle, and clear, with no sign of aging.

Which is important as she spends most of her time outside her home melting glass over a flame, creating one of a kind glass beads for her small business, and her daughters, Lauren and Kayla. They are always asking for something she has made, she laughs.

Cathy smiles when she mentions her daughter Kayla, she made a ring out of metal for her, as she was heading overseas. She says she likes to experiment with different crafts and finds taking a piece of metal and coaxing its possibilities really intriguing.

Once she has created beads, she sits at her large office desk which is covered in jewellery and equipment. Every piece of jewellery is handmade, and they range from necklaces, bracelets and earrings. She sells her products at local markets that she attends three to four times a month and via her online shop. Depending on the materials used and the amount of work that has gone into a piece her prices range from $18 to $300.

Cathy’s attention shifts to the ten-year-old, white, black and gold Sheltie, Odie, she named after a Garfield character. He jumps up and down licking her green and blue loafers as she laughs. As she heads towards her dining room, he follows, never leaving her side.

Walking into an artist’s home you expect to be greeted with a crowded room, tools and rubbish everywhere; this is the opposite. Her living room is open plan, the furniture spaced evenly, making the four-bedroom home feel bigger. It is clean, but it feels like a home.

The six-seater wooden dining table in the middle of Cathy’s house is home to charge cords, pens and the medication Cathy even now needs to take because of the removal of her tumour. She apologises about the mess and laughs, pushing her Burberry tortoise shell glasses closer to her face. “Tidying is not really a priority, things get messy and it’s okay, if I keep the front section of my house tidy it’s okay. No one is going to die from the plague.”

Cathy sits on a grey cushioned chair, and picks up a gold and black coaster, running her fingers along the surface. She talks about her love of art and how every piece has its own unique story. The gold and black coaster is a painting from her favourite artist Gustav Klimt.

Her smile takes over her face, her laugh lines protruding, you can see how happy and passionate she is about art.

Cathy gets up from the table, and heads to the backyard, where she creates the glass beads. As she goes down the stone steps Odie follows behind. She walks towards her backyard, and in contrast to her living area, it’s messy. Her desk is covered in multi-coloured glass, tools and a torch head. She leans down, turns on the gas canister, and quickly sits down, starting the torch. She puts on a pair of special glasses, which allows her to see the flame easily.

Her husband Dean is supportive of her business, as he makes the mandrels Cathy uses to form her beads on. “I love her art. I’m truly proud of what she creates, and the joy that she takes from it. She’s willing to try new things and whatever she tries, she gives it 110 percent,” he says.

Her daughter Lauren agrees: “She does get set back sometimes selling in a public market, and people sharing opinions. But her ability to go, ‘hey look that’s one person’s opinion, I still like it, I’m going to keep going with it’, is a strength.”

Cathy grabs a thin piece of blue glass from her desk, and holds it above the flame and it slowly begins to melt on the mandrel. She gently rotates it so the glass forms a bead. She quickly takes the bead off the flame, explaining her techniques, and the tools she uses. She grabs a pair of black scissors and begins to chop at the melted glass, showing how easy it is to manipulate the shape. She allows it to cool down, before removing it from the mandrel and placing it on her desk. After melting glass for some time, she heads back inside and towards her front door. She grabs Odie’s lead and opens the front door. Her yellow band, flower ring sparkling as she heads outside.

The sun is bright and warm, she stands outside allowing her body to soak up the sun. Cathy pulls Odie away from a large purple tree and walks slowly down her steep grey driveway, the breeze blowing her hair in her face; it’s hard to imagine how far she’s come in the last 32 years.

Her eyes fall on the greenery that surrounds her mailbox. Holding onto Odie’s lead with her left hand she waves with her right. The bracelet she is wearing on her right wrist shines in the reflection of the sun. It’s her MedicAlert bracelet, which is a constant reminder of what she went through and what she has overcome.