Through arts and crafts, many incarcerated people have found ways to express themselves and have found ways to communicate their creative endeavors with the outside world. Beadwork has existed since early humans hung shells around their necks and beads used in arts and crafts remain popular to this day.
Sheb Isbell, a new arrival at San Quentin, brought with him a new level of innovation by using beads to make necklaces with three-dimensional avian pendants such as hummingbirds, eagles and owls.
Isbell’s art resembles lavalière jewelry. The lavalière — the object, meaning the birds — attached to the string use the same material (the beads), which makes the art unique. One of Isbell’s creations has a distinct southwestern motif while another one employs a patriotic theme.
The artist learned techniques from a friend he calls Barrett. “My friend, a lifer a who went home, taught me many things through beading. I learned about patience; I learned how to learn from mistakes. The process of beading taught me about the process of life,” said Isbell.
According to the artist, he now lives his life based on daily amends. All the items he creates are for the sole purpose of giving to others.
“I called my wife and asked her to guess what I’ve been doing, and I told her that I was beading. She was surprised because it didn’t fit with the person that I was in the past,” said Isbell. “This shows my transformation. The person I was I would never have considered doing this.”
As a man of faith, Isbell believes that his gifts provide him with priceless internal rewards. Although incarcerated persons have offered to pay for his pieces, he respectfully declines. He has come to realize that the internal rewards have much greater value than anything he could ever buy.
“I also learned from Barrett to add value to my community,” said Isbell. “Just like I received this gift, I can now pass it on to my cellmate, who is learning how to bead. He already created multiple hummingbirds.”
A picture that shows his nephew about to graduate from high school inspired Isbell to create a bald eagle that came from a picture of his nephew with an American flag spread wide open draped around his shoulders as if he had wings.
The bald eagle symbolizes the American flag through its colors; red, white and blue. Beading the bald eagle necklace took 30 hours.
Taking us to memory lane, Isbell, has his prototype of a traditional bald eagle, which he originally made as an apprentice, which this is how he was able to created the red, white, and blue one.
Hummingbirds are no exception to Isbell’s of creativity. He has a few necklaces with hummingbirds made with different kinds of beads. For example, a turquoise necklace with white, cinnamon, and gray uses very delica beads.
The delica beads are cylindrical beads, which is why they are smaller in comparison to seed beads that he uses on the pink, white, purple, gold, and burgundy necklace. From the first bead to the last, the hummingbird took Isbell a total of 40 hours to finish.
A brown owl took him the longest to make. The artwork has a unique history: he showed the brown owl to his daughter during a video visit, and then his son-in-law pulled up one of his sleeves and showed Isbell a tattoo of an identical owl on his upper arm.
“This brown owl took me twice as long as normal,” Isbell. “The beak and eyes are separate pieces, which I’ve never done before.” He gave the owl to his son-in-law.
According to the artist, through his art he learned about the gift of giving and the understanding of the power to bring pleasure and joy to others. Isbell considers doing good deeds an overwhelming discovery in his life, one that gives him an opportunity to meet others and to socialize in a healthy way.
One of the many qualities Isbell has learned from Barrett would extend far beyond beading techniques and extend into the ways to act humanely with charity and kindness and a touch of love and compassion. Isbell said, “We are all children of God.”