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Byzantium Instructor
Cynthia Dillard and the art of mindful beading
by Karen Edwards
November 2008 Issue

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Cynthia Dillard designing a strand of prayer beads
called "First Roots, Then Leaves."
© Shellee Fisher Davis, Art of Exposure Photography

For Cynthia Dillard, Byzantium’s newest beading instructor, beads are not just a means to an end – a unique necklace, for example, or an armful of beaded bangles. Beads are the end, not only capable of creating something beautiful but also worthy of attention all by themselves.

“I’ve been interested in beads and stones and natural things ever since I was a child,” she says. Since becoming an adult, however, beads have become an integral part of her life in two ways.

First, the Seattle-born and raised Dillard has become a world traveler, and it has simply become second-nature to her to pick up beads when she visits a country. “I’m always interested in the crafts of an area,” she says. Beads, because they’ve existed in some part of the world for thousands of years, capture better than most crafts the history and culture of a place. “I’m fascinated by the materials and the process used to make the beads,” she says, and by the craftspeople who pour into the beads not only their time and labor but their hearts and souls as well. It’s why Dillard says she never takes the beads themselves for granted.

The de-stress factor
Beads have integrated themselves into Dillard’s life a second way as well. As an education instructor at Ohio State University, her job is to show teachers how to teach in multicultural classrooms. Whether she’s offering suggestions to undergraduates on how they can help their students grow into world citizens or discussing equity and diversity issues with doctoral education candidates, Dillard is one busy woman. Even in summer – when most teachers take a break from the classroom – she offers black feminist classes at OSU, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Dillard turns to her beads as a way to relax.

“The first time I started to string beads, I noticed something different about me,” says Dillard. “I could feel myself calm down and become more focused.”

But something else was happening as well. She became more meditative, more introspective: “Beading is how I work on my personal issues.”

This type of prayerful, meditative work will be the backbone of her first class for Byzantium. She’ll teach participants how to bead a prayer shawl, but in a mindful way so that the beads, charms and other embellishments selected become as important as the prayer-shawl itself.

Dillard offers an example based on her own work: a piece she’s entitled “God is here.” Her intention in beginning the work was to explore God’s ever present energy “that never goes away.”

To begin, Dillard spread her collection of beads, crystals, gemstones and other embellishments on a table. After studying them, she found herself selecting only those that were white and beige, the colors of an ancient Earth. “I used lots of bone and clay beads,” she says – also Buddha beads, and beads that carried a representation of the number three, the Christians’ holy trinity. Beads chosen for a piece or project should have significance or meaning for you, she says. “You want to think more deeply about the project you’re creating.” Name your project and use color, symbols, beads and stones that will allow you to explore your project’s theme. What do you want it to say? What will the finished project say to you?

The beads that probably mean the most to Dillard are those she’s gathered on her visits to the West African nation of Ghana.

Life-changing tour
As an African-American, Dillard has always held a wish to go to the place where her ancestors began their lives – before slave ships took them to America. Ghana was one of the slave trade’s most important ports, so she was drawn there by its history, initially.

“I went to Ghana with an educators’ group 13 years ago,” says Dillard.

The group toured Ghana schools of all kinds – in the city and out in the country – and Dillard enjoyed the trip immensely. But it was a single village, Mpeasem that would stand out for her. Mpeasem translates as “I don’t want any trouble,” a beguiling name, but it was the children there who most attracted Dillard’s attention. “The village had lots of children but no school,” she says. “I believe education is a human right for all children, not just for some children.”

So Dillard set about raising the money to build a school. She dug deeply into her own pocket, and gratefully accepted donations from family and friends as well. Soon, the money was there to build a single classroom – a preschool that would hold between 30 and 35 of the village’s children.

Now, three years late, 150 children attend classes there, and four teachers have been employed to give them lessons. “The kids kept growing,” says Dillard with a laugh. “So we kept accommodating them.”

Children in preschool up to grade three are now receiving education thanks to Dillard’s efforts. This year, she’s applied for an American Express grant so the school can continue to grow as the children grow.

Dillard wasn’t expecting any formal thank you. “I just wanted to be useful,” she says. Nevertheless, the village elders decided to enstool her as a Queen Mother.

Prayer beads created by Cynthia Dillard, “Sankofa, Our Redemption Song,” a prayer to the African ancestors who endured the cruel experience of capture and enslavement during the transAtlantic slave trade. Sankofa, translated from the Twi language (Ghana) means to “go back and fetch it,” a reminder of the need to remember African heritage, traditions and peoples.
© Shellee Fisher Davis, Art of Exposure Photography

Ancient cermony
“It’s a very solemn ceremony,” says Dillard.

First a name has to be chosen. It’s selected as carefully as Dillard selects her beads for a project. Usually, the name chosen is the name of a deceased member of the village whose good works the village elders would like to see re-incarnated by another. For Dillard, the name Nana Mansa II was chosen.

Dillard was then washed and redressed in Ghana clothing. There was a parade through the village, then Dillard was seated on a beautifully carved wooden stool – not once but three times. Finally, she was dusted with powder to represent the blessings of the ancestors.

Dillard has her own carved wooden stool to sit on when she returns to Ghana. It resides in the office of Mpeasem’s chieftain. She was given a second stool to place in her own home, as well as a new native dress and pair of slippers to wear.

Because the village was opening the school that day, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was added to the enstooling festivities. The blending of these two customs, American and African, ancient and modern, is not dissimilar from Dillard’s own beaded works. The same delicate balance, the rich tradition, is there in each of Dillard’s handcrafted pieces.

Now, though, when Dillard reaches for her collection of Ghana beads, she feels the personal connection she’s created there – with the people and especially the children of Mpeasem.

You don’t need to build a school to develop a personal connection to the beads you select for your own work, says Dillard. Learn their history, how they’re made, and who makes them. Appreciate the beads as artworks themselves. Choose them mindfully; use them intentionally – in a work that peels away the layers and uncovers your own heart and soul. Write stories about the work when you’ve completed it. Dillard always does. It’s like keeping a diary, she says.

“Everybody is an artist,” Dillard points out. “Your beading should be an everyday practice, one you use to bring out your innate creativity, and which, over time, will slowly reveal the story of you.”

To learn more about Cynthia Dillard’s class “Sacred Circles – Prayer Shawls/Beads” scheduled on Sunday, November 16 from 12:15 to 4:15 p.m. at Byzantium, contact the store at 614-291-3130. Information about Dillard’s Full Circle Retreats – educational, spiritual and cultural vacations to Ghana, including Spirits of the Cloth: A Design and Textile Retreat in January 2009, for textile artists, quilters or anyone interested in the rich textile and symbolic traditions of Ghana – can be found on her Web site at

© 2008 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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