Design Patterns Unbounded

by Mae Gilliland Wright

From architecture to art, opportunity finds Merrell Hickey.

Her intricate bead embroidery designs are as offbeat as they are resplendent. At times, her work echoes the anachronistic elements of steampunk; other pieces pop with semi-precious stones, vibrant and saturated with color and depth. From the smallest earring to her large beaded tapestries, Merrell Hickey’s style defies categorization. And despite having grown up in an artistic family, she struggled for years to find a way to utilize her natural eye for design.

“My mother was a professional painter—but that wasn't my path,” Hickey explains. “I couldn't love it the way she did.”

Instead, she pursued a degree in interior architecture—and later, an art degree—launching a successful 15-year career as an architect. While her job relied upon her creative designs, Hickey longed for more freedom. “In architecture, there are clients, deadlines and change orders. There are so many parameters,” she says. “You are doing what somebody else wants you to do… I wanted to design for myself.”

When a co-worker gave her a beading magazine, Hickey finally realized how she wanted to spend her time. “I took it home and read it cover-to-cover,” she says with a smile. “I thought it was amazing.”

About six months into her new hobby, she knew that it needed to be her career. She decided to tell her husband, who was working at the same architecture firm. “He was very supportive… He just said he was glad I told him before we filled out our flex forms for the year!” Hickey laughs.

Soon she began working and teaching at Free to Bead, where she was employed for nearly a decade. At first, she says, her designs were relatively simple, stringing beads one after another to make necklaces, earrings and bracelets. “I hung out with people who did the tiny, little stitched bead pieces and I thought they were absolutely nuts,” Hickey recalls. “How could you spend so much time working with itty-bitty, tiny, little beads?”

Eventually, however, she found herself in the company of the same people she so incredulously observed, sewing intricate patterns of beads onto a foundation of heavy, felt-like fabric. Hickey moved into a space at the Studios on Sheridan, where she says she felt inspired and motivated by the other artists around her.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” she notes. “I thought it was just going to be a space for me to do my thing… I had no idea how many people I would meet and relationships that I would build.”

As Hickey’s work became increasingly complex, she began creating non-jewelry items, ranging from beaded tapestries to guitar straps. Her bead designs wrap around carefully selected focal pieces which, she notes, often group together to tell a story. She especially loves giving everyday items a new life: keys that once opened doors, antique coins, old buttons.

“People will tell me they have their grandfather’s old pocket watch and that it doesn’t work,” she says. “I’ll say, cool, because we’re really going to want to take it apart!”

Remarkably, Hickey does not plan the patterns out ahead of time. Instead, they emerge as she sews—each shift in color guided by her artistic intuition. “That’s where it really gets fun,” she explains. “You’ve put these little component pieces together and it’s like a puzzle…

“I can look at a beach towel and suddenly see different colors and patterns… and it transfers into something that I will make into jewelry,” she adds. “It gets to the point where you can’t see anything without thinking, that would make a really cool bracelet!”

Hickey was recently selected as an ArtPop Peoria 2017 artist, and for the next year, a striking image of one of her beaded tapestries will rotate on Adams Outdoor billboards throughout the region. She was also accepted into the Peoria Art Guild’s 55th annual Fine Art Fair, the nationally recognized juried exhibition which takes place in September. When she found out, Hickey admits she was shocked. “I need to quit now—I’m just absolutely content!”

Rest assured, Merrell Hickey has no intentions of quitting. Those who are interested in her work can email her at a&s

Check out Merrell Hickey’s work at the Peoria Art Guild’s 55th annual Fine Art Fair on the Peoria riverfront, September 23-24, 2017. For more information, visit