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Ornament Artisans

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Melinda Byrd turns okra into Santa ornaments.

For Bonnie Hood, a holiday dinner can be much more than just a meal.

“My friends had me over for Thanksgiving,” she said. “They served oysters, and I was like, ‘Ooh, great! Can I take the shells home?’”

The long-time Carroll County resident and education coordinator for the Carroll County Farm Museum is a dedicated craftsperson: one whose whimsical holiday ornaments are well known around the area.

Hood’s oyster shell St. Nicholas ornament, along with her crab shell Santa Claus, both of which put a uniquely Maryland spin on the season, are popular mainstays at the annual holiday Farmer’s Market at the Carroll County Ag Center.

But it is Hood’s red cardinal design that has become her trademark: a design conceived by accident during an art class she taught.

“I just happened to be using red paint, showing how to make simple brush strokes, and a student said, ‘Hey, that looks like a bird!’” Hood began painting her fortuitous creation on everything from Christmas ornaments to salt and pepper shakers, and customers were soon collecting the pieces.

The red cardinal ornaments also seem to be a popular gift item. “It is very humbling to know that someone has chosen my design as a gift,” she said.

In many of her creations, Hood likes to stick to classic winter themes rather than specific Christmas motifs.

“I usually paint seasons instead of actual holidays” she said. “Holly, pinecones, snowmen; that way they can stay up all winter. And I seem to keep going back to the bird theme. It’s classic. It’s timeless.”

Hood shops high-end department stores to find out what the latest trends are and to see what people are buying. She then incorporates the trends into her creations, but, she said, “I don’t sell anything for more than what I would pay to buy it myself.”

Although the holiday season can seem like bedlam for the holiday crafter, Hood enjoys the hubbub.

Her biggest challenge when crafting? Her Jack Russell terrier, who sometimes mistakes Hood’s in-progress creations for dog toys. The result:

“He had glitter on his nose the other day,” she said.

Melinda Byrd, who owns Byrdcall Studio, is another local crafter who creates unique holiday ornaments.

Byrd’s strikingly unusual okra Santas were inspired by her years of working at Piney Run Nature Center, where staff and volunteers often make ornaments from natural materials such as seeds, pods and dry grasses.

The Santas were born when Byrd’s home grown okra would occasionally harden before she could use it, and she soon noticed that “most of the okras had graceful curves which looked like flowing beards.”

After some trial and error, she perfected her current technique of drying the okra for several months, sculpting faces with modeling clay, putting on beads for eyes, and applying little hand-stitched, red fabric hats.

Byrd said the okra ornaments are very durable: “Even my first ones that I gave as Christmas gifts in the 1980s are still holding up great today.”

Sykesville resident Patti Whitten specializes in hand-painted glass ornaments. She said she learned her techniques from her sister, who learned them in a painting class.

Whitten’s ornaments each take several hours to create.

“The process is spread out over several days,” she said, “while letting layers of paint dry.”

For added embellishment she sometimes fills the clear glass balls with tinsel or iridescent fake snow.

Whitten, like Byrd, often finds herself giving the ornaments as holiday gifts.

“I really enjoy giving a gift of something I hand-painted,” she said.

Roger Lewis owns Carousel Stained Glass in Westminster, a shop where browsers can enjoy bright, colorful displays of his designs, including holiday ornaments.

“It takes two or three hours to make one,” he said. “It’s the best therapy,” said Lewis, who has been working in stained glass for 43 years. “It helps you unwind.”

Crafters often seem to focus on particular themes for their designs. Melissa and Shelly Seitz, of Clementine’s Country Boutique in Westminster, specialize in a variety of felt and fabric snowmen, and Carolyn Seabolt, of Cat Tracks Studio, often works cats and snowmen into her ornaments.

Although homemade Christmas ornaments are something many of us take for granted, hand-crafting ornaments, a time-consuming and labor-intensive activity, is not as common as it once was.

“Actually, it’s a dying art,” said Rick Lawson, of Ben Gue Gifts & Collectibles in Mount Airy. Lawson said that artisans face a lot of competition from mass manufacturers who can sell their goods for less money.

“A person has to really love doing it,” he said. “That’s the main thing. “It’s really a labor of love.”

Hood, for one, is doing her part to keep the tradition of homemade ornament-making alive. She teaches some of her processes in the Traditional Arts Classes at the Carroll County Farm Museum, and also puts together ornament kits that are sold at the Farm Museum gift shop so folks can do it themselves at home.

Lewis teaches stained glass classes, often to seniors.

“I want them to take home something they’re really proud of,” he said. Some of Lewis’s students have gone on to become crafters in their own right.

“The real fun comes from watching people come up with their own creations,” said Melinda Byrd, who has taught natural ornament-making at nature centers in Carroll County. The best original ornaments, she added, are created when people are relaxed and uninhibited.

“It has to be an experience that comes from the individual,” she said, “if they are going to make something they are proud to show or give.”

Bonnie Hood’s Crafting Tips

  • Buy primary color and black and white paints. Mix colors yourself to save money and get a variety of shades.
  • When mixing colors, start with the lightest color combinations first, then add the darker shades a touch at a time and mix. Always mix light to dark
  • If you are a decorative painter, shop the dollar stores, Big Lots, Walmart, etc. for items to paint on. 
  • For antiquing, in most cases you can buy acrylic paint such as "burnt sienna" and water it down - you do not have to buy the expensive labeled products.
  • When working with the air dried clay, as in the oyster shell Santa ornaments, make sure you quickly re-seal the leftover clay container or you will end up with a pet rock.
  • Every good artist knows that you cannot be afraid to get your hands dirty.
  • When creating and developing new designs, do not over think them. Less is more. 
  • Be creative! Experiment!
  • And do not be afraid to make mistakes.


Where to Find Handmade Holiday Ornaments

Christmas Market Held at the Carroll County Ag Center at 700 Ag Center Drive in Westminster. Open through Dec. 18. Hours: Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Off Track Art, 11 Liberty St. in Westminster. www.offtrackart.org

Carousel Stained Glass, 11 Liberty St. in Westminster. Phone 410-596-6110

Clementine’s Country Boutique, 18 John St. in Westminster. Phone 410-751-6255

Carroll County Farm Museum Gift Shop , 500 S. Center Street in Westminster       

Etsy.com To find items made by local artists, visit Etsy.com, click on “buy” choose “shop local” and enter your location.

Byrdcall Studio www.byrdcallstudio.com


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