Robert Simmons uses an oxygen-propane torch to make a glass bead for the Beads of Courage program, aimed at giving seriously ill children a chance to tell their stories of survival.
Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
|Children in the Beads of Courage program receive beads for each milestone they face in treatment.|
|Simmons has created several sculptures of fungi based on images from GSU's electron microscopes.|
ATLANTA - On a November day in a Marietta glass making studio, Georgia State University's Robert Simmons dons a leather welder's apron and safety gear and carefully holds metal and glass rods in his hands.
With temperatures running around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit in the flames of an oxygen-propane torch, he drizzled the orange-hot glass around the metal rod. In a few minutes, he formed a cubic glass bead with brownish swirls, which he put in a kiln in a process to solidify the bead.
The bead he made is just one of many that Simmons, director of GSU's Biological Imaging Core Facility, formed with his counterparts to give to seriously ill children at local children's hospitals to help them tell their stories of perseverance and survival in a project called Beads of Courage.
Simmons, also an adjunct associate professor, not only makes beads in the studio for children, but also takes the images he sees under GSU's powerful electron microscopes and turns them into beautiful glass sculptures.
"It's very addictive," said Simmons.
Robert Simmons, a native Atlantan, has always been fascinated with images. He has taken his love of photography with an aptitude in biology to operate the electron microscopes used to magnify bacteria, fungi and viruses at the sub-micron level.
Simmons at first wanted to combine biology and photography through the study of wildlife.
"Then I discovered the electron microscope," said Simmons, whose first experience with Georgia State came in his undergraduate career in the 1970s. "That was the ultimate close-up camera."
He would go on to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland to further enhance his skills in electron microscopy.
These tools are used to understand the basic mechanics of life, to learn more about mechanisms of the complex nervous system, biofilm formation on medical devices as well as to develop new treatments and tests for diseases like cancer, all of which is taking place at GSU's Petit Science Center and universities around the world.
"I love looking at different things, and imaging is a big part of my life," Simmons said. "It allows me to learn about many new things."
Simmons has made glass sculptures of fungi and the natural world which include the shapes of fungi such as dermatophytes and Penicillium. He's also entered them into the Fraebel Studios art glass competition.
His works of art, taking glass to reflect the beauty of nature at the micron level, is very satisfying, but it is his work with the Southern Flames and participation in the Beads of Courage program to give a children a chance to tell their story that is perhaps most profound.
"It gives kids the chance to take ownership of what's happened to them," he said. "It's really a chance to tell the story about what they've been through."
Through long strands, every bead represents one part of the long story of treatment for serious illnesses in at least 60 U.S. children's hospitals and others around the world. Glass artists in the U.S. donated more than 42,000 glass beads to the programs last year alone.
For each event, from a blood draw and overnight stays, to a radiation treatment, a child receives a colored glass bead to put on what may become a very long strand of beads. For certain milestone events, like surgeries or particularly difficult days, Simmons and his fellow bead makers create special, more complex ‘Act of Courage' beads such as different toys, flowers, or other objects.
"The kids really, really get involved with it," he said.
These strands of courage are not just mere necklaces. The average strand is about 500 beads long, he said, and sometimes, they've stretched to as long as 30 feet. Simmons estimates that he's made at least 3,000 to 4,000 beads over the past five years.
The beads affirm life, and the program holds a Celebration of Courage event with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and AFLAC at Egleston and Scottish Rite hospitals every year. Those children who survive their illness receive artist-made "Purple Heart" beads. But if they don't, their lives and struggles are honored and affirmed with one final bead for their parents – an artist-made butterfly.
Simmons plans to keep on making glass beads, and sculptures, for a long time to come. The hobby is one where skills must be refined, as a visitor learned in trying to make his first glass bead. If the glass heats too much it will drip, if it cools too quickly it can pop.
"The medium is just fascinating," he said. "There are so many things you can do with the shape and color of glass, you name it."
Published December 6, 2010