Born in Honolulu, Cora Yee is an award-winning multi-media artist, who spent eight years in Europe specializing in harpsichord decoration and restoration. Today, she is known for her playful paintings, prints, jewelry, handbags, and ceramics, which have been featured around the Pacific. However, as Cora explains, she favors jewelry making.
Since she was a teenager, Cora has been picking up and collecting semi-precious stones, pearls, unusual beads, pendants, and ornaments as souvenirs during her travels abroad. She began pursuing her passion for beading more seriously in 1996, when issues with carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to take a break from other arts. She was inspired by the unique and complex combinations of beaded jewelry she had seen and collected over the years, especially from places "where adornment is crucial to the cultural habitat and devotional practices of its people.” For example, in Tibet, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Mali, and Niger, Cora had observed the passion people have for adornment, “where it is a part of their very being.”
By studying her collection of beads and ornaments, Cora taught herself how such adornments were made, combined, strung together, and used in everyday and devotional life. “Initially, my jewelry had a clear Himalayan influence. I was really loving the coral and turquoise combinations from Nepal and Tibet.” The more she traveled, however, the more complex her jewelry became as she began blending cultural influences and interweaving collected ornaments with her own bead designs, commissioned from and crafted by local artisans, specialty stores, and large workshops in Katmandu and Bangkok.
The making of each piece of jewelry “depends on what’s going on in my life at the moment or what’s going on in the world,” Cora explains. “Jewelry is something I enjoy doing—its fun for me—but it is also therapeutic.” In essence, jewelry making reflects her personal journey into the mundane and devotional nature of things as reflected through adornment. “Some beads are divine elements, some are just beads, but some are very divine, depending on where they are from or how they are used. For example, hand-carved wooden beads of a sitting Buddha from Burma, Thailand, or Nepal are very serious religious adornments, worn by people of all ages and taken to temples.”
Many of the adornment practices Cora has observed throughout her life are now disappearing, replaced by symbols of a technologically modern life rather than cultural traditions. Cora’s jewelry creations therefore represent a collage of cultural meanings, of change, of memories in foreign lands, and of a passion for the great diversity of materials, colors, and textures found in global body arts from both the past and the present.