Creativity burns a more variegated flame in Molly Swan-Sheeran than in most of us. The irony is, before becoming a metalsmith, she says, “I was so afraid of fire, I couldn’t take a cake out of the oven.” What got her past that fear? “The desire to work with metal.”
The gorgeous fiber tools — crochet hooks, knitting needles and more — on Molly’s website, Celtic Swan Forge, owe their artistry to Molly’s partnership with her husband, John Sheeran, who passed away in 2015. Raised on Long Island, Molly met John in New York “on a bench outside a semiconductor distribution center,” where both worked. She introduced herself, and the couple started sharing the bench, talking. “It took us years to get together,” Molly relates, but their marriage began a mutual journey of geography and craft.
John was a “recreational hitchhiker” who had already “hitchhiked his initials in cursive” across the country, and in the late ‘70s, he convinced Molly to join him. Over three months they hitched to snowy upstate New York, down to the Florida Keys, out to southern California and up to Eugene, Oregon, “sleeping wherever we could manage,” including under a leaky bridge. Molly says, “It was very challenging, but I grew to love it.”
Following a childhood dream of jewelry-making, Molly also joined John in researching the study of metalsmithing. The northwest had the most programs, so the couple bought a car — “a red ‘61 humpback Volvo” — and drove from New York to their western destiny.
In Eugene they took classes in lost-wax metal casting. John’s father, a dental surgeon, had left Molly his equipment, perfect for making complex metal Celtic knots. Molly became an expert in Celtic knot design; much later she published a book on the topic. Meanwhile John, through more research, came to challenge his teacher’s dictum against heating, pounding, and twisting bronze; he did exactly that. The resulting beautiful crochet hooks became their best-seller. Molly and John spent a couple of years in Eugene, selling at the Saturday market, but also crisscrossing the country to work other fairs.
In the ‘80s, having accidentally lost their spot at the Portland market, the couple went up to Whidbey Island to earn some money. “Blown away” by its geography, they determined to live there. Soon they bought a sailboat, and in 1987, moved aboard, where they stayed for the next 18 years.
Sailboats being mobile, only the first five of those years involved Whidbey. There, Molly — a poet since childhood — exercised her writing muse, publishing a literary magazine with a friend. But other islands called. Returning from a trip to Vancouver Island, the couple stopped in the San Juans and immediately felt a connection. After living briefly on Lopez in 1992, they discovered barely populated Stuart Island, where they set up a workshop and lived for the next five years.
One winter they were marooned for six weeks by bad weather, and began running out of food. They foraged mushrooms for their Christmas dinner: “Angel wings and candy caps — they have a maple sugar taste to them,” Molly says. Barter kept them alive. On Stuart, Molly also began the Sheep to Shawl team: a timed spinning and weaving competition that continues to this day at the county fair.
A bout with illness laid Molly low for a couple of years, so the stability of Lopez was welcome. In 1997 they moved here for good, for years on their boat, then later, on a farm near Watmough, using a converted bus as their workshop. But they continued to travel to Florida in the winter. Their last such adventure involved six months on Little Knock ‘Em Down Key. “That was the wildest place I’ve ever lived,” says Molly. No drinking water, but plenty of “rattlesnakes, scorpions, poisonwood trees and … two kinds of rats,” including “sinister red tree rats … they’d get into your latrine at night.” That was it for Florida.
As artistic business partners, Molly and John had “been together more than most couples,” but with a division of labor: John ran their website, Molly ran orders and shipping. When cancer struck John, this had to change. In his last months, he taught Molly his technique for making crochet hooks and yarn needles.
Today, she has given up craft fairs, but not her craft. A self-described “rock freak,” Molly has indulged her lifelong passion by cutting stones to set in metal. “I’m entrenched,” she says, “I only feel really good when I’m metalsmithing.” Although the work’s physicality is sometimes too much, her other muses keep her busy writing poetry, fiction and painting in oil.
She wishes dearly for an apprentice to teach John’s methods, but none has yet appeared.
Molly says, “I really should put the word out.” Perhaps this article will do the trick, and the artistic flame of the Swan-Sheerans will ignite in someone new.