Embellishing with Beads

American Artisans, People
on August 24, 2011

With a steady hand, Teri Greeves picks up a pair of green sesame seed-size glass beads on a slender, narrow-eyed needle and stitches the beads onto the side of a size 17 tennis shoe in her studio in Santa Fe, N.M.

“This piece is called ‘Hoop Dance,’” says Greeves, 40, describing the image of a spirited American Indian dancer, with swirling hoops around his arms and legs, taking shape on the high-top Converse sneaker.

For the last decade, Greeves, a member of the Kiowa Tribe in Oklahoma, has applied traditional bead-working techniques and images to contemporary fashions and everyday objects, embellishing everything from bracelets and handbags to blankets and umbrellas.

Her colorful and flamboyant beadwork has won numerous art awards and been selected for permanent display at more than a dozen museums, including the British Museum in London, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Greeves is grateful for the recognition, not for herself, but for the spiritual messages her beadwork conveys. “I hope by speaking the history and values of my people through my work, I can help bring balance into the world,” says the married mother of two sons.

Growing up on central Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, Greeves began beading at age 8, learning the craft from artisans who visited her mother’s arts & crafts shop to sell their beaded belt buckles, earrings and pairs of high-top tennis shoes. “Those shoes were fantastic and unforgettable,” she recalls.

While Greeves was enrolled at the University of California-Santa Cruz, her mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill, asked her to bead a pair of high-top sneakers for an acquaintance. “It seemed overwhelming, but I told her I’d try,” she says. “It was the first pair I’d ever beaded.”

After graduating in 1995 with an American studies degree, she moved to Santa Fe, where her mother had relocated. Pondering career options, a pivotal event guided her.

“My grandmother Sarah Ataumbi Big Eagle had died, and I was going through some beads I had inherited and found a medallion she had started with a white background and rainbow colors,” she recalls. “I finished it, feeling her presence with me as I worked.”

Greeves began entering her beadwork in local arts & crafts shows, compiling enough awards and confidence to apply to sell her work at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest American Indian arts & crafts show. After her work was accepted in 1999, she beaded colorful scenes of an Indian parade onto a buckskin umbrella and won Best of Show, confirming her calling.

“That’s what really started my career,” says Greeves, who teaches bead-working workshops across the nation to pass her expertise to future generations.

Greeves’ work “deals with humorous, spiritual, social and political themes, and is so distinctive because she applies traditional beading techniques and storytelling in a contemporary context that encourages dialogue,” says Mark Cervenka, director of the O’Kane Gallery in Houston, Texas, where her “Hoop Dance” sneakers were exhibited earlier this year.

Last year, her beadwork fostered international dialogue when first lady Michelle Obama presented one of Greeves’ embellished clutch purses as a gift to Mexico’s first lady, Margarita Zavala. “To be a part of that symbolism was monumental for me,” she says.

Because Greeves’ beadwork is unique, collectors covet her one-of-a-kind creations, which sell for $220 for a 2-inch-wide cuff bracelet to $40,000 for larger pieces sold at art galleries in Santa Fe, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Late at night, when visions of a new design keep her awake, Greeves slips into her studio and lets her muse guide her. “Dreaming and imagining something into being makes me completely happy and ultimately humbles me because I know that these things come from beyond me,” she says. “I have a long, long list of ideas for my next pieces.”