The Process of Beadwork – Catherine Blackburn

I pour the beads out of the small plastic bags into separate piles on an old tea towel. Bright bags in every colour litter the dining room table as the odd bead rolls off the edge, bouncing on the floor as it finally comes to a stop somewhere by my feet. This has become all very common the last few months as I work to complete projects, while new ones percolate in my mind. The process can be both therapeutic and overwhelming, yet when I make the last stitch…my oh my…oh so gratifying.

I sit here and try to gather my thoughts, telling myself to relax and just speak truthfully, as I answer some of those questions about why it is I do what I do, and also how to find the perfect words that someone may hold dear in their journey. The over-analyzing sometimes unbearable. My anxiety can often get the best of me.

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I was born in Ile a la Crosse, Saskatchewan, where the closest hospital exists in proximity to Patuanak, Saskatchewan, the place that holds the key to much of my work. I am a member of the English River First Nation. I am mixed blood, having Dene and European roots. I grew up in Choiceland, a predominantly white community in rural Saskatchewan. After attending university, I immediately travelled. I spent an incredible 4 months in Morley Alberta working with Aboriginal youth, alongside my dear friend Kirsten. The beautiful soul that taught me the art of applied bead work. I spent a year in Seoul, South Korea, and later 2 years in Taiwan. These are just some of the experiences that influence my work. These and all the moments in between.

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This new place of comfort includes both memories and moments alike. The smell of smoke from a wood burning stove will always transport me to the few memories I hold of my late grandpa Eugene. The sound of my mom’s laugh as she speaks Dene with her siblings on the phone brings me joy. Honouring my late aunty Tiny through learned jewellery techniques links me in ways I otherwise feel lost. Speaking to my grandma, as our conversation gets skewed and distorted with our language barriers, now makes me smile. Like the other day when we were somehow talking about my struggle with shingles (I don’t have shingles). I’ve grown to not be ashamed of how I don’t speak or understand the Dene language. I’ve welcomed myself, this strong woman with mixed blood and mixed experience. I don’t have the perfect explanations in response to heated conversations on socio-economic problems plaguing our people. I’ve also learned to accept that I don’t need to explain at all….educate yourself.

With this liberation, my work processes have become more freeing. Using traditional materials and techniques I’ve twisted the rules just enough to allow me to play. My bead work is photo-based, incorporating transfers, sometimes as a tool and others as a base for my design. No matter the final outcome my goal remains constant. The direct relationship to my European and Dene heritage challenges me to create innovative work that encourages dialogue between traditional art forms and new interpretations of them. These are the tools I use to create, and with those in mind that I hold near and dear to my heart, I am inspired to create messages of kinship and resiliency.

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And with that last stitch I take a deep breath. Ahhhhh, relief and satisfaction. A big smile and a much needed stretch of the back. I stand back and admire my work from all directions. At different angles the beads sparkle in shades of red, purple, blue and green. This beaded galaxy of colour forms a bruise. It’s colour and shape made apparent against the cream coloured deer hide of which it is applied to, the hide light in colour having never been kissed by smoke. The direction of beads twist and turn in application with every third bead being tacked down, reinforced.

I think about the story my mom once told me; how my grandmother once collected someone’s lost beads from the floorboard cracks of an old log cabin to start her first beading project. Now her table sits scattered with every colour of the rainbow while others sit stored away in cookie and tea tins.

I reflect on the reason for creating this beaded bruise, an expression of pain and continuous healing from the trauma of the residential school system. I think about the different voices created through my work; some speaking to raise awareness, and others reminding us all to tread compassionately. I reflect on the enormous task of our people to hunt, skin, stretch, and smoke hide, in all it’s knowledge and strength. I look down at my bead holder, the old tea towel, and notice that the beads so precisely poured onto it at the beginning of this project now lay scattered and mixed.

I pick up my project and realize its weight.

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Catherine’s work embraces two inspirations in her life-family and culture. Through the subject of family, she is inspired to express her own feelings and experiences which speak to the complexities of memory, history and cultural identity. Her art merges contemporary concepts with elements of traditional Dene culture, simultaneously exploring the significance and history of certain materials and their role in the fur trade. This direct relationship to her European and Dene heritage challenges her to create innovative work that encourages dialogue between traditional art forms and new interpretations of them. Through these overlapping themes of relationships, history, and identity, she hopes to weave a strong message of connection, kinship, and resiliency. Catherine encourages the viewer to reflect on their own experiences and to explore and question how we all define and appreciate the Aboriginal experience in Canada. – website 

Current Gallery Work: Bead Works, Slate Fine Art Gallery, Regina

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2 thoughts on “The Process of Beadwork – Catherine Blackburn

  1. Your work is beautiful, and the narrative behind it is so very powerful. It is not often I hear someone speak so coherently about their work. I think you understand it even better than you think you do! Thank you for sharing this loveliness.

    Liked by 1 person

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