The Show Goes On: 'Every Stitch Is A Prayer, Every Bead Put Down Is A Prayer'
Many artists have had a difficult time during the pandemic, while they've also brought joy to other people who are struggling. For NHPR's series, The Show Goes On, we're talking with artists across New Hampshire about how they're making it through the pandemic.
NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Rhonda Besaw, a beadworker from Whitefield, about her work and what's she's learned this past year.
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Rhonda Besaw: I'd like to start with introducing who I am, because I cannot separate who I am from my art. I am of Abenaki descent, and I specialize in a style of beadwork called Wabanaki beadwork. And I'm trying to be part of the revival of this style of beadwork. Of course, the beads are very tiny. They come in many different colors, and I make a lot of beaded purses and I do old style clothing too. But I also do modern beadwork. I sell jewelry, necklaces, pendants, medallions, all kinds of things. So I'm taking something from the past and bringing it forward to create that link and a thing of beauty.
Rick Ganley: It's a living, breathing art form. I mean, this is not something that's just of the past, as you say. This is something that is constantly being reinvented and evolving.
Rhonda Besaw: Exactly. Exactly. Because even when I do the old purses, I don't copy someone else's work from long ago. But I look at it, and I see the style and I see the technique. I study the beads because it's incredible how tiny the beads were on those old style purses. The beads are so tiny, and I have a collection of antique beads. You put them in your hand and if you just breathe on them, they're like dust. They're so, so tiny. So the amount of time that went into creating a small purse is immense.
Rick Ganley: Can you talk about the meaning behind that work, though, the act of doing that work? Obviously, this is passed down from generation to generation. Who taught you? And what does it mean for you to to carry it on?
Rhonda Besaw: It's interesting because when I started connecting to the native community about 25 years ago, I didn't know what I wanted to do. You know, many native people take up something, a craft or an art form, or they learn the language, whatever speaks to them. And I was trying to find my way. So I connected with a couple of basket makers who showed me what went into making a basket. From starting with pounding the ash tree to splitting the strips of bark, and soaking them and cutting them, engaging them. And then you might get to weave a basket. And I said, I don't think this is for me, but it made me appreciate the work that goes into making a basket.
So my friend said, 'well, let me teach you some beadwork work,' because I admired her beadwork and her husband's beadwork. So she taught me the stitch that I still use today. And I made a skirt. I looked at old style skirts that we would have worn and I beaded one. And I took it back because I thought there's something wrong with my beadwork. It doesn't look as nice as hers. And she said, well, you have to go back now and run a thread through all those beads to make them tighter and connect them. And there was a lot of bead work on that skirt. And I said, oh, boy, really? And she said, well, it's your skirt. And I went home and thought about it. I thought, yeah, it's my skirt and I want to do it right. And I want to honor my people in a good way by making this beautiful.
Rick Ganley: That sounds like, for a first project, a skirt sounds like it's pretty ambitious.
Rhonda Besaw: Yeah, it was. It was. It was a very simple design. But the hours that are spent in doing that become prayer. So I've said often that the work I do, every stitch is a prayer, every bead put down is a prayer. Because you can't bead in a bad frame of mind, because it'll show in your bead work. Your thread will get tangled, your beads will break. So if you're not in a good frame of mind, you just have to put it away and not do it.
Rick Ganley: The work will betray you?
Rhonda Besaw: Yes, it will. It will. We call our clothing regalia, and it's clothing we would wear in a ceremony or at events like powwows. So when I'm asked to make something like that, I am very conscious of my thoughts that go into the beadwork. So as I am beading, I'm thinking of that person, praying for that person and putting good thoughts into every stitch. So when I give that item to them, I hope they feel it.
Rick Ganley: Were you able to connect with your community through the pandemic? Did you feel isolated?
Rhonda Besaw: Yeah, very much isolated because every weekend there'd be a gathering. So you get to be with your people. And a lot of places I would teach beadwork, they were also shut down. I sell beadwork instructions online, and I found that the sales increased because everybody's in the same boat. They're home. They're unable to travel. They want to try something new. And I had been asked to do Zoom teaching, but I'm not quite up to speed on that technology. So it's something I've thought about, but I just haven't done it. I really prefer sitting across from somebody and teaching beadwork that way.
Rick Ganley: It seems like it's something, a craft, that to pass that on, you need to be next to someone.
Rhonda Besaw: I definitely prefer it because some people, you know, just spreading one of those tiny beading needles is a challenge to them. So if you're there, you can help them. And I was really hoping that things would open up soon to be able to get back out and do this type of thing, but from what I'm hearing in the community, there's a great concern that, you know, children won't be vaccinated for a very long time. And in our gatherings, we welcome all ages. So with the children not being able to be vaccinated, I don't see that we will return to gatherings like we used to have for a long time.
Rick Ganley: What are you doing in place of those events? Is there something you can do to have some of that community?
Rhonda Besaw: What some of us are going to do this year is the outdoor small gatherings, less than 10 people just around the campfire. So we've been given a great deal of time to think about what is important to you and who is important to you. So now when we come out of that, we'll bring those lessons with us and it will make us appreciate each other and everything even more.